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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Pureed food in pouches: boon or bane?

By Carol Danaher, MPH RD

While occasional use is okay, pureed food in pouches is a get-my-child-to-right-now product that does not support a child in growing up with eating. Even though the pouches contain “real” food and even organic food, regularly making use of these alternatives to family meal fails to teach critical nutritional and social skills. To grow up with eating, a child has to learn, starting with family meals, to eat the food that is in the world and to master the skills of eating as a social act. Pureed food pouches teaches neither.

Raising children to have healthy eating attitudes and behaviors

 I dedicate my working and volunteer life to supporting parents in raising children who have healthy eating attitudes and behaviors. In Santa Clara County, CA, we work hard to give healthcare and public health program workers one voice with respect to feeding children. (I will tell you about our program in next month’s FMF and in my October webinar.) Getting good information to parents isn’t easy. Two years ago, I participated in a telephone survey of 130 families with children under the age of 5 years. One of the questions was “what do you like about how your child eats?” A quarter of the parents could not think of a single item. Parents had no trouble answering the next question, “What don’t you like about how your child eats?”

Marketing and product development can exploit parents’ concerns about children’s eating

It creates a barrier to positive feeding when parents are sold products that get-my-child-to-eat-right-now and promised immediate results. These immediate results overshadow the more complex parenting tasks that produce, over time, children who become good eaters. Pediasure for picky eaters is a case in point. Food pouches for children is another, perhaps even more insidious one, since they contain “real food,” even “organic food” that a child can suck out of a pouch. These pouches are in grocery stores, discount stores, airport food vendors, coffee shops, and more. You can even purchase a reusable kids’ squeeze pouch, presumably so you can make your own purees. Soft drink manufacturers have entered the business of getting healthy snack food into kids, via a puree. The purees are marketed as an alternative to mealtime and as a simple and successful way to get healthy foods into a young and picky eater.

So, what’s wrong with getting healthy, organic food into our kids via a pouch?

Feeding isn’t just about getting food into kids; it is about raising them to have the crucial life skill of sharing the family meal. Trust children to learn to eat a variety of family food, maybe just not right now.

From the perspective of Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding, just about everything. The pouch approach of letting the child eat on the run, whenever she wants is an abrogation of one of the most basic of parenting roles – teaching the child how to eat in the context of the family meal and to learn to eat family foods. Neil Grimmer, Chief Executive of Plum Organics food pouches and interviewed for the NYT, feels that he is empowering children by letting them take control of their eating. Food pouches do just the opposite, and parents’ reasons for buying them tell why. Parents rely on them because they can’t get their child to eat enough or eat the right foods; they essentially give up on their child’s ability to learn or perhaps their own ability to teach. Parents who feel their lives are too busy to place a priority on fostering the crucial life skill of sharing a family meal are neglecting, not empowering their child.

Meals are about family, not just about food

Research shows that regular shared family meals improve nutritional and emotional health. Compared with children whose families share few or no family meals, children who participate in as few as 3 to 5 family meals per week lower their risk of obesity five fold,1 have vastly improved food and nutrient intake; are less likely to eat unhealthy foods; and are more likely to maintain healthy dietary habits.2 With frequent family meals, adolescents are 2 to 4 times less likely to use drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, and their grades are better. Adolescents from families that share at least 5 meals per week are 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating than those that do not.3 Whether these benefits are from the family meal, or from other positive family characteristics for which the family meal is just an indicator, we should all take the family meal seriously.

Children develop food acceptance attitudes and behaviors early

Enjoying family meals, learning to behave there, remaining calm in the presence of unfamiliar food, saying “yes please” and “no thank you” to food. Those attitudes and behaviors position the child to learn to eat a variety of foods and flavors, not only in childhood, but throughout life. To raise good eaters, parents need to understand children’s typical food behaviors. Young children are naturally erratic with their eating and food preferences. It is completely normal for a child to eat vastly different amounts of food meal-to-meal, and day-to-day. They change their food preferences constantly. They may be uninterested in eating a food they specifically asked for. Parents do want their child to eat well. Organic fruits and vegetables, with a few whole grains mixed into a package, must seem like a no-mess good solution. It’s not. The pouches can’t possibly shape a child’s palate to accept vegetables when they are hidden in a puree of sweet fruits. They can, however, assure a preference for sweets.

We have a national frenzy about “healthy eating,” and smart food retailers capitalize on it.

Consider the problem of fruits and vegetables. For years, nutrition authorities have recommended that children eat 5 fruits and vegetables daily, and obesity programming does the same. Fruits and vegetables are nutritious and it is good to encourage parents to make them available for their families. But parents have come to view fruits and vegetables as being so desperately important that they pressure the child to eat them, right now. Whereupon, children reject them. The solution is not food pouches, sneaking vegetables into other foods, or other types of pressure. It is, instead, pairing fruit and vegetable messages with advice to follow the division of responsibility and therefore raise children who eat fruits and vegetables.

It simply doesn’t work for parents to force, bribe, and cajole a child to eat.

Giving a child food pouches or other meal substitutes doesn’t work either. What works is good parenting with feeding: having regular family meals, serving the child the same food as the rest of the family, trusting the child to eventually learn to eat those foods, maybe just not right now. Within a structured feeding environment, the child will do his jobs: eat as much as he needs and learn to eat the foods that parents enjoy. It takes time and patience, but, in the meantime, parents can enjoy family mealtime.

References

1. Anderson SE, Whitaker RC. Household Routines and Obesity in US Preschool-Aged Children. Pediatrics. 2010;125(3):420-428.

2. Hammons AJ, Fiese BH. Is Frequency of Shared Family Meals Related to the Nutritional Health of Children and Adolescents? Pediatrics. June 1, 2011 2011;127(6):e1565-e1574.

3. National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA). The Importance of Family Dinners II. New York, NY; September 2005. Accessed August 10, 2012.

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