Sadly, I think I may need to rethink having the 3 year-old accompanying me on my routine supermarket visits. This is not because he is creating chaos in the house of consumer worship, in fact he is doing what is expected of him, he is coveting with abandon. You see, virtually every box of cartoon-adorned cereal, candy displays, or primary-colored, plastic-wrapped, synthesized foodstuff belligerently scream out for the eyes and attention of wanting children. It is a palace of wonder, desire, and temptation for the little ones.
Instead of caving in and buying him everything he reaches for, I explain to him what the item is, in the most objective terms, and inform him that we could easily go home and make something better than what is being offered here (i.e. bake cookies, bake our own chips) and for the truly heinous food stuff that cannot and should not be attempted at home (various viscous candy concoctions and inedible looking soda drinks with crap floating in them) I just tell him that they are used to clean the floor or toilet. But when I wrestle my attention away from my own predicament, I see tons of other parents at the market (usually mothers) bargaining, and often caving in to the desires of their children and marketers alike.
In 2006, the food and beverage industry spent $1.6 billion advertising to children and teens. Of that amount, $870 million was spent on ads geared to children under 12, according to University of Illinois professor, and the director of the U of I’s Family Resiliency Center, Barbara H. Fiese. In addition to her research on marketing toward children, Fiese is author of a new report that urges local, state, and federal governments, businesses, as well as community leaders to start promoting family mealtimes as a matter of public policy. In the report she bullet points the following benefits associated with sitting down to eat a family meal:
- Teens who eat five or more meals a week with their families are less likely to smoke cigarettes and marijuana and to abuse alcohol.
- Children who take part in regular family mealtimes have greater vocabulary growth and higher academic achievement.
- Frequently shared mealtimes protect against obesity in children and eating disorders in preteens and adolescents.
- For young children, family mealtimes mean fewer behavior problems.
- Teens who dine regularly with their families tend to eat more fruits and vegetables.
- Meals prepared at home tend to be lower in calories and fat than restaurant fare.
Now flagrant marketing of processed foods and the fact that many, if not most, families forgo the simple and communal act of eating together may seem to be marginally linked or wholly unrelated. But really, it is all part of the much larger issue of how we–as parents, families, and consumers–eat and relate to what we eat. The system (and yes I am using that word both literally and metaphorically) is so efficient in keeping us engaged in the act of consuming the most appealing, cheap, and novel foods that we are steadily moving towards being purely consumers, rather than diners.
I will stop short of an all out food polemic and open it up to you the reader. How do you keep your family eating healthy and eating together? Are you satisfied with how your family eats? Is there room for improvement? Is resistance futile in the fight against the “system?”
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.