Food Fights: Who is Winning the Fight for Your Family’s Stomach?

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 Appťtit among other publications.


Rebecca D.
Rebecca D8 years ago

I love what you said you did with your son in the supermarket. It always amazes me when i go shopping the amount of mothers that will buy anything the kid wants, even when they chuck a tantrum. If me and my sister had done that when we were young we wouldnt have been bought anything for a year i reckon. We knew not to expect to be bought sweet things but our mother would occasionally buy us an apricot and coconut bar to share. When we went out we always behaved because we never knew, it might be the time she bought us the bar..

Holly N.
Past Member 8 years ago

The 'system' I can handle. It's dad and other family members that I have to fight. They fall for the fancy marketing skills more than my son does, I think.

They are encouraging him to be a 'consumer'. We feel like outcasts because everyone around us drinking pop and eating whatever looks good and tastes good. They don't read the labels and eat whatever is advertised.

Nice role models, huh?

Debrah Roemisch
Debrah R8 years ago

Things have gotten a lot worse since my kids were small--and my grand kids don't live close so don't deal with this often. But I noticed how bad it was last year when they were visiting and I took my grandson shopping--he saw all the stuff at his level that I did not even notice. I realized that he often wanted the cheap toy more than the food. I started a system where the kids could earn money by doing chores for me and then they could spend their money when we went shopping on a toy or book etc--or junk food if they wanted but since I would buy healthy treats with my money they usually would prefer to have a healthy treat and still have money to spend on something else. I always followed the guidelines of can you pronounce it, sugar or refined flour can't be the first 2 ingredients, and it cannot have artificial colors or flavors. Of course, shopping at the Natural Foods Co-op eliminates a lot of the problems--but sometimes I do shop at the grocery to save money on some things. Hope this helps!

Patricia E.
Patricia E8 years ago

Dear Eric,

Dear Eric,
Don't give up & don't stop taking your son shopping with you. My daughter was quite stubborn & tough to get to eat healthy, but we kept at it. My husband had a heart attack about 6 years ago when she was in college. It scared the life out of the 3 of us, but he joined the low fat revolution and began to eat more veggies, also. Now, our daughter is married and her healthy cooking has caused her fried chicken loving husband to loose 30 pounds!

Ellen K.
Ellen K8 years ago

As of yet, my 4 year old is a dream to grocery shop with. His idea of a shopping "splurge" is when I buy him his own container of berries (any kind will do). He is not a TV watcher (his choice)and is therefor not influenced by commercials. He is vegan (also by choice) and his favorite sandwich is raw vegetables on a sprouted grain bun w/ ketchup. His favorite dinner is guacamole, refried beans, and rice. He refuses to eat white or any kind of soft bread and prefers the kind with lots of seeds on the outside. I started baking my own just to be able to afford to cater to his pricey tastes. If I offer him an orange or a cookie, he will almost always take the orange. I know he's thriving on his unusual non-kid friendly diet. He's in the 90th percentile for height, weight, and head cirmumference and can memorize just about anything put in front of him. For his birthday, I allowed my mother in law to buy him a store made "Thomas the Train" cake. My son was ecstatic to have the cheap, plastic toy train that was on top of the cake, but refused to eat the cake itself.

I guess this isn't going to help anyone who's struggling with keeping their kids from succumbing to the grips of commercialism. I just wanted others to know that there are children out there who do it naturally.

Jeanne Allie
Jeanne Allie8 years ago

Never stop fighting the "system", whatever system it is that needs to be fought! And don't stop taking your child with you to the grocery store. It's how children learn to shop, learn to make choices.

Amanda M.
Amanda M8 years ago

When I take my kids to the grocery store, I always start with a lecture on behavior before we get out of the car so I can lessen the chances of their getting the "galloping gimmies" and throwing tantrums when they don't get their way. Our older daughter already understands that commercials are nothing but a come-on to get people to buy more junk they don't need, and channels like Nickelodeon are banned in our house because they're nothing but junk TV punctuated by commercials for junk food and junk toys.

We already avoid most of the processed crud in the center aisles of the store, and make as much as we can from scratch, partly because it's healthier and partly because it's more cost-efficient. Oddly enough, it's working in our favor. Our older daughter prefers my homemade jams to storebought jams and jellies, and she says that the baked Doritos and Cheetos (our sole concession to store-bought junk food) taste better than the original versions! We grow our own vegetables, and I've been baking more of our bread because of the cost of store-bought ($2 a loaf for store-brand wheat bread?!?!?), not to mention biscuits and pancakes (don't even get me started on the cost of Bisquick and how hard it is to find Pillsbury Grands! biscuits that DON'T have trans fat in them-our grocery store only sells the "loaded" kind!). Desserts are made from scratch as well for the same health reasons, and dinner time is family time-we all eat together!

Storm W.
Storm W8 years ago

We've gone back to basics at our house. We shop European-style -- buying just enough food for a day or two, and stopping at the Farmer's Market or one of the stores on our way home from work or within walking distance for a day's meals. We don't buy packaged food, with the exception of a half-dozen luxury items which are purchased once a month (and when they're gone they're gone). In a peculiar way, it helps a -lot- that we have some allergies, so we have always paid attention to labels, but now the grown offspring, male and female, can knock out amazing, healthy meals without a microwave or pre-packaged mixes. I'm relieved, because what the supermarket is turning into is, frankly, more disturbing than I'm able to contemplate some days.

Lorna Pryor
Lorna S. Pryor8 years ago

Dear Eric, Your shopping with your son is a valuable choice, and yet I can imagine that the temptations for him are increasing, as his awareness and leaning experiences broaden.

What about shopping with him on an every-other-time basis? On those trips on which You Two go together, avoid the aisles that offer tempting-and-unwholesome items. Stick to the fresh fruits and veggie displays, whole-grain breads and crackers, fresh juices and milk products, etc.

Areen't there already severel aisles in your grocery store that You never go down ? ?

- Lorna S. Pryor.

Caralien S.
Caralien S8 years ago

We weren't allowed anything made with artificial colourings while growing up in the 70's/80's; even given that criteria, there's plenty of junk still to be had--organic or not. I do like the idea Valerie mentioned--set valid criteria. I could read when I was 3 (not well, but another criteria to had may be used: can you pronounce the ingredients? Are their fewer than 10 ingredients? Is sodium per serving above 200? etc.)

Whatever the kids eat outside of the house is their business. You can try to guide them, but ultimately, they'll make their own choices when they can. I, for one, became a nut for things dyed red with an artifical cherry flavour. I also used to relish eating the cans or packages of whatever heated at my friend's houses because it was not what I had at home. There's a time and place for Tater Tots and the odd combinations of foods made in college dorms and hostels.

My husband and I discuss child rearing a lot, with issues coming from my own anxieties (since I prepare food to bring out the natural flavours without covering it up with xyz, what will happen when our kids go to others houses? will they throw out the lunches we give them? will they be considered wierd because we don't eat overly packaged foods? I don't want our kids to be shamed by their school mates because we don't give them Lunchables which taste worse than the garbage provided after donating blood!) What it boils down to is doing your best. That's all.