Quit It With the Fork Planes!

What a recent crop of books has to say about the sometimes epic struggle to feed our children well.

Diptych of one child excited about and one child repulsed by the same plate of peas, rice, and sausage links.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

In Burkhard Bilger’s recent New Yorker piece about scientific research on the development of babies’ tastes, Bilger drafts poor Saskia Sorrosa to act as that most unpleasant of maternal stereotypes: the Food Police. Sorrosa, who’s in the piece because she has a line of organic baby food designed to “palate train” small children to love things like beets and leeks, made the mistake of letting Bilger talk to her own kids. Under questioning, 5-year-old Alexa tells Bilger that her favorite food is “chicken nuggets? Hamburgers?” Sorrosa laughs and says to Bilger, “We never eat chicken nuggets.” “What part of their training was essential to their good health, and what part was just teaching them to be foodies like their mother?” Bilger wonders.

I might once have reflexively scoffed at a high-minded mom like Sorrosa, but since having my own child I have learned to give the Food Police some grace, because feeding a kid well is a struggle. Over the past few years, a small group of books about the psychology and politics of contemporary kid food has been published—books offering not recipes or advice, but explorations of the aspects of our eating culture that have parents completely tied in knots. Together, these books show why feeding kids and (in the process) teaching them how to eventually choose their own food can add up to one of the most annoying logistical and philosophical crises of parenthood. Nuggets? Leeks? You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

First, there are the basic-but-huge problems of finding enough time (and money) to shop for the kinds of unprocessed foods we know are Good, cook them, have sit-down meals, and pack them into lunches. And that’s apart from the sometimes herculean task of changing the diets and eating schedules of the adults in the house to provide a good model for kids to observe. “For parents, food is a double burden, because we must feed our children even while most of us are still struggling with how to feed ourselves,” Virginia Sole-Smith observes in The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America (2018). In our house, since my toddler daughter started eating solids, my husband has given up soda, and I’ve transformed myself from a constant grazer into a scheduled-snack-and-meal person. We’re better role models for it, but getting there has been pretty annoying.

Now that J. is becoming aware of the kinds of food other kids eat, and has started caring about things like Halloween candy, we have a whole new set of dilemmas. As Bettina Elias Siegel’s Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World, which came out this month, makes painfully clear, the domestic labor we must put into kid-feeding isn’t the only problem parents face. We’re living in a world where many people assume that kids want to eat hyperpalatable, industrially produced foods of the grilled cheese/chicken nugget/fruit snack genre, and that anyone who wants to teach kids something different is just showing off—trying to create a “foodie” in their own image. You end up constantly second-guessing your own protectiveness, down which road lies parental madness.

It’s hard to even talk about changing mainstream kid-food culture—as Siegel argues we should try to do, by lobbying school districts, youth groups, and sports leagues to stop serving so much processed snack food so often—without sounding like a Grade A killjoy. “It’s as though we’ve all embraced the illogical notion that kids will wake up one day and suddenly start eating more healthfully,” Siegel writes, “even though we seem determined to wean them on unhealthy ‘kid food.’ ” Or, as Bee Wilson put it in her 2015 book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat: “The danger of growing up surrounded by these endless sweet and salty industrial concoctions is not that we are innately incapable of resisting them, but that the more frequently we eat them, especially in childhood, the more they train us to expect all food to taste this way.”

They’re right about that! So why do I imagine so many readers closing these books and walking away, right then and there? We all have a memory of a mom (always a mom!) who substituted carob for chocolate in cookies, or refused to have “sugar cereal” in the house. Research on the adverse effects of childhood food restriction, each of these authors makes clear, shows that this kind of tight regulation of “treats” isn’t a good idea for the long term, but research aside, nobody wants to be “that mom.”

I’m not the only parent who’s deeply confused about how much control to exert over my child’s diet, and there are no magic answers. I glutted myself on internet advice when my baby was approaching the Age of Solid Foods, but my No. 1 recommendation for parents of infants who want a set of ideas to guide them in feeding their kids is always to read the work of Ellyn Satter. She’s the dietitian and therapist behind the “division of responsibility” concept—you decide what kids eat, where, and when; they decide whether and how much. This idea has saved me from countless power struggles and “just one bite”s in the short 2½ years that my daughter has been eating “real food.” Each of these authors mentions Satter and praises the division of responsibility. If the general evidence-based recommendation, as Wilson explains in her book, is that you should strive to be as “authoritative” in your feeding as in other areas of parenting—possessing high demands and expectations, accompanied by high levels of warmth and responsiveness—then the DOR idea explains what it’s fair to demand and expect at the family table, and what things shouldn’t be your business.

This isn’t quite the old “eat the dinner I cooked or go hungry” regime that boomers love to tell their kids was “just the way it was” when they were parenting us. Under DOR recommendations, a parent is supposed to be kind and make sure that there’s at least one familiar and well-liked food for a kid to eat in every meal. But as a parent who sometimes panics that my kid isn’t eating enough (which is every parent, at one time or another), the DOR idea gave me the confidence to refuse requests for substitute foods or short-order cooking with a calm “That’s not on the menu tonight.” (Thanks to the Satter-influenced, Instagram-famous dietitian for that script.) And this idea has worked for us: I have seen my daughter eat whole bowls of squash soup that she initially rejected because she had some familiar toast and peas to eat first. More importantly, the method freed me from games, begging, and bargaining to try to “get” her to eat, which makes mealtime so much more pleasant for everyone.

You can see I fell in love with Satter’s concept. But if it worked perfectly, I wouldn’t be so glued to these books about kids and the culture of food, because all of my problems would be solved. The issue lies in figuring out how this frame can work when it comes into contact with the regular, everyday environment of American childhood. Like me, Virginia Sole-Smith, whose daughter was a preschooler when she published her book, once thought that DOR was the answer to every feeding question.

“It worked so well when Violet was a baby,” Sole-Smith writes. “Now that she’s older, I still see its wisdom, but I also know that it becomes increasingly harder to implement because there are so many more forces working to undermine a kid’s ability to self-regulate with food.” Just this morning, J. started saying that she was “taking bites” of her oatmeal “for Daddy”—an idea that clearly came from her (wonderful) preschool, since we are good little Satter robots who would never link a caregiver’s emotional approval to a child’s eating. But everyone talks this way to kids about food; it’s in the air J. breathes.

These books put their finger on something huge: American childhood is a culture of constant “treats,” and people “celebrate” every little thing with cookies. Ellyn Satter recommends that parents refrain from putting snack food and sweets on a pedestal at home and instead offer them in moderation to take the shine off, while remaining matter-of-fact and not attaching too much power to them. But, as Sole-Smith writes, “Keeping those treats neutral—not good, not bad, just food—is utterly impossible when nobody else around [a child] is doing that.” We don’t use candy as a reward, and we even stick to the DOR-advised way of occasionally serving a portion of dessert along with dinner, just to make sure J. doesn’t get any ideas about cake being “special.” But cake and candy are cake and candy. They’re powerful stuff.

And I can’t make everyone in the world de-emphasize their emotional kick, the way we’re trying to do in our house. As Siegel writes, the problem is that this situation—a well-meaning adult offers a kid a food “treat” or “incentive” and expects a big smile, or some compliance, in return—feels like a singular event to the adult who’s offering, but when the kid is out in the world, it happens all the time. That adds up to a lot of “treats.” This puts the parent in an inescapable bind: What am I going to do, tell the kind farmers at the market we attend every week that they can’t have the pleasure of handing my daughter a lollipop? I will not!

If I seem a bit grim, it’s because this problem feels so big. But in the three books in this little group, there’s a surprisingly large amount of hope. Sole-Smith and Wilson are all about plasticity, reminding us that eating habits can be changed, kids can learn new ways, parents can come around. But the most hopeful of the three may be Siegel’s book because it’s about politics, on a small scale: what to do to alter school lunch menus, get teachers to stop offering candy rewards, and convince soccer teams to offer water instead of Gatorade. Most helpful of all are her bits of advice on how to do this without triggering people’s defensive reactions to being told that what they’re feeding the kids in their charge is wrong. Everyone, Siegel emphasizes, is doing their best.

The Eating Instinct book cover.
Henry Holt and Co.
Kid Food book cover.
Oxford University Press
First Bite book cover.
Basic Books