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Facing Down Ronald McDonald

By Rebeldad Brian Reid

My little one went a little nuts in the back seat last week. "Go there! Go there!" she started shouting excitedly as we drove home from preschool. I didn't have the slightest idea what she was talking about until the last moment, when a 20-foot-tall billboard of McDonald's french fries went whizzing past. "You want fries?" I asked, quizzically. "Yeah," came the response. And then a pause. "And a cheeseburger!"

We're not a heavy-duty fast food family, but ol' Ronald clearly has his claws in my preschooler already.

The topic of bad food has been much in the news. First, Australian researchers said last week that the plumping of America can be entirely explained by increasing food consumption; it's not the death of recess and our drive-everywhere culture that's expanding waistlines. It's good old-fashioned caloric intake. And then the market research firm Mintel found that there is a gap between what parents think they should be doing and how well they actually do things like limiting junk food and encouraging exercise.

So we're likely to read a lot more in the parenting press about the increasingly "toxic food environment" that we now live in and whether we -- as parents --- can do anything to stop it. Already, my friend Cathy Arnst has laid out the case, on her BusinessWeek blog, for starting to view food the way we view tobacco: something that we should regulate for the sake of our youth.

As a parent, I'm resistant to this idea, especially given that my kids haven't yet escaped elementary school. I have the power to influence every last mouthful of food they consume -- my preschooler is not borrowing the car, driving to Taco Bell and eating as many orders of 79-cent nachos as she can. Someday, that'll change, and between now and then, it's my job to educate her on what is healthy, what is not and what we mean when we talk about "moderation."

I know I'm facing down a huge and savvy group of marketers, but it seems like I ought to have the upper hand. Or is the junk food cabal so powerful that I should throw up my hands?

Brian Reid writes about parenting and work-family balance. You can read his blog at

By Brian Reid |  May 21, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Behavior , Food
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Junk food cabal! Ha!

too many calories = extra fat

sure, what you put into your body may hurt or help your health, but if you're talking about weight, you're talking about calories.

we feel that moderation goes a long way. junk food isn't forbidden fruit, but you don't get to grab a bag of chips and go to town.

i'm all for getting junk food out of the schools. 100%. i'd rather they pushed vegan meals than the junk they have now.

there's no way to regulate calorie intake - but i'm all for the calorie labeling that new york recently mandated. information should help people make better decisions.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 21, 2009 8:17 AM | Report abuse

"i'm all for getting junk food out of the schools. 100%. i'd rather they pushed vegan meals than the junk they have now. "

I'm strongly opposed to that. Howard County (MD) is pushing ALL junk food out of the schools, and the result is not that kids are eating healthier, but that they're bringing in more junk from outside. Seriously - your typical high school "pusher" is supplying Snickers bars, real-honest-by-gosh-full-caffeine Coca Cola and other such yummies. Elementary schoolers are bringing Lunchables, hot dogs, etc. I'm in favor of making nutrition information available, and encouraging healthier eating, but you CAN'T make kids eat stuff at school that they just don't like and don't want to eat. There's got to be a compromise.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | May 21, 2009 8:56 AM | Report abuse

agree that you can't make kids eat healthy if they don't want to. and yes, agree also that a black-market will emerge if there isn't junk vending machines.

but seriously. the menus are laughable. corn dogs, nachos, pizza. nachos for lunch? really?

i think it's horrible not to insist that schools serve hot lunch that is at least marginally healthy. you can create plenty of variety and yummy options from relatively healthy food. i was exaggerating about the vegan course of action - that's obviously ridiculous. but honestly, i find it less ridiculous than serving nachos at lunch.

nothing you can do about kids sneaking and eating what they want other than education and information, but the schools are contributing to it!!!!! they're putting garbage on their trays and calling it lunch and letting junk companies bribe them into putting vending machines everywhere.

i think it's an outrage.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 21, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

to test my baseless theory i posted above, i googled "school hot lunch". this menu came up for some random elementary school in Ohio:
(this is a copy/paste of a week's menu)

Entrée: Chili
Sandwich: Hot Chicken
Pizza: Papa John's
Entrée: Cheese-filled Bread Sticks w/ Marinara
Sandwich: Hot Dog
Pizza: Twisted Crust
Entrée: Sloppy Joe on Bun
Sandwich: Chicken Patty
Pizza: Domino's
Entrée: Pasta w/ Meat Sauce
Sandwich: Italian Sausage
Pizza: Stromboli
Entrée: Corn Dogs
Sandwich: Fish
Pizza: Donato's
Entrée: Chicken Strips
Sandwich: Grilled Cheese
Pizza: Papa John's
Entrée: Gyros
Sandwich: Chicken Sandwich
Pizza: Four Cheese Garlic Bread
Entrée: Enchilada in a Bowl

there's a pizza option every day????????? hmmm... wonder what kids will choose to eat? not that it should matter - is there an option there that's even close to healthy?

we are going to end up being one plump nation unless we change the course of this.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 21, 2009 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Our kids know McDonalds quite well and will shout out that they want to go as we drive by. I don't even think they have been that often. We have maybe taken them 2 or 3 times in the last 1.5 years. But seriously... who is in charge and driving the car? Who is in charge at home?

Junk food/sweets are not prohibited in our house but they are limited. The kids are quite aware that sweets are limited to after meals and if you don't eat your meal then obviously you must be too full for anything else.

Sadly, even in small kids, the influence of the junk food cabal is quite strong because they obviously know how to appeal to children. Which cereal do the kids want purchased? Either the one with the toy in it or the one endorsed by their favourite character. I have had discussions with SS about marketing but he doesn't care. About the only thing that prevents him from buying a cereal for the toy is the fact that he has to eat the cereal before he gets another box. And past experience has told him that I will follow through.

He is learning about nutrition and really struggles with trying to eat right and eating all that yummy junk food that he loves. His sister seems to be mostly indifferent to sweets.

It might be difficult to fight marketing influence but if we throw up our hands in defeat who is going to teach them? My job is to teach my child what I think is important even in the face of overwhelming influence by others whether that be peers or the junk food cabal. Do you throw up your hands in despair over peer pressure? Then why would you give up against any other kind of influence?

Posted by: Billie_R | May 21, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

"Or is the junk food cabal so powerful that I should throw up my hands?"

Unless you are buying beer and lottery tickets for your kids, you have the skillset to say no to the beer cabal and state lottery cabal. Apply that same ability to make a positive decision to all other cabals and stop blaming others for your own lame parenting choices.

Posted by: anonfornow | May 21, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

The ones I feel sorry for are the children of the vegetarian, vegan, etc nutbag parents. Mom, can I get a happy meal? No son we only eat gluten free, grown on free range, fair trade, cruelty free, blah blah blah. A happy meal occasionally is not going to kill them, get a grip.

Posted by: pwaa | May 21, 2009 9:54 AM | Report abuse

interestingidea: by comparison, this is what my kids (the high-schoolers) are dealing with this week (see for details):

Monday: Ranch Flavored Chicken w/Potato Roll; Tuna Salad Sub; Signature Burger on Roll

Tuesday: Macaroni & Cheese w/Broccoli & Roll ; Roasted Chesapeake Chicken w/Roll; Chicken Wraps

Wednesday: Popcorn Chicken, Baked w/Wheat Roll ; Cold Cut Sub; Coach's Baked Chicken w/Roll

Thursday: Fiesta Quesadilla ; Herb Roasted Chicken w/Roll; Philly Cheesesteak w/Seeded Roll

Friday: Toasted Cheese Sandwich; Baked Chicken w/Dinner Roll; Western Rib

Every day: Make Your Own Salad Plate; Specialty Pizza

All Lunches Include Salad Bar Selections of Fresh Fruit & Fruit in Light Syrup ; Vegetables, Beans ; either Pasta, Rice or Potatoes
Today's Hot Vegetable:

Yes, there's a pizza choice every day (but NOT Papa John's :-( )because it's cheap and kids eat it.

I've talked to my kids. Guess how many people take the "make-your-own-salad-plate" choice per day? Very, very few, according to them. Most kids either bring their lunch from home; don't eat lunch at all; or go for the pizza or sandwiches.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | May 21, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

We've spent a lot of time talking to our daughter about how certain foods help you grow big and strong, while others aren't as nutritious. Those foods are ok as an occasional thing, but shouldn't be what she eats most days. She seems to understand pretty well and (for now) accepts that even if we have, say, a box of ice pops in the freezer, it doesn't mean that she gets to eat one every day.

That said, she loves "Old McDonald's," and will ask for it regularly. I'll admit she gets to have "lunch out" once every other week. But again, moderation is key.

Posted by: newsahm | May 21, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

RE: School lunches. Our elementary-school aged kids can pick one lunch to buy per month. They bring theirs the rest of the time. This way, they can have a bit of junk every now and then, but overall, they eat better lunches.

RE: McDonald's. Spouse and I quit eating there years ago, before kids. We refuse to go to ANY fast food place, but for Chipotle, which is healthier and actually serves a product I want to eat. The kids can order chicken nuggets or burgers elsewhere. An exception is Elevation Burger, which is fast food, but way better tasting, and we limit our visits to once a month or so. We're trying to teach the kids about different foods, and we cook our own dinners (without processed crap from a can or a box) almost every night.

It is more difficult to teach good eating habits in this enviroment (poor quality school lunches, birthday parties in classes, snacks after every baseball or soccer game, etc.), but parents have to. No excuses.

Posted by: NoVA-too | May 21, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Portions are important. Small children do not need to eat as much as an adult. My niece, who is a junior in high school, is obese. My brother is not, and my SIL is overweight. Since my niece was small, they have let her choose her foods and their amounts. It has been very sad to see her go from a plump kid to an obese teen. (I won't get into the conversations with her parents, diets, and pediatrician's advice.) My point is that parents must do their jobs to raise their children to make good choices and control portions early on. It is really hard to teach new habits later.

I agree that schools should do their part to make healthy foods available. It doesn't mean that all children will choose the healthy food, but hopefully some will.

Posted by: SilverSpringMom1 | May 21, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I actually read a report that on average school purchased lunches were more nutritious than bagged lunches from home.

If you look at the menu at Fairfax county, pizza is only offered on Friday. Frankly it doesn't sound all that appealing to me. It is far from Papa Johns (that rectangular frozen pizza variety-with wheat crust). Most of the bread options are whole wheat, the hot dogs are turkey dogs, the portion sizes are more than reasonable for an elementary school child. I think the tortilla chips are baked not fried.

Sure it is not as good as the cardboard vegean sandwich but who is going to eat that?

Seriously, I don't think the lunches that children bring from home is all that better.

I think the best thing is junk food in moderation. If you set it up to be the great potato chip battle, your in for a fairly rough time. Again, most of these foods are fine in moderation and even healthier foods need to limit intake.

Exercise is also an important factor. How many of us walk on a daily basis? Or ask our kids to do so?

What I think is really funny about it is most of the parents I know who fight their kids about food on a daily basis are either vegetarian extremists or hypocrites. These are the same people showing up to work with their second cup of Starbucks Lattes and eating doughnuts. Seriously the best teacher is teach by example.

Posted by: foamgnome | May 21, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

This is one issue I really struggle with. I have a 3.5 yo son who LOVES anything with sugar and/or made with white flour.

My problem is that I am exactly the same! I have a sweet tooth too. We have limited sweets at home and try to eat healthy.

My one positive trait in this regard is that I don't worry about my son eating enough. I firmly believe that kids will eat when they are hungry. Making them eat because YOU are worried about them being hungry is a problem. Let them learn to listen to their own bodies. I was raised to "clean my plate" regardless of whether I was hungry or not, and it has had a detrimental effect on my waistline.

Posted by: goodhome631 | May 21, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Amount Per Serving
Calories 955 Cal from Fat 270
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 29g 45%
Saturated Fat 11g 53%
Trans Fat 0g

Cholesterol 150mg 50%
Sodium 1950mg 81%
Total Carbs 113g 38%
Dietary Fiber 23g 92%
Sugars 4g

Protein 63g
Vitamin A 0% • Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 0% • Iron 0%

Chipotle burrito with cheese, hardly any better than a big mac.....

Posted by: pwaa | May 21, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

pwaa, you get to make it as you like -- keep the gobs of sour cream, cheese and guacamole off. Sheesh -- what a troll you are.

Posted by: NoVA-too | May 21, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Actually, calorie-wise, the Chopotle is worse than a big mac. That has 540 calories, albiet with the same amount of fat and far less fiber than the burrito.

Posted by: newsahm | May 21, 2009 10:48 AM | Report abuse

pwaa, you get to make it as you like -- keep the gobs of sour cream, cheese and guacamole off. Sheesh -- what a troll you are.

I made this with chicken, cheese, rice, pinto beans and black beans. I know you can make it anyway you want, I have eaten there. Don't recommend things that you don't know the facts about. Guess I am a troll when i prove you uneducated......

Posted by: pwaa | May 21, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

last year, in kindergarten, my son wanted to buy lunch since many kids were doing it, and it was brand new to him. So we let him, one day a week (he'd usually pick pizza day).
He typically forgot, actually, and wouldn't ask for the money, and the lunch was there for him anyway, but he got to buy a little bit. You're right, tho, whoever said it, the pizza does not look so appetizing.
He started to ask if he could have lunchables, if he could have XYZ, whatever...and we would have to discuss with him why he wasn't having that type of food, or why he couldn't buy lunch every day, etc. So he's learning a little bit about what is healthy and what is not. Now he doesn't buy lunch ever - he just didn't want to anymore. Which is fine with me!
He eats at mcdonald's once in a while, when my DH's cousins take him. He LOVES the fact that they have toys, so he asks if he can go with us, every once in a while, but knows we will say no (unless we're on a road trip and there's NOTHING else to eat, well, we do not go there). we try to go to 'better' fast food (moe's is his absolute favorite ) but seriously, any time you go to any restaurant, you don't exactly know what's in the food, so you are liable to get more calories and fat than you want.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | May 21, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Brian, just wait until they hit "bottomless pit" stage (aka "late teenaged years"). Last night I was cooking dinner (grilled chicken breasts, rice, veggies and salad). DS was hungry while I was cooking, so he ate three apples. Then he ate a huge dinner. Then three popsicles for dessert. Then he went to the local pharmacy where he works to pick up his paycheck; while there he bought an 8-pack of peanut butter cups and ate all of them. Then he took his sisters for italian ice and had something there, too. That's typical for him.

Need I mention that this kid is 6' 1" and a half, and weighs (maybe) 135 or 140? :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | May 21, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

we picked up "eat this, not that for kids" and thought it was an interesting read. we're big fans of making moderately better choices so the kids still get to eat 'fun' food, but it's not so bad for them. There are some good recommendations that have helped us along the way.

we're also big fans of portion control!

i was also a big fan of chipotle until i learned that the 3 soft chicken taco option had the same calories as two of their giant burritos. another reason i'm a huge fan of calorie disclosure for restaurants.

glad to hear that the local schools have better lunch options than the random Ohio school that i saw! thanks for the info.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 21, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

It's time to stop blaming the National School Lunch Program (NSLP)for the dietary woes of school-aged children. Even 15-20 years ago, studies showed that school lunches were, on average, more nutritious than lunches brought from home. However, over the last 20 years, the School Lunch program has made dramatic strides to decrease the percentage of calories from fat and increase fiber, fruits and vegetables, etc. in school lunches. Over half of the kids who participate in the NSLP each day are low-income.

Here are two of the findings from a recent study of the NSLP:

"For both income groups, lunches consumed
by NSLP participants were more nutrient dense than lunches consumed by
nonparticipating children. School lunch
participants had higher intakes of milk,
meat, and beans. Among low-income
children, school lunch participants had
higher scores for fruit consumption."

"Measuring the types of foods consumed
showed that NSLP participants in both
income groups were more likely to consume
vegetables, fruits, milk and milk products,
and mixed dishes. They were less likely to
consume salty snacks and beverages other
than milk or juice."

A summary of the study can be found at:

The full study is also available at the Food and Nutrition Service website.

Posted by: GroovisMaximus61 | May 21, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Don't throw up your hands. Act like the parent you are and regulate your children's menus yourself. If you don't want them eating fast food or junk food, don't take them to fast food restaurants or buy junk food for them. Make their lunches, being sure to include whole grains, fruit, and vegetables. Keep the house and the fridge stocked with healthy, tasty, appealing food choices.

That said, I do think it is important to allow children to have some less-than-healthy snacks/treats every once in awhile. As a teenager, I babysat for a Scandinavian family that only allowed sweets once a week, on Saturdays. On Saturdays, they went all out! I though that was an interesting idea.

Posted by: obamamama31 | May 21, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Groovis - if you're happy with the meal choices at your school, power to you.

i find it completely unacceptable to measure my child's diet against a sampling of NSLP Particpants.

i expect more from the school that my tax dollars fund.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 21, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

interestingidea1234 wrote: "i find it completely unacceptable to measure my child's diet against a sampling of NSLP Particpants"

Okay - then instead of googling to see what's on the menu at a random school in Ohio, do some research at your local school. You may find that the pizza crust is made from whole wheat or rice and the toppings are actual veggies. The hot dogs are probably turkey dogs on a whole wheat bun. Cookies are made with prune paste or apple sauce - you get the idea.

Posted by: GroovisMaximus61 | May 21, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Yep Brian, maybe you should just throw up your hands. The problem is that Ronald, Mickey, and the Marlboro Man are members of the village that we all know are necessary to raise a child, and worse yet, they are all bigger than you are. It's not a question if you cave into the advertising scams of the commercial marketers, it's a question of how far you cave. I think that parents have a lot less influence over their offspring's decisions, especially dietary choices, in the long run than they think they do. It's a nice thought to encourage healthy eating habits for youngsters, but push too hard, and it just may backfire into your child forming an eating disorder.

Here's a good song to sing to your kids to combat the McDonald's gimmies:

McDonald's is my kind of place
They serve you rattlesnakes
Hamburgers up your nose
French fries between your toes
McDonald's is my kind of place
Last time I went there
They fried my underwear

McDonald's is our kind of place
Hamburgers in your face
French fries up your nose
Pickles between your toes
McDonald's is our kind of place
We want our money back
Before we have a heartattack

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | May 21, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

are some of you really suggesting that you're glad that the schools are filled with soda/candy vending machines?

i don't demonize any of those things - at home we love our snacks and junk food - but i would hope that everyone agrees that those things are bad for you and are contributing to a nation of overweight children and adults.

if a child spends 5 days/week, 40 weeks/yr for 12 years in an institution that sells this junk, it just makes it harder for the kids to make healthy choices.

i'm sure these schools sell apples along side the m&ms, but who would pick the apple? not me. my point is, why even have the m&ms as an option?

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 21, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

nothing worse than a holier than thou food topic, yawn...

Posted by: pwaa | May 21, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

(to which you've contributed plenty)

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | May 21, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

(to which you've contributed plenty)

when in rome.......

Posted by: pwaa | May 21, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

I know it's not realistic, but my I remember my dad tell me about how he had to go home (walk) for lunch. excerice and a home cooked meal!

Posted by: NoVAHockey | May 21, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

WhackyWeasel, thanks for the laugh with the McDonald's song!

We live in a town where there's no fast food places (the nearest ones are 12 miles away), and I won't go to McDonald's because they donate money to Dobson's groups (since I don't want to get into discussions of religious beliefs and/or politics in public, I explained to them that the reason is because of the trans fats that are used in the frying process for fries and McNuggets there-even if they've changed since then, it still works for my kids!). When you only eat fast food several times a YEAR, the opportunities for them to whine about Happy Meals are pretty small.

It also serves as an economics lesson-I've told my older daughter about the differences in price between name-brand and store brands in the grocery stores, and she understands that you're paying for the name more than anything with the name brands. Ditto nutritional content of junk food vs. healthy food-junk food is meant to be a treat, not a food staple! She understands that if you eat nothing but fast food or junk food, not only will you wind up wider around the waistline, but leaner in the wallet! In this day and age, one cannot afford to waste money like that!

We make our own meals from scratch, and since we really got into doing that (even our own desserts), she likes that a lot better than the processed foods at the store. Our big treat is something like a grocery store frozen pizza or a fancy dessert made from scratch for example, and that happens as a treat on the nights my husband is off (he works second shift at his job, so his days off are a mini-vacation of sorts for us-like Sunday dinners after church for the religious).

Not that I want to clobber an already-dead horse, but on the subject of the school lunch menus, I've looked at the ones in our school, and the variety of healthy foods is wonderful. No pizza every day, but plenty of variety and it's baked instead of fried. Locally grown fruits and veggies on the side, two entree choices every day, and my older daughter loves them.

Okay, I'll put the stick down now....

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | May 21, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Not to pick on you, dragon, in particular, since everyone says this but you said:

In this day and age, one cannot afford to waste money like that!

Is it okay to waste money in other days and ages? I never understood when people said that.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | May 21, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

While we may not need to address fast-food in the same light as tobacco, regulations still need to be implemented. Parents do have a lot of influence over the dietary habits of their children, but this influence often falls short when kids attend schools within close proximity to fast food restaurants. Parents can no longer control their children' s consumption of fast-food marketing and therefore we as a public must ensure that our kids are able to play, learn and grow in an environment free from the pollution of fast-food advertising.

Posted by: geetha701 | May 21, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

atlmom1234, I was referring to the fact that the economy has tanked and people have to stretch their budget even further (no easy task for the working class and poor, whose budgets were alreadsy stretched to the hilt anyway). Things are starting to look up, but we should still watch our spending like a hawk!

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | May 22, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

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