By Debbie Koenig
Feeding your child seems like a simple enough task: You prepare food and serve it. But in the current food environment, it’s anything but simple. Highly processed foods with dubious health claims are marketed directly to kids. Special restaurant menus feature minimally nutritious, “safe” options. And even at school, students receive candy and junk food. Bettina Elias Siegel is an advocate for child nutrition and the founder of the blog The Lunch Tray. In her new book, Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World, she explores how we reached this point—and what we can do about it.
WebMD spoke with Siegel about “big food,” the very first children’s menus, and what we can do to bring about change. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.
WebMD: Let’s talk about the title. Depending on how you look at it, “kid food” can mean different things. What did you intend?
Siegel: I wanted it to convey this issue we have in our society: For a variety of reasons, we’ve concluded that kids need their own special food. And the food we’ve designated is the least healthy, typically.
WebMD: What did you hope to achieve with the book?
Siegel: I had three goals. First, to make parents feel validated and understood. So many are out there struggling and frustrated, wondering why it’s so hard to raise healthy eaters. They’re doing their best, and I wanted to let them know: You’re not crazy. This really is hard. The second was to explain why it’s so hard—what are these forces hindering your best efforts? Who’s benefiting from that? To what degree is the processed food industry at fault, and to what degree are they cultural factors? And how much of it is biological? And the last goal is to empower parents. In your own home, here are tips and resources that can help you. And if you’d like to go further and become an advocate, I offer resources that will assist you.
WebMD: In the book you call yourself an “accidental advocate.” How did you wind up so passionate about feeding children?
Siegel: I started as a lawyer—I worked for “big food,” approving marketing claims on labels. That’s something I now criticize, to some degree. Then I was a stay-at-home mom and became involved in school food reform in my district. I had little kids, feeling the frustrations I talk about when it comes to raising healthy eaters. It motivated me to start a blog, The Lunch Tray, in 2010. The idea of being an activist was as far from my mind as you can imagine. But writing is a form of activism, if you have a strong point of view. That’s how I accidentally fell into this role.
WebMD: How did your years inside “big food” help you to understand the problems parents face?
Siegel: The vast majority of processed products typically have some kind of nutrition claim, ingredient claim, health claim, to capture our attention in the supermarket and make us think these products are healthy. And as it stands now, the vast majority of companies making those points are doing so legally and responsibly. But the problem is the way the regulations are structured. A claim can be literally true and still misleading overall, in my opinion. A great example might be toddler veggie puffs that come in a canister, and they say that they have kale in them. And that instantly makes the parent think, well, this must be a healthy choice for my toddler, but if you really scrutinize the label, they might literally contain some kale but they're not in any way offering the health benefits of kale. It’s that kind of labeling that I really wish we could tighten up.
WebMD: One thing I learned from the book was that kids’ menus started out as a way to help kids overcome picky eating, and now they’re more likely to encourage it.
Siegel: If you’d asked me going into my research what I thought would appear on early children’s menus in the 1920s, I would’ve hypothesized that because going out to eat was more of a special occasion than it is now, those menus would’ve had that era’s equivalent of today’s pizza and fries. Things that were delicious but not very healthy, giving kids a treat. And it turns out it’s the exact opposite. The whole reason for the menus was that moms were just starting to learn about nutrition science. There was a widely held belief that kids needed especially healthy and wholesome food. It was considered inappropriate to order off the adult menu, since it wouldn’t meet kids’ nutritional needs. So the menus were created to lure moms in, to protect kids from the adult menu. It’s the opposite of today’s paradigm, where adults can get salads, but kids can’t.
WebMD: So, picky eating was already a thing when kids’ menus were invented. But it’s become so much more widespread, and childhood obesity has become more widespread at the same time. How have we unintentionally encouraged picky eating, and unhealthy eating?
Siegel: I don’t know if we can draw a direct connection between picky eating and obesity. I think it’s more about the drastic changes we’ve seen in the food environment in the last few decades. But I do think there’s a link, to the degree that we often address picky eating with today’s universe of kids’ foods. That kind of food does tend to be unhealthy, calorie dense, hyper-palatable. Another factor is there’s been a change in parenting style. Research shows we’re giving children far more autonomy over family food decisions. It used to be just parents, really the moms, in charge, but now kids get more say about what foods go in the grocery cart, when they’re eating, how often they’ll snack. I’m not standing in judgment of parents—I understand the pressures we’re all facing—but I think that surrendering our role as gatekeeper isn’t doing kids any favors.
WebMD: Let’s talk about school food, where you started your advocacy. In the book you talk about branded junk food items in the cafeteria, versions created to meet school nutrition standards. What’s the problem with that?
Siegel: Those foods and drinks are called copycats or lookalikes. They’re a concern because they’re meeting stronger nutritional standards and that’s great, but because they bear the same brand name, mascot, and packaging as their unhealthy counterpart, kids get a strong message that these brands are ok to eat daily. They’re not being told these are healthier versions than they can find in stores, and companies are doing everything they can to make kids think they’re the same. It undercuts the educational potential of school meals.
WebMD: In the book you discuss how we worry so much about childhood obesity, but it’s not necessarily the whole problem. What do you mean by that?
Siegel: In saying that, I didn't want to seem to be minimizing the concern about childhood obesity; obviously that's a true public health crisis. The notion that children are going to have a shorter lifespan than their parents due to preventable, diet-related disease is just a terrible situation. But I did want to point out that if we’re just focusing on the one in three kids who are overweight or have obesity, we're ignoring the fact that the other two-thirds of children, based on federal dietary data, aren't eating a healthy diet either. And the harms of that are harder to quantify. It's very easy to look at a child's BMI and see a problem. It's a little more vague when we're talking about things like cognition, behavior control in the classroom, mood. But it's very clear that a poor diet also adversely affects those things. And so that's why I just wanted to pull back and take a wider view of how kids in America are eating, regardless of their weight.
WebMD: What first step should a concerned parent take?
Siegel: I think it really depends on their area of interest. This is such a huge problem. And the only silver lining is that it means there are infinite opportunities for us to contribute. So one parent might be able to take on a narrower goal like, I just want to get the teacher to stop handing out candy rewards. Then there are parents who might be so fired up that they want to approach something really big, like how can we fix school food at the national level? Or it might even be something in your own home, like I see that I've been pressuring my kid at the table, I'm going to try to stop doing that.
WebMD: The last thing I wanted to ask about is your adopted rallying cry, “We can because we must.” What does that mean to you?
Siegel: I was so moved by that statement, because it was it was such a powerful reminder that this does feel like an insurmountable problem. And yet, we're talking about the health of our future, literally, we're talking about the health of the next generation. What could possibly be more important than that? You cannot let yourself get discouraged by the magnitude of the problem because we simply have no choice but to fix it. The alternative is indefensible.