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My Theory About Why Kids are Overweight
Thanks for all your feedback about yesterday's daycare post! I'm enjoying the comments.

I thought I'd write another of my "big picture" posts today, this time about kids & weight. The increase in childhood obesity began dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, accelerating to the present.

Some of it may not be an actual rise in children's weight as much as it is physicians sounding the alarm a little too much; often the way they measure obesity isn't what most of us would consider obese.

But there's no doubt children are getting larger. I remember in grade 3 feeling so sorry for the two "fat" kids in my class. They were Edmund and Lisa, and boy did they stand out from the rest of us beanpoles. I tried to talk to Lisa more than the other girls did, because I felt so sorry for her.

Recently, in going through my family photos, I found my grade 3 picture, and saw Lisa and Edmund through the eyes of a 2000s woman, rather than a 1978 girl. And they're not fat. Not at all. We would consider them stocky today, but certainly not fat. That's how much things have changed.

You can blame childhood obesity on all sorts of things, from too much television and not enough exercise because parents are afraid to let their children run free, to the preponderance of sugar and preservatives in so many foods. But let me tell you the story of what I think happened.

At one point in time, food was fairly expensive, as a ratio of people's income. You didn't waste. Housewives spent time clipping coupons and shopping for deals. They learned how to make tuna casseroles and ground beef casseroles and any kind of casserole they could, because they were warm and hearty and made the meat go a long way (if you want an excellent insight into this, just read the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary out loud to your children. They're brilliant, and so fun! And set in the 1970s, they often focus on the price of food and the menu the family ate). They packed school lunches that were cheap, too, like bologna sandwiches and fruit.

Because food was expensive, and because Mom spent a long time making it, it was expected that people would come to the table and eat and enjoy. Family meals were central to family time. You didn't eat before dinner because it might spoil your dinner. And besides that, there wasn't a lot of food around the house just to eat if you felt like it. Parents had to keep track of food, and make sure that it would stretch to the next paycheque.

Then families changed. Mothers started heading out to work, leaving families with more disposable income. They could buy more food. They could buy more treats. But most of all, it was difficult to make those casseroles that were the family staple. And companies started realizing that families with moms working were a prime target for a new kind of product: instant dinners that you didn't need to cook.

Thus, we had Kraft Dinner. We had Swanson's TV Dinners. And all kinds of snack foods entered the market that hadn't been there before to make school lunches easier to prepare.

And gradually these things expanded. Instead of one or two brands of spaghetti sauce, we had twenty-two. Soon we had sauces for chicken, too. We had frozen pastas and lasagnas. We had chicken fingers, and not just frozen fish.

The supermarket was filled with products that made cooking and eating a breeze! And with the increase in disposable income, more people started to buy them. The prices started to come down. And soon families where moms didn't work started to buy them, too, because their children wanted them as well. It was easier to use a frozen dinner once in a while than it was to cook from scratch. So more and more people began relying on processed foods, prepared foods, and low-nutritional value foods because they were easy, tasty, and inexpensive. And thus a whole generation forgot how to cook.

So many of my friends can't cook anything! They can barbecue, but that's about it. And our children aren't learning to cook, either, because it's not necessary. I remember learning how to roast a chicken for the first time when I was married, because I had never done it before. I took a cookbook with pictures and just did what it said, and then I followed the directions for gravy. I was so proud of myself! But why roast a chicken now when you can buy a frozen chicken all ready to go, and gravy on the side?

Here's me stuffing my turkey on Christmas morning, for instance (note, I hadn't had my shower yet or put on any makeup, so don't judge me). I can't chop onions without my eyes watering, hence the fancy get-up:

Food has become plentiful and easy. It started to fulfill a role when people weren't around to cook anymore, but now it has crept into every family type.

And the same is true with exercise! As Mary Ebserstadt points out in her book, Home Alone America, one of the reasons that children were allowed to play outside in bygone days--whether it was road hockey, or soccer, or baseball, or just catch--was because someone was there to supervise. Even if some mothers worked, not all did. And because all neighbourhoods had at least some adults around, children could be outside. Once everybody started to working, then the number of adults available greatly diminished, and suddenly kids had to be kept inside.

It also seems to me that we have more shift work than we used to. Before, only nurses and night watchmen worked at night. Today so many do, whether it's in healthcare or manufacturing or other industries. With more shift work, adults are unavailable to be with their kids outdoors, even if those adults are home, because they need to rest. And when we're too busy to be with our kids, but our kids want to have fun, what do we do? We feed them. We give them a treat.

Kids come running in from outdoors, just when we were in the middle of getting something done, and we want to placate them for a little longer, so we get out the box of Goldfish crackers. Kids were playing a game peacefully, but a fight breaks out, and we don't want to deal with it, so we call the kids in for popsicles. Food has become a great way to channel kids away from chaos, and so food has become just another game to kids. It's what they do when they're bored. They eat, because we're too tired and too busy to figure out how to encourage them just to play.

The moral of the story? Kids are growing fatter because society is changing. Those traditions that families used to have, from home cooked meals to eating around the table to not snacking between meals to playing outside, have all gone by the wayside. More parents are working, so fewer are there to cook healthy meals or watch what their kids eat. And because of work, the very nature of food has changed, even for those who do not have both parents working outside the home. Convenience foods are now so common that they have become almost indispensable.

That doesn't mean we can't get back to the way it was, though. It just takes each new generation committing to learning how to cook, to teaching their children not to snack between meals too much (unless it's something healthy), and parents teaching their kids how to play again. So spend some time with your kids. Pick up a recipe book, with pictures, and read it in the bathtub. Dream of learning to cook. And perhaps we can bring back that family togetherness again.

Location:Spruce Gardens,Belleville,Canada

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At 8:51 AM , Blogger Mrs W said…

We don't buy snacks, so that we can't snack even if we want to. I also cook from scratch. I am hoping that if my kids grow up not snacking, that they won't feel the need to. With one exception. In our house you are always free to snack on fruits or raw vegetables that may be available, but that's usually it.


At 9:13 AM , Blogger Megan said…

Like Mrs W, we just don't keep snacks in the house around here. I learned that lesson quickly when we lived with my in-laws one summer and they kept open bags of "goodies" on the kitchen counter. Holy cows, I couldn't walk by without stopping and eating something! Eek!

I'm also concerned about children not learning to cook. For my daughter's upcoming 3rd birthday, I'm going to make her a cookbook. We'll start with something really simple, write down the recipe, and take a picture of the first time she cooks it. Every time I teach her something new to cook, we'll repeat the process. Then when she leaves home (many years from now!), she'll have a treasure and a well-stocked cookbook! I will be doing the same thing for my son and any future children we may have :).

About the importance of the dinner table...we really took it for granted here! We moved across country a month ago and sold our dinner table before we left. I want to make one, but it will be a few months before I have the time and the tools. We are REALLY missing it. I think I just may have to buy one and build my word-working skills with another project instead.


At 9:33 AM , Blogger Sheri said…

We live that life. The budgets, etc. We have, no kidding, $100/week for groceries, sundries and usually gas. It's rough and tight...but we always eat healthy meals. Not sure how I manage it other than it's a God thing.

Anyway no snacks around this house.


At 9:46 AM , Blogger Nancy said…

Not only do we not have junk snacks around here, but I am also teaching my children healthy eating habits. When we are at fellowships, picnics, etc., I want them to make healthy choices on their own without me having to be looking over their shoulder all the time. I cook from scratch, and I must say it tastes much better than that pre-packaged stuff.


At 11:25 AM , Anonymous Julia said…

I know that our family fell into the fast food (nuggets and fries!) and the soda pitfall. Getting out of it is not easy but we're working on it!


At 2:39 PM , Blogger Terry @ Breathing Grace said…

Great post, Sheila. I think you hit the nail right on the head. Our generation has its work cut out to be sure!


At 2:51 PM , Blogger Herding Grasshoppers said…

You're right, Sheila, that it goes beyond diet and exercise - it's the whole lifestyle that has changed. Even we stay-home moms have succumbed to convenience foods.

One thing that has helped me is having some meals in the freezer. I'm not one of those cook-for-a-month folks, but sometimes I'll double what I'm making and keep half in the freezer. Then when I have a busy, tiring day, and I'm tempted to use convenience foods (or just call out for pizza!) I can pull something out of the freezer and pop it in the oven. It helps :D

And Mrs. W... I'm with you about not keeping snacks around the house. We've adopted my friends' policy - If God made it, you can eat it whenever you want. (Which is pretty much raw fruits and veggies.) If someone eats less dinner because he ate a bunch of carrot sticks earlier I don't worry too much about it!



At 3:00 PM , Anonymous kristen said…

This is so true! We never had junk food around the house when I was a kid -- we couldn't afford it....Except popcorn! And that was a family event, not mindless snacking.
My kids can cook -- as soon as they were old enough, I put them in charge of making dinner once a week (we kind of got out of the habit after a while, but at least they learned how to cook!)
But we are much more of an "indoor family" than when I was young. For one thing, our homes are so big and comfortable now -- and there's a lot more on TV too. You can find kids' shows anytime of day with the satellite (although we've given that up for now) or the DVD machine.


At 3:03 PM , Anonymous Connie Moore said…

I think you are right about our culture changing so that kids exercise less and we don't have many home-cooked meals. But also I think restaurants are contributing to the problem by not practicing portion control. Whether it is a supersized softdrink at a fast food or the smallest cut of a steak is 12 ounces at a chophouse, we are being sold TOO much food. And that's because food is cheap and restaurants want you to come back.
Please check out our blog on childhood obesity and other childhood issues--we are assembling a group of experts, parents and teachers to blog about this and other topics (e.g. ADD, ADHD, bullying, etc.) It's at


At 4:55 PM , Anonymous brenda J. Wood said…

We all do this and we accept it because everyone else does.
What if we started a revolution?
What if we taught our kids to cook real food?
What if they started to like it?
What if they fed it to their kids?
Why everything old would be new again!!
Brenda Wood


At 12:19 AM , Blogger Tessa said…

It's my opinion that this whole "fast food" or "conveniently packaged food" starts from infancy a lot of times. We start kids off with forumla instead of breastfeeding, and then we move to jarred baby foods and then it's just a downward spiral from there. We snack because I'm pregnant and my toddler doesn't eat big meals. But we eat healthy (or at least healthier) snacks.
As for excersize, we leave our kids in a bouncy seat or excersaucer instead of taking them out into the world with us. It's easier to "contain" them than to supervise.
But that's just my two cents. Once again, awesome truthful post Sheila.


At 10:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

In any given week we will usually have at least 6 home-cooked dinners, and we eat together. Not usually anything fancy and I do make some stuff ahead of time to freeze and I love my crockpot.

And as for exercise, I make sure we spend at least 30 minutes outside each day (at least right now--in the summertime, but I'm so happy we have a backyard to play in this summer!)

Nurse Bee


At 1:38 PM , Anonymous Kimber said…

My gang used to go to school without all that junk in their packed lunches and first.
They traded their baked pizza pockets made from free local pizza dough, and the oatmeal cookies etc., for the garbage sugar treats.
It didn't take long for them to decide that the packaged lunches their friends were getting were substandard.

If you need another reason to stop eating all that junk food, read the label! If you can't pronounce it, pretty safe to say you shouldn't be eating it. MSG makes people fat. Fact.It increases your appetite so you eat way more than you need.It is what they use to make rats fat for diabetes trials. Google MSG rats. Anything that says Hydrolyzed or Autolyzed grain is also MSG. They hide it behind multiple names. Like "spices".
Know what you are putting in your children's mouths, and your own.

I also used to take a book and take them to the park and let them run and scream and carry on.
They went to bed a lot easier at night. None of mine were ever heavy, they were all healthy!


At 3:19 PM , Anonymous harriette said…

Hi Sheila,

It is good to get a perspective on how our lifestyles and changed over the past decades. One reason I determined to work part-time instead of full-time is so that I won't be tempted to stop cooking from scratch and giving in to all the convenience food.

Another factor in obesity has been proven: kids getting less sleep than they need. Check it out in the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronsen and Ashley Merryman. Their second chapter tells more of the effects of letting kids stay up too late.


At 8:29 PM , Blogger Denise said…

I have two kids -- one is fat and one is not.

The oldest is the "fat" one ... his father would not eat a vegetable to save himself and I am not real fond of salads and fruit either -- so he never saw adults eating those kind of healthy things.

Fast forward -- divorced and remarried and new husband will eat a huge bowl of salad in lieu of a main course. My daughter was 18 months old when her stepdad came into her life... and wonder of wonders ... she snacks on cucumbers and cherry tomatoes (even took them to preschool) and blueberries and cherries etc. etc.

Model the lifestyle you want for your child and they will start to live it!

I've watched it -- with my own two eyes!

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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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