How ‘Kid Food’ Became Fraught for Parents

In her new book, Bettina Elias Siegel explores how food marketed to children became a highly processed, unhealthy minefield—and why it doesn’t have to be this way.



Parents today face some significantly steeper challenges to feeding their children well than they did just a generation ago. The food and beverage industries not only offer a huge array of processed foods, but they also spend millions on advertising to promote those foods as suitable for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between-meal snacks. Combine that with the widely accepted idea that kids only eat comfort foods—pizza, grilled cheese, chicken nuggets—and you start to understand why many parents feel so overwhelmed by the prospect of putting healthy food on the table.

A new book aims to help parents—and all would-be healthy eaters—overcome this overwhelm. In Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World, published tomorrow by Oxford University Press, writer, food advocate, and parent Bettina Elias Siegel explores how we reached the current, stressful state of feeding our kids, and what parents can do to fix it.

Siegel has long chronicled the ongoing effort to improve school food for Civil Eats and other outlets, and has published her own blog, The Lunch Tray, since 2010. Founded when her two children were in elementary school, the site tackles kid food in all its forms, and looks closely at the influence that the food industry, policymakers, and parents can have on what kids eat.

Civil Eats recently spoke with Siegel about the surprising history of children’s menus at restaurants, what it would take to end lunch shaming, and what parents can do to help make kid food safe and healthy for all.

You’ve been researching and writing about these issues for almost a decade now; what has changed in that time?

The improvements in school food have been an enormous advance. In terms of the broader world of children outside the school setting, we’ve seen the processed food industry at least nominally responsive to consumer demand for more transparency and cleaner labels. Is the overall nutritional quality of the food vastly improved? I’m not sure I could say that, but you can see that [the food industry is] at least aware of parents’ concerns.

In terms of the classroom setting, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was a strengthening of wellness policies, and those regulations only went into effect last school year. So that may lead to some changes outside of what’s in the cafeteria, like the candy rewards that get handed out or what’s served at classroom parties. It’s very much up to individual districts, but at least there’s now a mechanism that could improve the classroom environment as well.

What kinds of concerns or questions have you heard from readers over the last decade?

One of the reasons why I wanted to write the book is precisely because I’m hearing many of the same complaints today that I was hearing in 2010. I think parents feel very beaten down. Whether they have a higher level of nutrition education or less, parents all generally understand what a healthy diet looks like. Parents are incredibly well-intentioned and want to see their children eat well. And I think they feel very thwarted by so many different forces in our society and so many different aspects of their child’s daily life. Those sorts of concerns have remained consistent.

I’d imagine many parents have the same sort of entry into this arena: They try to offer healthy food from the start, but then run into external forces trying to undo that work.

Right, like you’re doing the very best you can at home, and it starts to feel like it’s all for naught. Because if your kid comes home stuffed with cupcakes from piano lessons or whatever, there goes your healthy dinner.

I also found myself making nutritional compromises at home that I never thought I would make, and that’s why I wanted to explore picky eating and where that comes from in the book. The way kids are advertised to … can also erode parents’ best intentions. You start to feel like your kids are making demands and you get tired of saying no all the time, or you see them eating very selectively and you just after a while get frustrated—you think, “Well, I’m just not going to serve that healthy thing anymore,” and it’s just easier to give in, in unexpected ways. So, I wanted to look at both feeding kids inside your home and then what’s going on outside your home.

In the course of researching this book, how did your understanding of these issues change?

I found several surprises. Before I did my research [on the history of the children’s menu], I would have assumed that when kids went to restaurants in the 1920s and ‘30s, they probably ate whatever was that era’s equivalent of not-so-healthy but very delicious food, because going out was a treat, and nutritional concerns go out the window.

But I found that, at that time, too, parents were especially concerned about their children’s diets and felt that the food in restaurants was not suitable for them and they needed a sort of certified, special, healthy oasis [of a menu] to feel comfortable taking their kids out to restaurants. The way we look at kids’ food today, we seem to have completely thrown up our hands. And kids’ food is like the least healthy, most fun, sugary, brightly colored, fun-shaped stuff.

Also, the research I did on children’s formation of taste preferences was interesting. Hindsight is 20-20, and who knows how this knowledge would have changed things, but I do look at ways I might have fed my children differently had I known some of that research as a new mom.

Can you give some examples?

There’s this idea that kids are particularly receptive to new flavors at a certain period in infancy, and the research seems to show that you can actually maximize that by introducing lots of new flavors in a rapid sequence. And had I known that as a parent, I absolutely would have more consciously exposed my kids to new flavors instead of doing it in the kind of haphazard—and even maybe overly cautious—way our pediatrician advised.

I understand why we all fall back on these processed foods, even the ones that come from Whole Foods. But I do worry that the more of that stuff we give our kids when their tastes are just forming, there’s more potential locking-in of those preferences. And it’s something I would have thought a little harder about before handing out the Veggie Booty and the bunnies.

Your children are teenagers now. Is there hope—were you able to salvage their eating preferences from those early, missed opportunities?

Yes, I am here to say there is hope. I remember when I was writing about my son in particular—who was very resistant to eating vegetables for a very long time—I fell into all kinds of traps. Like, I was pressuring him in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I remember parents on The Lunch Tray telling me, “Listen, you have to take the long view.” And I heard that, but it’s really hard to take the long view when you’re worried on a regular basis about whether they’re getting enough healthy food.

But I can attest now at the other end of the spectrum, that kids do grow at their own pace, particularly when you stop pressuring them. And now I look at my son, and while broccoli may never be his favorite food, he is much more open to exploration and does have vegetables that he really likes. And that seemed completely out of reach when he was in grade school.

I think all you can do is model [healthy eating] as much as you can. One thing I wish I had been told as a younger parent is just zip your lip at mealtime. Don’t praise anybody for eating anything and don’t note if they’re not eating it. Just put down the food and then ask, “How was your day at school?” I wish I had done that because, at least in our family, I was exerting pressure when I shouldn’t have, despite my better instincts.

Where do you see the biggest need for improvement?

I think we have to start with the fact that you’ve got these two incredibly well-funded, powerful industries—the food and beverage industries—spending close to $2 billion a year to target our children with the marketing for almost uniformly unhealthy foods and drinks. And it really does shape their thoughts about food, their understanding of food, their desire for certain foods. So, I realize that that’s a big-ticket item, but I think we have to start there.

We can also move way down the scale, and there are all kinds of opportunities for individual activism if parents want to take on that role. And those things can make a difference. I highlight in the book various parents who have stepped up, like Sally Kuzemchak, a fellow blogger who has made it her goal to improve the food served in her son’s sports leagues and has come up with all kinds of resources for parents who want to do the same thing. That makes a difference, because kids are in practice multiple times a week and they’re being offered this food, and it can really change things if you raise the level of the food and drink offered there.

I was struck by the way you detail the approaches other countries are taking to these issues.

In the U.S., we’re all so accustomed to this, particularly the aggressive marketing to our children, that I think we just take it for granted. It’s just the status quo. And it’s very eye-opening to realize that in Chile right now, they can’t put Tony the Tiger on a cereal box [because of government regulations on advertising to children]. And, truly, the only reason why we can’t get it done is because of the powerful influence of [the food and beverage] industries. I certainly wouldn’t think it’s the will of parents to have cartoon characters luring their children to the least healthy foods.

What are some of the most promising solutions or approaches to improving kids’ food? Any success stories you want to share?

There are some restaurants, for example, that are making an effort to improve the offerings for children, which is a hugely important place to start, since I think we now spend more of our money on food outside the home than groceries inside the home. And there are some chains that have made improvements, like the Silver Diner [on the East Coast], which has dropped unhealthy sides and beverages from their children’s menu and they actually increased their revenue. And Panera Bread does what I think so many parents wish other restaurants would do, which is let customers buy a half portion of any entrée.

And then, at the end of the book, I lay out four broad areas where I wish we could move forward. For example, in terms of school food, while I acknowledge that we’ve seen tremendous improvements in terms of the nutritional quality of school meals, I still talk about various areas where we could seek further improvements. Like, can we get a cap on added sugar in school meals?

Another ripe area for improvement is to guarantee kids more time to eat [at school], which we know affects the nutritional quality of the meals they actually ingest. And providing districts with more funding so that they could invest in infrastructure and the labor for scratch cooking is hugely important. Another is this notion of universal [free] school meals, which would put an end to lunch shaming and give children more access to food.

Beyond that, I am a fervent advocate for banning the advertising of foods and drinks to children, which is only benefiting corporations and does children harm. And then what can we do to get children themselves more invested in healthy eating and to give them the tools to navigate this food environment? One thing many people talk about, which I completely support, is more cooking skills. Bringing back home economics would be tremendously helpful. As are campaigns that “inoculate” children against food and beverage marketing. Teaching kids basic nutrition education and food literacy, all of that is part of the puzzle.

Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar recently introduced a comprehensive school food reform bill that would include a universal school meals program and an end to lunch shaming, while also significantly raising the amount of money schools get reimbursed for the meals they serve.

I’m so incredibly encouraged to see presidential candidates talking about universal school meals. Senator Elizabeth Warren just did so a few days ago, as well as Bernie Sanders. Julián Castro has mentioned it and I think maybe others as well. That’s new, and I do think that’s a product of all of this public attention on lunch shaming, which has existed for such a long time, but has to burst into people’s consciousness in the last few years.

To my mind, school lunch should just be an integral part of the day, that’s paid for, that kids can partake of, and we should not be highlighting socioeconomic differences the way that we do in the current system. And so whether it’s lunch shaming or the fact that test scores seem to improve where universal meals are offered—that [study] just came out last week. Whatever the rationale, I love that we’re getting more public discussion of that issue.

What do you hope readers take away after reading your book?

I hope that parents feel validated; because I think they often feel really beaten down and frustrated and maybe even a little bit alone in their concerns about these issues. And then I hope I’ve left them with a sense of empowerment, that if they want, they can be advocates in their child’s daily life.

And then, and this is the loftiest goal of the book, I hope that I am awakening some political activism, some greater political will to take these issues on collectively, through our elected representatives—so that we actually enact more sweeping policies that really move the needle for children’s health. Like, just reading about how in Chile they don’t advertise junk food to kids—I hope that makes parents think, “Wait a minute! I don’t want my kid marketed to that way anymore, either. Why can’t I have that in this country?” Busy parents might be annoyed by the nagging in the grocery store, but they’re not connecting all the dots. And my hope is that this book will help them do that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Author photo by Jessica Laviage.

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  1. Jami Scholl
    Thursday, October 31st, 2019
    When reading about what kids, and some adults that retain a junk food palate, eat - I am baffled. I raised 3 non-picky eaters by simply eating nutritious real foods for meals and never introducing sweets (unless made from scratch) and few junk foods. Baby food wasn't replaced with fast-foods, but real-food meals. They did not get any sweets whatsoever until after the first birthday cake, and then an ever-expanding and experimental menu.

    There are times where I've wondered if parents simply give up. I would talk to other parents, teachers, tutors, other family members... and didn't abstain from using what influence and control I had as the parent to my kids to provide healthful foods or at least the timing of non-healthy options. I felt that it was my responsibility as a parent.

    With the belief that food is medicine... and on the other extreme, junk-food a slow-release poison, I rarely let up yet was also realistic. Friday nights were home-made pizzas, including the crust. Advertising was nearly non-existent as we eschewed cable, yet we had internet and moderated their use of this technology. We shopped at co-ops, whole foods, and farmer's markets, and when going out looked for quality locally-owned restaurants. Honestly, the worst influence was other kids in school whose parents allowed them to eat whatever they wanted. I still remember the look on my daughters face when she described a classmate at lunch who wouldn't eat her sandwich until someone cut the crust off the white bread. She was shocked.

    I have angered a number of family members on both sides over the years because of dietary choices, and am making a career change to become a certified Health & Wellness Coach while already have attained a Nutrition Coach certification. Now, my kids aged 17 - 24 continue to be adventurous eaters and are as comfortable with sushi as Cajun foods, with chopsticks as a fork, spoon, knives or fingers. Was I an activist parent? I suppose.
  2. Tuesday, November 5th, 2019
    Love this article and will look for the book. Thank you for highlighting this issue. Just yesterday I was lamenting the fact that my children are exposed to such terrible "edible food-like substances" so frequently - especially around Halloween and the end-of-year holidays - that I am truly concerned for their health. We have highly nutritious meals at home, but just as Siegel says, they often come home full of questionable foods given out at whatever events they've attended, so they don't eat much of what I'm serving. It's great to know about Chile's legislation: indeed, why can't we do that here?
    My own personal work is on financing regenerative agriculture at the community level so that better food is available to all (www.citadels.info).