Yesterday I expressed some minor disagreement with the goals of a new website, Zisboombah, which claims that it will end “kid friendly meal battles” in your house by allowing “children to take control of meal time, and pick their own chow!” Kids play a game to come up with menus which are then sent to the parents to prepare. I questioned the seemingly stringent nutritional analysis used to evaluate the kids’ meals (which are assigned one to five stars) and said that while I’m happy to involve kids in menu planning, I wasn’t quite ready to hand over the keys.
A reader named Jade responded:
I think zisboombah.com is a fabulous idea! I went on and played with it and think it’s awesome! “Handing kids the keys” is teaching them to make their own decisions when it comes to food. We can’t stand by our kids forever and say “do you want celery or carrots.” Parents need to release some of that control- maybe that’s why we have such a huge problem with child obesity and eating disorders…hello?
I gave this comment a lot of thought. It’s true that I am currently exercising a fair amount of control over my kids’ diets right now. Is it too much control? Here’s what I finally decided to write in response:
I don’t disagree that kids need to eventually assume full control over what they eat. My ultimate goal is to raise two adults who live a balanced life with respect to food, never fearing any particular food as “bad” or off-limits and understanding the basics of a healthy lifestyle.
But to my mind, reaching that goal is an evolutionary process. My infants ate only what I fed them. My toddlers got to pick between two offerings of my choosing. My school-aged kids request favorite dinners, want to make dessert for our Friday night Shabbat meal, like to search through recipes and experiment with cooking, etc. That said, I’m still the master Menu Planner, and they still have limits on the amount of sweets they eat at home (and believe me, we do eat plenty) or that they can purchase with their own money. If I removed those controls, I’m fairly certain that our dinner rotation would consist only of fish tacos and pasta and they’d be eating ice cream and candy seven days a week.
But in just a few years, the ball is going to be entirely in my kids’ court when it comes to making food choices. I can only hope that by then, following the example my mother set for me, I’ll have trained them to listen to their bodies’ hunger and fullness signals, to balance indulgences with more healthful food, and to keep relatively active. Who knows if I’ll succeed, but it seems to me that, as with all the ways in which we hope our children will become self-sufficient, each day’s learning builds on the next.
Turning to Zisboombah specifically, I was actually excited when I first read about Pick Chow! I like the idea of a game that teaches kids how to put together a balanced meal. What I didn’t like was (a) a feeling that something was “off” or unrealistic about the nutritional analysis and (b) the message to parents that the solution to healthy-meal battles is simply to cede control to the child.
As noted in my original post, if parents had a rule that a Zisboombah meal had to meet a certain star rating to be served, and if parents felt confident that those ratings reflected a their own nutritional values (as, for example, commenter Anthony did not), then I’d have no problem with a family letting kids feel in control of the menu — some of the time.
But not all of the time. And that’s because — totally apart from nutrition — one aspect of menu planning (in my opinion) is expanding children’s palates. The options on Zisboombah are generally what we’d call “kid-friendly,” and that’s fine. But a lot of the things I serve – ethnic foods like Greek, Morrocan and Indian, for example – aren’t intuitively kid-friendly, yet my kids now like them. Those opportunities to learn new flavors would be lost if we were confined to the roster of foods from the site.
To Jade, please respond if you like and I’ll be happy to post your reply here.
And to everyone else, feel free to chime in. When you’re trying to raise kids to eat healthfully, there’s always a question of how much control is too much. I’d love to hear where you draw that line.