Animal Cracker Days: Kids, Snacks & Food Values

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Bri DeRosa (Red, Round or Green)

Bri DeRosa (Red, Round or Green) › I like to think of myself as a young, cool, urban fringe locavore, but the reality ...

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Even when you’re the parent who came up with the Three Little Pigs rating scale to help your kids make better food choices, the daily feeding of children is not all (organic) peaches and dappled sunshine.

My older son, L., is in kindergarten. He brings his own lunch and snacks, which is a happy-making daily reality for both of us. His parochial school doesn’t have a true hot lunch program; instead, each week, the children come home with a “lunch order” form that allows parents to pre-order, and prepay, up to a week’s worth of lunches from a local pizzeria. Choices are generally pizza, calzones, sub sandwiches, mac and cheese, or chicken fingers. There’s the occasional soup. They all come with two sides, your choice of: mandarin oranges in syrup, chocolate pudding cup, chips, an apple, or a sweetened yogurt. Although I had braced myself emotionally for the moment when L. would ask me to let him buy one of these “hot lunches,” so far, he’s maintained an adorable disenchantment with the whole affair – to the extent that he once had a near panic attack when he found the hot lunch form hadn’t been discarded from his folder. He thought I was plotting to buy one of the offending sub-pudding-chips combinations for him. “But you HAVE to make my lunches!” he wailed, as I (suppressing laughter at the drama) tried to talk him off the lunchbox ledge on which he’d perched himself. “Your lunches are so much better than everyone else’s! And I love them!”

After that kind of ego massaging, there was no reason for me to believe that he was going to start complaining about the fact that I send his afternoon snack, bypassing the ones that are provided in the aftercare program. The afternoon snack thing wasn’t something I had made any firm decisions about, until the first time I walked into the program space and saw a giant bargain tub of animal crackers, Hi-C, and boxes of Saltines laid out on the snack table. At that moment, there wasn’t any decision to be made. I was going to have to send L.’s snacks.

To be clear, I’m not always obsessed with making sure that no animal cracker passes my son’s lips. Our approach to balancing the family food values we’ve established with life beyond our bubble has generally been to control what we can control and let go of the rest. At parties and events, the boys are allowed to eat whatever they want (with the exception of items containing artificial dyes for my younger son – he’s virulently allergic to petroleum coloring). But this was aftercare, and it was going to be five days a week, not every-so-often.

While L. doesn’t have food allergies, he does have a now-fairly-mild-with-good-management neurological disability. Among the good management practices that keep him functioning at his best are careful, though not obsessive, evaluation of his daily diet, and supplementation with additional fatty acids and probiotics to help his system receive nutrition in an optimal way. He’s not on a “special” diet or a “restricted” diet, per se. He’s just on a “leave as much crap out of it as possible” diet. Which isn’t a problem, as long as the majority of his foods are provided by us. Which leads us back to the decision point – the one at which I instantly knew that a daily addition of animal crackers, juice-like products, and processed snacks wasn’t going to do him any favors.

He didn’t complain. Not for the first month, or the second. Not for the third or fourth. But now he’s complaining, and it sounds like:

“Mrs. So-and-So is always making a mistake and telling me I have to get in the snack line.”

“I don’t eat the after-school snacks and sometimes I feel a little upset about that.” (This one usually comes out on days when the aftercare program has served ice cream – yes, ice cream – as the snack.)

“I know Favorite Friend brings her snack too, but Favorite Friend has food allergies. I don’t have food allergies.”

What to tell him?

Yes, I know Mrs. So-and-So forgets sometimes and tells you to line up for snack. But when you remind her that you bring your own, it’s okay, right?

Yes, I know it’s upsetting to watch everyone else eat ice cream and not have any. I would feel bad about that, too.

No, you don’t have food allergies. But remember how we used to go to therapy all the time and all those doctors, all the time? Remember how you used to have to do that, and now you don’t? Part of helping your brain and your body be as strong and healthy as they can be is to make sure that you get the right kinds of foods. So Mommy sends you the right foods for you, because your after-care program doesn’t always have the ones that are best.

He’s not on a “special” diet or a “restricted” diet, per se. He’s just on a “leave as much crap out of it as possible” diet.

Sometimes I pull out the big guns, for a kindergartener: If Mommy and Daddy let you eat those snacks, you wouldn’t be able to have treats at home.

He sulks when we have these talks. He hears me, but he’s different, and different is hard. Sometimes different is the right thing, but try telling that to a six-year-old. And there’s some guilt wrapped up in the difference, too, because there are days when I frankly can’t help but think that it’s all my fault – that I’m forcing him to be an outlier by not just letting him eat the stinking animal crackers. That withholding the school-provided snack is like putting a magnifying glass over his barely-perceptible unusualness. That my identity and worthiness as a parent has come down to a standoff over a bargain tub cookie shaped like a questionable giraffe.

But then I see him vehemently tear the hot-lunch order form out of his folder each Monday afternoon and rush it, screeching, to the trash, and I know that despite the drama of the animal crackers, L. knows that this is the right thing. He knows that what we are doing is as much for his good as bedtime, tooth-brushing, showering, and hair-combing – all of which he has protested at one time or another with at least as much energy as he devotes to the occasional school snack debate. And I can’t help asking myself why it is that I, and most other parents I know, have such a relatively easy time enforcing those bedtimes, hygiene routines, and other rites of kindergarten oppression, but falter in expanding our ideals about health and well-being to include food-related things? Why we can feel so confident in declaring, “I’m sorry you’re angry, but bedtime is bedtime and you’re going,” yet so vulnerable and bothered by standing our ground when it comes to snacks and treats and the prevailing junk-food culture that’s eating the kids during their waking hours?

The reality is, L.’s eating habits are no more negotiable than proper sleep, good manners, appropriate behavior, or any other goal we strive towards in raising him and his brother. It’s not because of his neurological issues, though they may provide additional motivation on hard days; they raise the stakes, so to speak, but they don’t define the situation. It’s because my number-one job when I get up every morning is to do as many things as I can to set my kids up, hopefully, to stay safe and healthy and be their best for one more day. Some of those days will be better than others, but every morning, I need to decide whether or not their health and well-being demands that this be an animal cracker day. Maybe one day I’ll decide differently, but for now, the answer is no. No, today is not an animal cracker day.

How do you address health issues and eating habits with your kids?

Photo Credit: The Tiny Hummingbird