Nutrition and fast food: Commentary

n a perfect world, every human activity would neatly fall into rhythm with the next. In a less than perfect world, sometimes meshing one activity with the next is like jamming the proverbial wooden block into the round shaped hole. And so it is with diet and nutrition - especially with kids - these two entities become the respective mismatched pieces.

Yesterday, I asked the children what they had eaten for dinner the night before. I got the following answers, "Ice cream; beans and rice; spaghetti; pop tarts; I don't know; meat and potatoes; Kids Cuisine; carrots and broccoli," and the list goes on.

About two weeks ago, I gave a workshop at Evansville's 4C Spring Conference. I asked the ladies who listened to me talk about nutrition what they had eaten at their centers the day before, and one response was, "A boiled egg, a spoonful of kidney beans, a spoonful of green beans and half a slice of white bread."

Fifty four percent of children are in childcare outside their own homes. That means that fifty-four percent of children are eating a day's food outside their own homes. The question is, "What are they eating?"

Years ago my neighbor, a doctor, told me that the percentage of children whose arteries were clogged to the point of danger was becoming a national disgrace. "It's because of fast food," he said with a sneer. But this is what children say they want to eat, and it sure is convenient. It seems to be the only solution. So let's look at the real problems behind fast food:

Fast food presents an unhealthy amount of fat without offering the antioxidants and other food components like fiber to counter act the fat. So from the beginning the free radicals of too much fat are doing damage to the child's body.

Fast food as a steady diet creates an archetype of taste that children compare with every other food. "If it doesn't taste like fast food, I don't like it." And although fast food tastes really good, it has the palate range of school paste and sawdust. When children won't drink milk because it doesn't taste like soda, and when children won't eat baked chicken because it isn't battered and deep fried, the problem is breadth of palate which is a danger to a balanced diet.

Fast food is not cooked at home. Children should regard good eating to come from home, not the public. If children grow up thinking that the archetype of eating is "out in the world" the whole nature of home changes.

And the real story of fast food is in the fact that children don't really want the food at all; what they want is the playground lots of fast food places have.

I once took a group of children to a fast food restaurant to eat and 3 of the 30 ate. About six kids threw their lunch on the floor and claimed it had fallen. Six others cried hysterically because they were told they needed to finish half of what they had chosen to eat before they could play on the playground. The rest picked and whined and complained until the whole adventure of eating out ended with only five minutes of playground time.

More than teaching the children anything, it taught me a good lesson. Diet and nutrition ought to be harmonizing, but in a world pressed with too many things to do, they are not - even at home. Too many children's diets are the last thing on busy parents' minds, so good childcare outside the home should provide children with the missing elements that make a balanced diet sound and healthy.

Children's diet is important because it's an investment in their future much like a good education or a good speech pattern. Diet should mean nutrition and the food children eat should work towards their health not against it. Children can't always choose their food, and when they do, it's not always the best choice.

If children are in childcare outside the home, those places who advocate caring for children should do so by feeding children the way parents should and not necessarily the way they do. Parents should be conscious of what is served in care outside the home.

And child care should serve the best, most nutritious food possible.