Before kids can read or comprehend ingredients lists, show them two items side by side and, together, count the number of ingredients. The more ingredients, the more likely it’s not real food.
A variation on this trick persuaded my daughter to agree to a treat swap: After another parent brought store-bought cupcakes to school last year, I (discreetly) showed Tess the ingredients list, which was so long that the label wrapped around the box. I asked her if she’d rather have that cupcake right then or a baked good after school from the farmers’ market (luckily it was a market day). No hesitation. Market treats are tasty. The market treat won.
(The fact that she was willing — and able — to wait also says something about how often kids eat these kinds of treats even if they’re not hungry.)
To this day, the offer stands. If Tess declines a treat that is clearly something we’d normally skip (obvious food dyes, for instance), we instead make a trip to the market or a small local bakery (sustainable, organic) afterward. It’s entirely her choice. It hasn’t been invoked often, since her school and most of the parents are pretty progressive. But when she’s had the choice, she’s picked the trade. (Smart kid. Good tastebuds.)
Update: A reader asked how we do the treat swap without offending other parents. See my response in the comments below.
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Sounds like a great strategy – but how do you do it without offending the other parent? One of the things I’ve learned is that people are incredibly uptight about what they perceive to be judgment of their parenting choices; take Erica Jong’s WSJ article about attachment and green parenting last week for example. Do you worry about it, or no?
At Heart, mainly we keep it light. Tess says “no, thank you,” and no one blinks an eye. (She also does that if it’s something she just doesn’t like or want, trade or not.)
If I’m there and I’m pressed for a reason (which is rare), I might make a joke like, “oh, we’re just weird about what we eat.” I’m all for educating people, but those situations aren’t the time to do it.
Sometimes I do need to get creative. For my daughter’s school Halloween party this year, a few of us had planned a celebration with simple snacks (fruit, veggies, cheese and crackers) and a couple of wholesome baked goods. When I got there, I learned that another mother with a child in a different class had brought sugar cookies with orange frosting for the entire floor (it’s a small school).
I felt no obligation to give the cookies to my daughter’s class. But neither did I want to insult this other mother. So I told her (truthfully) that there was a girl in our class with sensitivities to both dairy and food dye, which meant she couldn’t partake. In which case I thought it would be best to let the kids take the cookies home instead of eating them at school. Problem solved. (And it ended up that another class divvied the cookies by the end of the day, anyway.)
That one was easy, given the food sensitivities. But if I hadn’t had that obvious excuse, I would have come up with something. I think too often people are afraid to hurt someone’s feelings, so they give in whenever the junk comes out. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. You can use tact and humor, and still stand on principle. Though, honestly, if push came to shove and I really didn’t want my daughter eating an offered treat, I’d probably say whatever I needed to. Fortunately that hasn’t happened (yet).
One other thing: So far we’ve done this only with school and extracurriculars. Birthday parties I’ve let slide because that’s truly a special occasion. But after seeing the way my daughter behaved post-cake at a recent party, I’m rethinking that strategy. Especially since she told me afterward that she didn’t even like the cake that much, yet ate it because it was “good enough.” Have to think on that one.
I agree on the “oh, we’re just weird about what we eat” line. I have a 14 month old and I make it clear to his teachers that I am a weirdo (wink wink) so as to prepare them for the “not on my kids plate” request. I love your blog!
Chris, thanks so much for stopping by. Yes, I find humor helps diffuse a lot of tension in these situations.
What a great idea. I was racking my brain for some lessons for tomorrow’s home school learning and I think this one would be fun as well as educational. Thanks!
You know I love your blog. And you, too! I absolutely agree with your mission and I try my damnedest to practice it. I love this label comparison, for example, and am planning to use a similar exercise with my Girl Scout troop. It’s just stuff like this that makes me crazy, and I see it everywhere, not just here:
“I asked her if she’d rather have that cupcake right then or a baked good after school from the farmers’ market (luckily it was a market day). …
If Tess declines a treat that is clearly something we’d normally skip (obvious food dyes, for instance), we instead make a trip to the market or a small local bakery (sustainable, organic) afterward.”
Refusing things is not easy, but it’s far easier in some places than in others. I think what does not occur to so many people is that we do not all live in the same world. Yes, I’m writing from a rural standpoint, but while there aren’t that much of us *right here*, there are thousands of families like us across the country. These are places where organic, sustainable bakeries or yummy farmer’s markets, though ubiquitous in larger populations, simply do not exist. (I believe the irony of the lack of farmer’s markets in farm country has already been addressed on HuffPo.)
It’s frustrating when something reads as if it’s just a question of making the right choice, when a lot of us don’t have any choice. In your situation above, my options are A) let my kids have it, or B) go home and make it. I’m not against B, but it’s a far cry from simply heading somewhere to buy it. Too often I simply don’t have the will to fight, or the energy to provide the alternative.
“It’s frustrating when something reads as if it’s just a question of making the right choice, when a lot of us don’t have any choice.”
Sandra, I totally get that. I know I have choices in my world that others don’t. But I do think sharing these ideas can be helpful even if not everyone can (or wants to) do the same thing. Maybe it will trigger another idea altogether, or get someone thinking a little differently about their options.
Or maybe it will prompt a comment like yours, which makes those of us who do have choices pause and be thankful for those choices! Either way, I like to think it adds something to the conversation.
I have made alternative treats at home, but they don’t always carry the same cachet as something special from the market or bakery, which is why I highlighted those options. But I also do things like carry no-junk lollipops and granola bars in my purse, so I have immediate trade options if necessary. Maybe I should have mentioned that, because that’s definitely a do-anywhere kind of thing.
Speaking of Girl Scouts, I’ll be posting something next week about that, and I remember a story you told awhile back about your frustration discussing campout food with parents of the kids in your troop. I’d love it if you’d come back then and share that story.
Sure thing. Msg. me and let me know what you want, if it’s not just a comment.
Christina, you probably saw a study that reported a few years back about kids, delayed gratification, and predictors for later success. As I recall, children were placed individually in a room with a video camera. The researcher placed a marshmallow in front of each child explaining that they could have two if the child waited to eat until the researcher returned. The children who actually waited were found to be more successful in later endeavors. Your story reminds me of this study. It’s a chicken/egg situation – is self discipline nurture or nature? While I think there’s some piece of the latter in it all, the former seems more significant to me.
We’ve done exactly this exercise in our home with precisely the same results, which lends evidence to my belief. Kids get it when you talk with them honestly and directly.
Sandra, I get your point. I would recommend find a special treat that your kids like, whether it be a delicious natural candy bar or other item that’s not that perishable, keep them around for those occasions when there’s something you want them to trade away. I think most of us can tell when something’s kind of henky. For example, I knew that when the parents of a kid who told us he ate a Twinkie for breakfast brought the team snack after soccer that I better be prepared with an alternative. I was right. The mom brought for (6 kids) 2 doz. doughnuts and bottles of Gatoraide.
Melissa, I have read about the marshmallow experiment, but hadn’t made that connection. Good call. I also think waiting for something special helps kids listen to their bodies and recognize that they aren’t necessarily hungry at that moment anyway.