Targeting Junk Food For Kids

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - April 04, 2007
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My children, ages almost 4 and almost 2, have already become consumer targets at meal times. Fast food restaurants, supermarkets and even beloved PBS television want brand loyalty at the breakfast table and devotion at dinner time from my boys.

Mr. Rogers may be one of the finest children’s programs of our time, but he’s still brought to us, in part, by some artificially colored, fruit-flavored, sugary snack.

Clifford the Red Dog grins at us from juice cartons, Barney brandishes candy-flavored toothpaste, and Dora the Explorer has gone on safari in every possible aisle in the supermarket. Snacks that aren’t even in a food group, chemically based candy and mini cartons of drinks are everywhere and, in case you hadn’t noticed, our children are becoming obese. Reports and surveys abound with theories why. Too much TV, way too many video games, a sedentary lifestyle with hours spent in front of the computer.

All are valid reasons.

But the main reason our children are getting fat is that they eat too much food - and too much of the wrong food. Yes, there is “wrong” food and there are “bad” choices. You can candy coat your cereal anyway you want to, but our children need a better diet. And they need less food.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a child nobody was at all concerned about whether we had a snack every five minutes, or a cup of juicy, juicy juice to keep us from dehydrating. We had the occasional slice of orange if someone on our hockey team remembered to bring one, we drank water from the rusty faucet outside the gym, and we had breakfast, lunch and dinner. If we wanted candy we went to the candy store to spend our allowance, which we’d earned by doing chores.

I know, I sound like an old fogy on the subject, but everywhere I turn I see mothers at malls laden down like packhorses with ziplock bags full of snacks and bottles of everything from energy drinks to flavored water. And while I’m still a year or two away from soccer practice, I hear that oranges and water don’t cut it as the post-game treat anymore. Unless you’re on the sidelines with a rice cooker, teri chicken and fruit drinks for all, you’re not cutting it as a soccer mom nowadays.

The trouble is that clever marketers know we’re all stressed out. They know we’re too busy to cook, so they create “Kid Cuisine” - ready packaged meals that look like grown up TV dinners - food that provides absolutely no nutrition whatsoever unless, of course, your idea of a great meal is a corn dog, some juice and a packet of M&M’s.

And marketers know that anything with the word “fruit” on it has your attention. Wonder why your kid is melting down again? Look on the label. That “fruit”-flavored drink he loves so much is packed with corn syrup, chemicals and artificial coloring.

What’s the answer? Well, the simple answer is we have to seriously look at what we’re giving our children to eat, and what we show them as an example. We have to take the time to at least make a meal or two at home each week, and sit down with our kids to teach them healthy habits. If you’re eating in the car from the nearest fast food joint, then chances are they are too. If you pack them up for every trip to the park with rainbow-colored, cheese-flavored fish snacks and then they come home to Kid Cuisine, you’re giving them the tools for a lifetime of unhealthy eating.

I overheard a family at a fast food chain the other day as the (obese) father asked the (obese) mother and (obese) daughter if they wanted “something for an hour to fill us up until lunchtime.” Habits like that are bordering on child abuse. If anyone asked their child if they wanted a cigarette, it would be headline news. Having a double cheeseburger before lunch, however, is seen as a treat.

Happy - and healthy - eating!

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