Part of my fascination with the chicken nugget issue is that it raises the question not only of what we feed our kids, but who decides what they eat in the first place. The story of Stacey Irvine, the seventeen year-old who collapsed after a steady diet of almost nothing but chicken nuggets since the age of two, is an extreme case of what could happen if we let kids set diets entirely for themselves. In her own defense, Stacey’s mother said that her daughter presented problems that her other two children never did with respect to their eating habits. They even happily consume plenty of fruits and vegetables. Stacey, however, shunned all foods to the extent that for her mother it was a relief when she discovered her daughter’s penchant for chicken nuggets.This got me wondering just how persistent adults should be in ensuring that kids get a healthful and varied diet.Kids’ meals and cafeteria food seem to be the sort of topics that raise hackles among parents—whether their children are picky eaters or have particularly sophisticated or adventuresome palates. I think the chicken nugget story lingered in my mind for so long because I was raised by a mother who thought it utter nonsense for parents to cater to the dietary whims of their children. Of course she delighted in preparing our favorite dishes, and she would have been sensitive to any food allergies we might have had. But if the meal on the table was not something we cared to eat, there would be no alternative food to turn to. So to me, one of the most mystifying aspects of American culture is the existence of kids’ menus, where basically all the the items are varying shades of yellow, brown, and red. Horrors! Everywhere else in the world, it seems, kiddie food is the same as adult food, just cut up into smaller pieces (and made blander, if the dish is extremely spicy, salty, or sour).
Another recent incident underscored the danger of keeping children and teenagers on an unvaried (and dare I say “dumbed down”) diet. My husband’s mentoring group went out on a field trip and for dinner they stopped by a Chipotle. Some of the teenagers threw fits and complained that they preferred to eat at McDonald’s. One of them went so far as to forgo dinner entirely and pout in a booth by himself. But another tucked into her burrito and was pleasantly surprised by how delicious she found it.
What I’m trying to figure out is how to encourage teenagers to go beyond some of their childhood preferences and embrace better eating habits as they go into adulthood and increasingly gain more control over their meals. With youth involved in the foster system, it gets a bit more complicated because one problem many of them face is having to live with foster parents who lock the refrigerator door or simply don’t provide them with nourishing and satisfying meals. I didn’t include a food workshop in the original curriculum of my Coming of Age program, but increasingly I see why one should be included.
I’m curious to know what other people’s thoughts are regarding how much of an input kids and young should have over what they eat, and when it’s appropriate to give them full rein over their diets.