Comparing something to “taking or giving candy to a baby” means that it’s easy to do. Just because it’s easy to give candy to a baby, however, doesn’t mean that it’s right.
That’s why I was shocked when my daughter started nursery school and I discovered that her meals there include a dessert each day. Yes, they give babies and toddlers ice cream, custard, cake, sweetened yogurt, cookies, bread pudding, and other sweets every single day. I looked at other nurseries and found out that they all do the same.
I don’t think anyone needs a dessert each day, much less young children who are just beginning to eat solid foods.
It’s not exactly news that we’re living at a time when those of us in the West eat far too much. I read that upwards of 80% of the products in a typical grocery store now include added sugar. And yet it’s well known that we don’t actually need so much sugar; indeed, processed and sweetened foods harm us, even though we might like the taste of them.
I suppose from the nursery’s perspective, they’re trying to please their customers (the parents), and to do that, they need to make the children happy. And children, just like adults, enjoy sweet things. But as a parent, I much prefer for my child to eat healthy food and to learn to find pleasure in it and in how her body works. She has plenty of years ahead of her for choosing unhealthy food, if that’s what she should want to do, so I don’t see why I should encourage it now. She’s very happy eating a natural sweet, such as a piece of fruit, as a treat, and there’s no reason why she should long for a brownie.
To be fair, our nursery is vegetarian, and the main meals and snacks are generally healthy. The staff also understood when my wife and I asked them to give our daughter fruit rather than sugary desserts, and they seem to comply with that (and yes, fruit has sugar too, but it’s very different from a handful of cookies). The staff have even noted with amazement how she attacks her corn and apple with great gusto. But children learn initially from their parents, and since our daughter sees us enjoying fruit and vegetables, there’s no reason why she wouldn’t eat the same things. A plateful of cabbage and quinoa also elicits much excitement from her.
But there’s a larger issue here than what our particular nursery feeds the children in its care. Everywhere I go, I see parents offering their children unhealthy food. I’ve been stunned by sights such as a 9-month-old shoveling chips into her mouth, a 2-year-old swigging from a can of soda, toddlers eating large candy bars, and whole families with young children carrying bags from fast food restaurants. If that’s what kids are being given to eat, of course that’s what they’re going to crave. And many of them won’t be able to learn self-restraint, so they’ll just eat more junk. The pressure on our health care system will continue to increase, and more and more children will end up obese and ill. None of this is a surprise.
If, however, we teach them differently from the time they’re young, and they get the message that unhealthy food is an occasional treat and not a daily indulgence, we might get a generation of fit people.
So that’s why my wife and I try to model good eating and cooking habits for our daughter. We all eat oatmeal for breakfast, taking time to enjoy the meal together even though it’s early in the morning and we need to get to work. Dinners usually include grains and greens; our daughter seems particularly keen on items such as avocado, freekeh, kale cooked with leeks, and broccoli florets. She generally seems content to eat what we’re eating, as long as she gets to feed herself. If she doesn’t like something, we continue to offer it to her as an option, but we never force her to eat it; she appears not to like cheese, for example, and rarely has any.
But we’re certainly not averse to having treats. Pears are a favorite dessert for us all, as is plain popcorn, and we even have the occasional date, which is as rich and as sweet as fudge, but not quite so unhealthy. Our daughter has also helped us make some special desserts; we bake oats and peanut butter into little gooey, protein-filled cups or else we turn apples and carrots into muffins, and all we use to sweeten these dishes is a mashed ripe banana. At just 15 months old, she likes stirring the batter and helping to pour ingredients into the bowl.
We also encourage her to walk where possible, so she gets used to moving her body and not being sedentary. Chasing after a very active toddler has even helped us lose some weight and to feel fitter.
Being concerned about our daughter’s health has helped us gain more awareness of our own. We’ve never been extreme junk food eaters, but we have realized how important it is both to stay healthy for our daughter’s sake and also to show her how to respect her body.
So we say “cheers” as we tap our water glasses together at dinner, and then we tuck into our spinach and tofu bake or our salad topped with avocado. In our household, we think that food should be a pleasure, and that something healthy can also be delicious.