This past month has been filled with band concerts, school plays, sporting events, choir concerts, talent shows and recitals.
What made these activities distinct is that every single one featured treats: platters of cookies, doughnuts, cupcakes, candy and maybe the token bowl of carrots, just to even things out.
I’m not sure when treating our kids became some sort of American imperative. For a lot of these events, the treat table is part of the mighty fundraiser, a way for the school/club/program to earn a few extra bucks.
But other times, it’s just there: in children's church classes, Sunday school class, Cub Scouts and after every single youth activity. My son is on his middle school debate team. Parents bring breakfast every morning, and it’s not bran muffins. Snacks are provided in the community choir where my boys sing. Entire meals are provided for my high schooler’s robotics teams, four days a week. On evenings when they finish early, there’s still an array of chips and candy.
The grocery store gives out free cookies and lollipops. Costco has aisle after aisle of sample snacks.
I recognize the powerful draw that treats have for motivating reverence and boosting turnout. As church choir director, I bring treats every week for that very reason. I am absolutely part of the problem.
And I do think it’s a problem. Here’s why: I can see in my kids a mental mindset. They expect every function to end with a cookie in hand, like some sort of fairytale finish. And they all lived happily ever after, with a bowl of ice cream.
I’m not worried about boring my kids to death. I’m worried about feeding my kids to death. I recognize that this is a great Western privilege, but I am uneasy with that privilege. My kids don’t know what hungry feels like.
Around the 1960s, a few studies were done on eating habits. The results found that those who ate more frequent meals, instead of the standard three square meals, seemed to be in better health. Like so many of our nutritional guidelines, the public took the idea and ran with it. Snacking became a way of staving off a blood sugar crash and boosting metabolism.
The upshot is that Americans now consume more calories than ever. When it comes to snacking, some of us have a hard time limiting snacks to a reasonable-sized portion. More worrisome, the snacks we choose aren’t always of a nutritious nature. We would be fine if snacks included apples, nuts and fresh vegetables. But according to a 2014 Nielsen study, America’s favorite snacks are chips, chocolate and cheese.
When it was my turn to bring “breakfast” for my son’s debate club, he informed me of the unwritten rules: it had to be store-bought, and it had to be sweet. If I threw in a bag of oranges, that was permissible, as long as the main food item included a giant box of doughnuts.
We recently bought a new-to-us minivan. After 13 memorable years with our beloved car, we put “Gandalf the Grey” to rest in that great junkyard in the sky.
Our stalwart minivan had a decade and a half of orange peels, lollipop sticks, toast crumbs and spilled cereal embedded in its fibers. I dreaded the weekly cleaning so much, I assigned the job to my oldest son.
Determined to do things differently with our new car, I made one declaration: No food or drink allowed.
The announcement sent my hungry teenagers into fits. They can’t imagine a life that doesn’t include eating on the go. Now I make them stand outside the door while they take that final mouthful. It’s not just about keeping the car clean. I want to send a message that eating is something we do in a deliberate, undistracted fashion, preferably at a table in the dining room.
One of the tenets of healthy food practice is something called mindful eating. This involves bringing awareness to each bite. You focus on eating as an act, not something you do on the side while driving to soccer practice. Our bodies are brilliant mechanisms. They tell us when they are thirsty. They communicate when they are hungry.6 comments on this story
In their book “Intuitive Eating,” authors Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch write, “It’s too hard to hear hunger if you are never listening for it.”
Which leads me back to endless array of events featuring food. The message we send our kids is that food is a reward. It becomes a trigger, one laced with sugar, fat or salt.
I know I can’t change the snacking and treat culture alone. Lately, when I’m asked to bring snacks to an event (and I’m always asked to bring snacks) I provide a bowl of grapes or strawberries. It’s a little thing, but like those 100-calorie snack-packs, it’s the little things that add up.