Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Oh, sugar sugar...

“My children want to eat lots of foods that I dislike for their high sugar content and general yuckiness; mainly sweets and candies. I resent buying foods that I would not eat myself and that I can't seriously class as 'food' since they provide little to no nourishment. But I don't want to play the ogre and 'ban' them nor do I want to place them in the realm of desire and fantasy, out of reach and much longed for. I can't get my head around the idea that they will self-regulate when I have seen little evidence for it! Especially when I find sugar so addictive myself and find it hard to regulate when it is in the house. What to do when they seem to want this stuff daily?”
-- Claire

Sweets and candies might be devoid of vitamins and minerals and protein and fiber but all that sugar does provide energy. And they certainly taste good. When it comes to food, I think it’s important to remember that there are many criteria involved in deciding what to eat. Visual appeal, taste, smell, texture, how one feels after eating, ideas about nutrition, and so on. I think it’s all too common for adults to get so hung up on their ideas about nutrition that they forget about the importance of all of those other bits. Add in the heavy weight of parental responsibility for our kids, and you’ve got a recipe for guilt, doubt, despair, and, of course, coercion.

I like to believe that, given lots of options, people will naturally be interested in food that is attractive, tasty, and nourishing. Don’t know if I’m right about that or not, but it’s definitely my bias.

With that assumption in place, I think it makes sense for parents to be very active about offering attractive, delicious, and nourishing food to their kids. Premade candies are usually visually appealing, tasty, and very easy. No preparation required, no adult assistance necessary, just instant gratification. I think it’s common for people who ignore early hunger signs to go for the quick sugar fix once they feel their bodies getting sluggish. So one question that might be worth asking is simply this: how easy is it for kids to have access to other yummy food? How to make sure that good food is easily available? Berry bushes and fruit trees in the yard? Maybe some help yourself frittata on a low shelf in the fridge? Is there a bowl of seasonal fruit on the table? How about cheese cubes or sliced meat on hand in the fridge? Fun individual water bottles? (Sigg has some really nice ones, though they are certainly pricey.) Snack plates with fruit and veggies and meat and cheese and nuts? Fancy bento boxes to take outside?

I think if you shift the focus away from “Ack! They’re eating so much crap!” And on to “Hmmm… What delicious and nutritious food should I offer today?” You distance yourself from fear and policing, and move towards helping them learn about how to best feed their own bodies.

I think it’s also useful to talk about how foods make us feel, what is in different foods and how our bodies use all those different things. In an honest conversation about what’s in food, sugar as a quick source of energy is something that should, I think, be shared, along with some info about how protein helps our bodies build muscles, and how complex carbs help us have sustained energy (instead of the faster highs and lows of simple carbs), the importance of good fats, and on and on. Though, of course, droning on and on at your children, as I’m doing here, is definitely not recommended.

Just go foraging for some wild berries and enjoy a picnic lunch instead.

Ah, I just re-read your original question and I noticed that I glossed over something, namely this: “I resent buying foods that I would not eat myself and that I can't seriously class as 'food' since they provide little to no nourishment.” I think this definitely merits a closer look. Resent it why? Do you resent buying consumable art supplies? Or food that gets turned into magic potions instead of being eaten? Is there a really tight budget at play? I certainly don’t expect or even want you to answer all these questions here, with me – I’m just trying to help you see your own thoughts. Depending on what the underlying issues really are, it might be helpful to think of sweets and candies as belonging in the same realm as art supplies or toys – of course they must be budgeted for, but the money allotted for them should not be the same money that is allotted for food that the whole family eats. Meaning, it seems a mistake to me to deprive yourself of fresh strawberries so that you can buy candies you won’t even enjoy. Reclassifying candy as a fun learning tool instead of as food might help lighten your thinking about it. It might be fun, as a family, to talk about the foods that others would re-classify… Most kids I know are not impressed by having alcohol included in the food budget, for example. And there are always foods one person adores that another can’t imagine eating.

Of course, the other thing I glossed over is the idea that “I find sugar so addictive myself and find it hard to regulate when it is in the house.” Does this mean that they want candy, you buy it, and then you have to fight with yourself to keep from eating it? Or that you end up eating it and feeling crappy? If you can figure out what the real issues here are – financial, your own ideas about sugar addiction, or something else entirely, I think you’ll find ways of solving those problems. Maybe the candy needs to be in a treasure box only the kids have keys for. Maybe you need to start a local chapter of sugar-bingers anonymous. Maybe it’s time to start baking, or buy an ice cream maker.

Maybe I’m missing the most obvious answers of all – if so, maybe my musings will help you find ‘em.

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