Every time we go to a restaurant together as a family, the hostess asks if we want any kids' menus. I always take a couple of extra seconds to respond. While I do enjoy the crayons and cheaper prices, do I really want my kids to eat chicken fingers, mac and cheese or reheated pizza—again? Kids’ menus are virtually the same no matter what restaurant you're at—it’s as if there's a central processing plant that just ships standard bright orange mac and cheese, flying disc pizzas and crispy chicken fingers to every restaurant in North America. But this is just a microcosm of a bigger problem.
There seems to be an arbitrary line between “kids food” and “adult food” and rarely do the two meet—well, except maybe while standing over the dishwasher as you clean up the half-empty plates. For example, when exactly did the chicken finger become a kids' staple? And what the heck is a chicken finger, anyway? Chickens don't even have fingers.
A recent National Post article explored the “tyranny of the chicken finger” and how, in the 80s, fear of saturated fats inspired people to consume more chicken instead of beef. As a direct result, billions of extra chicken breasts were processed. The leftover tenders—those oblong pieces of meat under a boneless breast—needed to be used, so they were marketed as chicken fingers for kids. As Post writer Adam McDowell points out, "the prime cuts go to the adults while the less healthy morsels—dressed up in extra salt, fat and sugar and processed almost beyond recognition—end up on the kids' menu, both in the family restaurants... and at home."
McDowell continues: “The 1980s and ’90s saw the advent of countless convenience and snack foods, from fruit and chicken nuggets pressed into 'fun' shapes to sugar-laden yogurts and foods kids could assemble themselves. Grocery stores increasingly sold meals that resembled fast food."
The result? Parents have become reheaters or short-order cooks catering to their kids' whims. Who wants to spend time cooking a complex meal when you know it will be rejected at the table? Parents are exhausted, and the desire for a peaceful meal means serving food that kids will eat, just so everyone gets something into their system without a fight.
Added to this, the family dinner is in decline, much to the detriment of our kids' physical and emotional health. Work, extracurriculars and errands often mean dinner is sometimes scarfed down in the car or while running out the door. Our habits have created generations of kids who prefer those quick, processed meals over something healthy and home-cooked.
We know that the modern diet is hurting our kids. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 20 percent of Canadian kids and youth were overweight in 2011, and more than 10 percent of them were obese. We didn’t grow up this way—can you imagine your parents making you a second meal because you didn’t like tomato sauce? But we do it anyway.
I co-wrote a book on picky eaters and the importance of not catering to your kids’ whims—Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and Families Who Love Them—yet I sometimes find myself returning to the stove to boil up some pasta just to stop the whining after a “challenging” meal.
We assume that, when a child rejects a certain food once, it means they will always reject it. So the easy foods we know our kids like stay on permanent rotation. But how will kids learn to eat a wide variety of foods and flavours if we keep handing them bland, processed products straight from a box?
But there's a bright side to this not-so-appetizing story: We're starting to see a backlash against processed foods. McDonald’s profits are falling, while Jamie Oliver and his food revolution make headlines and Michelle Obama pushes for better meals for kids. I'm optimistic that we parents are genuinely trying to figure out how to offer quick, easy and nutritious dinners that work with our hectic schedules. There must be a middle ground between popping a processed chicken finger into the oven and slaving over the stove for hours. Our kids’ futures depend on it.
Originally published in May 2015.
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