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.
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.