I'm a parent of three. I hold no illusions that I'm a uniquely dedicated parent or that my love for my kids is greater than anyone else's. And like all parents, should the opportunity arise, I'd gladly, immediately and unquestioningly give my life for their's. And it's my firm belief in the incredible and powerful love of parents for their children that regularly leads me to scratch my head and wonder: Why it is that while most every parent would happily die for their children, it's an increasingly rare parent who will cook for them?
I've heard all of the explanations—time, cost, after-school activities, lack of cooking skills, picky eaters, etc. But ultimately, I think the real reason parents who would die for their children are comfortable feeding them from boxes and drive-thrus isn't due to a lack of love or concern. It's because society has been so firmly and conclusively duped into believing that doing so is both safe and healthful that it has become our new normal.
Remember that the foods we feed our children are, quite literally, their building blocks. Consequently, we are building a nation of children constructed from the food industry's deceptively and, at times, deceitfully marketed salt, sugar and fat offerings of convenience.
But more than that, the manner in which we feed our children is the model from which they're likely to draw upon to feed their futures. If fast and processed food assembly make up the bulk of their childhood "cooking" experiences, where actual cooking is a grumbling rarity relegated to holiday dinners, do you think your children are likely to take the time to cook and look after their nutrition as young adults or as parents themselves?
The statistics are ugly. Nearly half of our food dollars are being spent on restaurant and out-of-the-home convenience foods. In our homes, the percentage of food dollars being spent on processed foods has doubled since just the early 1980s. But again, we're not eating this way because we don't value health or love our children. We're eating this way because the food industry has festooned boxes of salt, sugar, fat and pulverized white flour with claims of added "nutrients" and health benefits; they've also convinced us that mixing, pouring, stirring and adding is "cooking."
The fact the food industry has succeeded in doing this in part may have to do with our species-wide desire for convenience, because, at the end of the day, it's simply not about time. Recent reports put the average American in front of a television for 34 hours a week and on the Internet for another eight–sure sounds like time's something of which we actually have plenty.
Fixing this problem will require more than just trying to make parents feel guilty. At this point, many parents been led by lax front-of-package labeling and advertising laws to faithfully believe that the boxes they're feeding their children do in fact conveniently and healthfully replace fresh, whole-ingredient cooking. Plus, they themselves may have grown up in homes where actual home cooking was anything but the norm and may not know how to cook.
So what should we do? Here's a start:
• We need to take away the food industry's upper hand in the supermarkets. We need to change labeling laws and hamstring the ability of the food industry to hoodwink harried parents into believing that a sometimes-comfort food like mac and cheese can ever be a smart choice. Why should the onus be on the consumer to turn boxes over to study the nutrition facts panel to ensure that the claims on the front of the package are supported by its actual contents? Moreover, are consumers actually equipped to do this from a nutrition-education perspective?
• We need to bring back home economics. Sadly, there are many families in which regular home cooking was last seen three generations ago. I think children shouldn't be allowed to graduate high school without knowing how to cook 10 simple, healthful, fresh, whole-ingredient meals on their own. As well, we should consider using our schools' abandoned kitchens after hours to help teach basic cooking skills to families as a whole.
• We need to denormalize the reliance on convenience when it comes to feeding our children. As a society, we need to prioritize our kitchens as the healthiest and most important rooms of our homes. And we'll likely need hard-hitting public health campaigns that criticize the food and restaurant industry as well as nutrition education in schools.
The shift from regular home cooking to the mess we're in now didn't happen overnight, and it's going to take time to reverse. We need to rise up and reclaim our kitchens and shift the balance of power from the food industry to loving moms and dads who no doubt would die for their children and, if empowered to do so, I've no doubt would cook for them, too.
We need to champion produce and not products, and we needed to have started yesterday.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The 10 Day Reset Solution: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and How to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.