Between when you were a kid and when you became a parent, much has changed in food and nutrition over the past 30 years. A look back can help us understand the present and work toward building a better future.
By Stéphanie Côté
Between when you were a kid and when you became a parent, much has changed in food and nutrition over the past 30 years. A look back can help us better understand the present and work toward building a better future.
When you were little, your parents likely had a refrain or two that they’d use to get you to “clean your plate.” Here are a few that deserve to stay in the past!
“Just three more bites!”
Parents would do whatever it took to make their kids eat everything on their plates! Today, however, we know that it’s possible to develop unhealthy relationships with food. That’s why children shouldn’t be made to think that they should eat more than they want to make their parents happy or proud. “It’s a funny thing to ask of someone, isn’t it?” observes nutritionist Karine Gravel. “In the end, it has a negative impact on the child’s emotions.” It’s best to let your children decide when they are full, since they are the only ones who know how much their bodies can handle.
“No dessert until you’ve cleaned your plate.”
Who doesn’t remember hearing this as a child? It’s still a popular line today, even though more and more parents are recognizing that dessert should never be used as a reward. “By making dessert seem like even more of a treat, we give our kids the impression that the main course is an obstacle,” explains nutritionist Guylaine Guèvremont, coauthor of the book Manger, un jeu d’enfant (Turning mealtime into child’s play). In other words, the plan can backfire!
“Eat all your vegetables! They’re good for you.”
Did this kind of argument ever change your mind about a food you didn’t like when you were little? Chances are it won’t work on your child either. Kids are more likely to react favourably to new foods if introduced to them in a pressure-free setting where they can see adults enjoying that same food. “The child has to like it—end of story,” says Guèvremont. “Kids will eat their peas if you make them, but that’s only a short-term solution. Your role as a parent is to help your child become a good eater for the rest of their lives.”
With changes to family life come changes to eating habits
“What’s for dinner?”
Are you reminded of how often you must have asked your mom this same question whenever you hear these words? Now that achieving a work-family balance is more difficult than ever, preparing regular meals is a challenge unto itself! Unfortunately, there are no miracle solutions. The key is meal planning.
According to nutritionist Hélène Laurendeau, preparing your menu for the week shouldn’t be thought of as a time-consuming chore. Parents who are short on time actually stand to gain from putting more effort into planning their meals. “It’s also better for your health,” adds Laurendeau.
More variety, but also more processed foods
Meat, potatoes, and a vegetable (from a can, no less). Does this sound like a lot of your childhood dinners? It’s safe to say that having variety in our weekday menus wasn’t always as important as it is today.
Making even the simplest home-cooked meals is better than buying ready-made options.
Many parents these days go to great pains to add variety to their meals, with no shortage of cooking shows and online recipes from which to draw inspiration. Nonetheless, when time is scarce, they often turn immediately to ready-made meals and processed ingredients—both of which, Laurendeau laments, are becoming increasingly common at the grocery store.
“The food industry doesn’t want us to cook because they want to sell us their solutions,” she explains. “The problem is that they’re not making it any easier to eat healthy. That’s why we need to get back to simple but real food.”
For Laurendeau, having an omelette, a bowl of pasta with cheese and tomatoes, or even peanut butter on toast beats eating ready-made meals. What’s more, cooking at home is far more economical than buying prepared dishes.
A lack of knowledge
Back in the 1980s, kiwi fruit were considered exotic; nowadays, they’re an everyday food. Children now have access to a much wider range of foods than we did at their age. However, they are also exposed to far more processed foods than farm-grown products. The result is a lack of knowledge about food, as many studies have shown.
“We should be teaching kids about where basic foods come from, how they’re made, and what they look like,” says Laurendeau. What does a lettuce plant look like? Where does cheese come from? What does cereal look like before ending up in the boxes you see at the grocery store? These are all great discussions to have around the table!
Family meals on the decline
Thirty years ago, we rarely heard about how important is was to eat as a family. We ate together, period! It was a fact of life. Nathalie Lachance, a doctoral student in sociology at UQAM, points out that today, much is made of topics such as eating enough vegetables or protecting the environment, yet family meals get pushed aside.
Modern lifestyles tend to make things complicated, but parents should remember that sitting down at the table with their child has many benefits. “It reinforces the sense of being part of the family and helps children build their identities,” Lachance explains. “A family needs to spend time being a family in order to raise well-adjusted kids.”
The right age for introducing new foods
The Canadian Paediatric Society currently recommends that complementary feeding start at the age of six months. Your mother may have told you that you were eating purées by the time you were two months old; this was, in fact, common at the time. By the 1970s, however, experts had learned that this practice wasn’t best for the baby. Nutritionist Louise Lambert-Lagacé notes that many moms continued to introduce new foods after just two or three months “either because they grew impatient or because they were following the advice of certain doctors.” She sets the record straight in her book Comment nourrir son enfant (How to feed your child), published in 1974.
Screens: An unwelcome addition to the table
Households in the 1980s often had just one television set, which was most likely to be found in the living room. Today, we are surrounded by screens—computers, cell phones, tablets—and they follow us wherever we go.
“Screens have become members of the family with their own seat at the table,” says Marie Marquis, a full professor in the department of nutrition at the Université de Montréal. “They’re the reason why there’s less talk at dinnertime.” The trouble is, talking is the whole point of sitting down to a family meal.
Having screens at the table is also bad for your health. Kids who eat in front of a screen become so distracted that they’re no longer aware of what they’re eating. “Screens are making kids eat more and move less, which leads obesity,” explains nutritionist Myriam Gehami, coauthor of the book J’aime pas ça! J’en veux encore! (I don’t like this! I want more of that!).
Changes you can see
Bigger serving sizes
Servings are more than 35 per cent bigger than they were 50 years ago! More food on the plate means more food in your stomach. Worse still, since people are cooking less often, they are consuming more processed foods from grocery stores and restaurants. These options also happen to come with bigger serving sizes.
“People have gotten used to eating larger portions because their frames of reference have completely changed,” says Corinne Voyer, the director of Coalition Poids. Knowing what an actual serving looks like can help you avoid overeating. For children, for example, a serving of meat should measure about the size of the palm of their hand and make up no more than onethird of the food on their plate.
A rise in weight problems
“Life expectancy normally increases from one generation to the next,” says Amandine Moukarzel, a nutritionist at the Pediatric Centre of Cardiovascular Prevention, Intervention, and Rehabilitation (CIRCUIT) of the Sainte-Justine University Health Centre (CHU Sainte-Justine). “But for the first time, we’re seeing it decrease. Children today may have a lower life expectancy than their parents.” Obesity and related health problems are among the main reasons for this decline.
Epidemiologist and nutritionist Michel Lucas cites another troubling statistic: Between 1978 and 1979, five per cent of Canadian youth between the ages of 3 and 19 were obese. Between 2009 and 2013, that figure rose to 13 per cent.
According to Lucas, the most harmful foods are juices and sugary drinks. He believes that we should be doing more to get kids into the habit of drinking water. The problem, as he explains, isn’t just what people are eating, but also what they are eating less of, such as fruits and vegetables. “Healthy eating has to become normal and enjoyable,” he says.
“It’s not good for you!”
In the 1980s, people weren’t especially concerned about nutrition. We have since become better informed, and many parents now forbid their children from eating foods considered bad.
From time to time, it’s actually okay to let your child eat less nutritious foods. An outright ban can make the forbidden foods all the more tempting. “A child could develop the same type of complex about certain foods as someone on a diet might have,” warns Gravel.