Yesterday I was at the grocery store. Now that I don't have kids of my own to wrangle in the grocery store, I actually notice what other people are doing in the grocery store, notice what they say, what they buy, etc.
In the produce section, there was a mom with a little girl (about 3) and a little boy (about 5). I couldn't help but overhear some of their interactions. The little girl kept calling out "Mommy, can we get lemons?" "Mommy, how about cucumbers. I love cucumbers." "Mommy, look there's broccoli, can we get that?" "Mommy, I think we need carrots. Let's get lots of carrots." "What is that? What is cabbage? Can we get some to try it?" The little boy often agreed with his sister and kept saying "Mom, is ____ on the list?" - he seemed quite intent on sticking to the list.
Next, I needed some things in the bulk foods section and ended up following the mom and kids to that area. The little boy said "Mom, can we get oatmeal? It's on the list, right?" Then the little girl pointed to some sugary cereal and her brother reminded her "We don't get that stuff, it's just fake colors and sugar and it won't help us grow." Then both kids asked their moms if they could get some nuts and she was happy to oblige.
Next was meat and dairy. I needed some ground turkey and some greek yogurt and we were out of milk and cheese. The same mom was in that section too, grabbing some plain greek yogurt and some milk and cheese.
Then I headed to the checkout. The mom and her kids were right behind me in line. Their basket was full of veggies and fruits and some nuts, some oatmeal, some meat, some cheese, some greek yogurt, some whole wheat bread, and some milk (I just glanced at their cart - but I pretty much knew what was in it as I'd coincidentally been right there when they got most everything on their list). The mom in front of me (I assume she was a mom based on what was in her cart but she had no kids with her) had a basket that contained white bread, peanut butter, jam, 4 boxes of sugary cereal, milk, some grapes, some bananas, a little bag or baby carrots, some go-gurt, goldfish crackers, frozen chicken nuggets, some deli meat, some cheese, a couple bags of chips and some other stuff (as you wait in line behind someone, you pretty much see everything in their cart as they put it up on the conveyer belt).
The contrast struck me. One mom in front of me buying what seems to be the typical groceries for a family with children and another mom behind me buying what we really should be feeding our children and clearly, her children seemed to be pretty excited about what she was buying and seemed to have a good sense of what foods were good for their bodies.
Another thing that has got me thinking about this whole veggies thing is my kids' experiences at lunch at school. Most of my kids take lunch every day and if they do school lunch, they know they need to be sure to get lots of veggies and eat them all (they know I'll ask - and they actually like veggies and can tell how much better they feel when they are eating them so happens quite naturally). One of my kids told me the other day that none of their friends eat veggies at lunch. Seriously, none? I asked. They said, well, not hardly anyone eats the veggies they give out at school lunch and pretty much no one brings veggies to go with the home lunch they bring. So I got all the kids together and asked them if they saw the same thing - no one eating veggies at lunch - and they said yes. I asked what other kids bring for lunch when they bring home lunch (most of their friends bring home lunch). Apparently one kid brings popcorn every day - that's it. One brings mac and cheese every day and sometimes an apple with that. Some bring lunchables. Many bring little bags of chips and an uncrustable pb&j on white bread or a homemade sandwich (they said about half bring a sandwich on white bread and half on wheat). But apparently my kids are the only ones at their table with veggies packed in their lunch most of the time. That surprised me.
One of my kids told me that Looslis are known as the kids with healthy lunches and the kids who are always eating snap peas and cucumbers and baby carrots and little bags of frozen peas (when we're out of other veggies - that's what they get!). I asked if that made them feel weird. They said "sometimes" and "sort of." I asked if they like their lunches and they said they liked them but that some people thought they were weird and some people were jealous and wanted a bite of their main course or wanted to trade them lunches (but no one really wanted to eat their veggies).
I think we all know that vegetables are important. They give you so many vitamins and minerals plus much-needed fiber. Our bodies were made to operate with the help of lots of vegetables. And protein. Carbohydrates help fill us up and can be a good source of fiber if they are whole grain - but they should just be built around a diet that is focused on veggies and protein.
I'm guessing what I just typed above isn't really news to anyone out there.
So why is it that most people here in America don't make a bigger effort when it comes to veggies and lean protein? Why are carbohydrates such a big part of our diets - especially our kids' diets - and our own?
I've traveled to and lived in many other parts of the world and there doesn't seem to be this "kid food" phenomenon and vegetables seem to be enjoyed a lot more than they are in our country. Grocery stores have very few prepared food or boxed food items and there are way less convenience/snack foods on the shelves. People generally feed their children made-from-scratch meals involving nice fresh veggies and lean protein as well as pasta or bread or rice. And snacks are some bread and cheese or some fruit or some veggies.
Here's are my theories about why our diets are generally so poor in this country:
1. We moms didn't generally grow up eating enough veggies - when we were growing up, the veggies that most moms could easily serve their families were canned or frozen and just weren't very yummy. I grew up with frozen peas or corn (which isn't even a vegetable - just a starch) or canned green beans as the side dish for most meals. And when my mom would serve salad, it was flavor-less iceburg lettuce with tomatoes w/o much flavor - that was pretty much what was available. And the salad dressing options were heavy and I didn't like any of them - blue cheese, thousand island, ranch, vinigrette. I grew up thinking I didn't like salad. So when our children turn up their noses at veggies, we think back to our own childhoods and we feel their pain. Our growing-up experiences make it easy for us to buy into the idea that kids don't like vegetables.
2. We don't know how to prepare and present veggies and other healthier foods in a way that is really appealing to our kids (or to ourselves!). For some reason, learning to cook real food isn't something that we really focus on when we're raising our children - probably because it's not something that many of us feel confident about ourselves - so how could we teach our children? So many moms don't know how to make veggies really tasty - haven't felt up to researching ways to make veggies truly delicious - be it roasting them with a little olive oil and salt, steaming them until they're just cooked but not mushy and putting a little melted butter and lemon on them along with salt, or simply getting really good fresh local veggies and enjoying them raw and naked.
3. We are often buying and serving veggies that really aren't very tasty because they aren't in season, aren't fresh, etc. I thought tomatoes weren't very good - didn't like the texture, thought the taste was pretty bland. Then I lived in Bulgaria (in Eastern Europe) for a while and the tomatoes there were a whole different thing! All the veggies there were sold in open-air markets and you couldn't really get anything that wasn't in season so everything was so much more flavorful than anything I'd grown up with. I think that's when I started to really enjoy veggies as something truly delicious, not just a necessary evil.
4. We don't make veggies a norm and a "given" from the very beginning of our children's lives. I wrote a whole post here about my approach to helping children learn to eat and enjoy healthy foods from the time they are tiny babies - something that I don't think is a norm in our country. In other countries, babies eat real food, ground or mashed of course, from birth. "Baby food" and "kid food" isn't a normal thing in other countries. If we present veggies to our children as a matter-of-fact part of every meal from the time they are babies, they will generally just eat them.
Anyway, this has been on my mind so I thought I'd share in case any of this is helpful to you!
I don't want to give off the impression that we are total health-food people around here and that we never eat anything unhealthy. We love making cookies and we love our carbs. But we eat at least 5 servings of veggies and fruits every day and put a big focus on eating the healthy stuff FIRST and our kids really understand what their bodies need and why.
Also, I promise I don't mean to make anyone feel guilty with this post - and I know many children have serious aversions to some foods or are super picky eaters no matter how beautifully prepared and delicious and healthy the food is that is set in front of them. But I guess I'm just trying to figure out how the U.S. seems to be unique in the world when it comes to what we feed our children. And I'm trying to encourage all of us (myself included) to do a better job feeding ourselves and our families the veggies that our bodies need. The rate of diabetes and obesity in younger and younger children on our county is so scary. And while there are tons of moms out there who totally focus on healthy eating and there are great blogs and websites chock full of great ideas to help us feed our families more healthfully in simple ways, really focusing on feeding our kids lots of veggies and staying away from unhealthy "kid foods" seems to be more the exception than the rule among good solid families in the U.S. Why is it that kids like mine who have veggies in their lunch every day are so unusual?
Of course, if veggies and other healthy foods aren't something we're used to in our homes, it may well be an uphill battle. But if it's a priority to us, we can take baby steps towards better eating in our families. We could buy less sugared cereal and helping our kids learn to enjoy oatmeal with fruit and nuts and some brown sugar or honey and/or start serving eggs for breakfast more (with maybe a few baby carrots on the side - it's so weird that we don't usually have veggies with breakfast - why not?). We could talk about how excited we are about the beautiful fresh green beans we found at the store then serve them steamed with a little butter and lemon and talk about how delicious they are at dinner. We can point out how beautiful all the colors and shapes of the veggies are in the produce section to our little children and invite them to pick out and help prepare something new. We could try a week where we don't have any crackers or chips on hand for snacks but instead have veggies and fruit set out all the time, ready for kids to grab when they want a snack (kids will generally eat what is available - even if they complain about it, they'll eventually eat the veggies and fruits if that's all that's there! and if you talk up how excited you are that you've got them some great new snacks for the week and they see you savoring and enjoying the fruits and veggies, that can really help),
What do you think of veggies? What do you think of my theories? Are my kids having an unusual experience in that they aren't seeing a lot of their friends eating veggies? What do you do to help your kids eat more veggies?