Monday, March 12, 2012

Hungry Man - The 21st Century Way to Nourish Your Children

Last week, I picked Mr. Wonderful up after work for grocery shopping adventures. I still feel slightly ashamed every time I hit up the Sobeys, even when it's the dead of winter, but there are some things one cannot forage at the market. Nearing the end of our shopping trip, I redirected us down the frozen foods aisle, since this also happened to be the same aisle where one finds coconut milk.

I noticed an average-sized woman opening one of the freezer doors, then she turned to her (very) pudgy son, who could not have been more than 8 years old and said "Do you want a Hungry Man tonight?", to which he nodded his agreement. I whispered to Mr. Wonderful 'Oh my god, get me out of here.' He turned to me and said 'Did that just happen?' in disbelief. To be honest, at first I thought he was making a commentary on my tendency to be overly-judgemental about people's food choices, so it took a couple of moments for me to realise that he was actually just as disturbed, if not more, than I was by this display of parental ignorance that bordered on negligence.

Yes, that's right, I called it as I see it: negligence. I have erased and re-written this sentence several times, as I've had an internal battle with using the word negligence, because I don't want to offend, but at the same time I don't want to tip-toe around this critical issue either. So, please forgive me if you are offended by my outlandish use of the word 'negligence'.

For those that are unaware, a Hungry Man dinner is a line of frozen, microwaveable dinners that are meant to fill a hungry MAN...not a hungry boy. Most of these meals are 600+ calories, with some exceeding a 1,000 calories, such as the Roasted Turkey Dinner (1450 calories). For a complete picture of the situation, I checked a number of sources to determine the total daily calories recommended for an eight year old boy and the average was around 1,400 calories. That's 1,400 calories for the WHOLE day...not for one meal. And I don't think it's a stretch to imagine the kid ended up eating or drinking something else in addition to the Hungry Man for dinner. Perhaps a can of pop or an ice cream sandwich? I am not even going to touch the nutritional deficits of the Hungry Man, but suffice to say they are most certainly lacking in fresh, wholesome ingredients and laden with fat, sodium and food additives that humans aren't built to handle.

Now, perhaps this particular mother only lets her son, who is clearly on his way towards being an overweight/obese teenager, have a Hungry Man dinner every once in a blue moon, so I will give her the benefit of the doubt.Still, it is becoming increasingly evident that many parents lack one or more of the following when it comes to ensuring their children are properly nourished:

1. The knowledge of what types of foods are going to best nourish a child
2. The knowledge of how many calories a child needs on a daily basis
3. The knowledge of how to prepare home-cooked meals
4. The time to prepare home-cooked meals
5. The money to purchase healthy foods

There may be other reasons/rationale for the scenario described above, whereby the parent offers an unhealthy, highly caloric meal to the child and gives him the final decision-making power, but I think the above list captures some of the major issues that are resulting in rising rates of childhood obesity and a less healthy generation of young people.

So what the heck is going on here??

First, I think there are a lot of cases where parents are unaware of what they should be feeding their children, how much they should be feeding them, or how to prepare wholesome meals for their children (see numbers 1 to 3). Does this make it forgivable that they are overfeeding and/or undernourishing their children (b/c you can overfeed a child and still not give him/her the nutrients they need)? It seems to me that the resources are out there, if a parent wants to gain the knowledge of what and how much to feed their children. There are some great early childhood programs available here on PEI, there are tonnes of books, there are doctors, there are on-line resources. Granted, there are conflicting views on the nuances of feeding children, but I guarantee any legitimate information source will discourage giving children refined sugar products and processed foods (esp. ones with food additives), while encouraging veggies, fruits, protein (for growing!), and, generally, wholesome foods. It's not rocket science, it just takes some effort and time to become educated.

One of the biggest hurdles today for most parents is probably time. (see #4). With both parents working, as is often the case, and enrolling their kids in numerous after-school activities, such that they become chauffeurs when they are not working their day jobs, it's easy to see how they would feel zonked by the time they arrive home and lack interest in preparing a wholesome meal from scratch. Heck, I only have myself to look after and I regularly feel so burnt out that throwing dinner together seems a daunting task. Coupled with this lack of time, for many parents, is a lack of knowledge of how to prepare meals.

I fear that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of parental wisdom around nutrition. In a mere 30 or 40 years, we have transformed our daily lives so much that we are no longer equipped (or willing to equip ourselves) with the very basic knowledge of what to feed our children. With dual-income homes rapidly rising, kitchens seem to have been abandoned by many families, save for the microwave and random stove-top meal.

Still, I have to stick to my belief that one must make time to give their own body and their children's the energy and nutrition it needs to operate optimally. Wholesome meals are not 'that' hard to make - casseroles, hearty stews, and slow-cooked meals are easy and often budget-friendly. Ironically, by trading in 'quick' over-processed meals that are high in refined carbs and sugars, as well as 'bad' fats, for wholesome, homemade meals, what is lost in terms of prep time is regained in terms of vitality - the reward for feeding the body the nutrition it needs. Parents would likely notice their children's behaviour and moods being more steady and tolerable, as sugar tends to throw a wrench in these.

Finally, food marketing that targets children and tries to convince Mom/Dad that Fruit Loops are a healthy way to start the day, adds to the confusion....especially when parents bring their children grocery shopping and let them pick out what they want to eat. Again, however, I am of the mind that the parents have the ultimate decision-making power. They can choose to turn the TV off and minimize ads for unhealthy foods, they can choose to leave their children home when going for groceries or take their children and allow them to pick out one treat food for the entire week. They can choose to make dinnertime a family activity and teach their children how to cook, rather than a make it a 5-minute microwave affair.

I'm not a parent and so a part of me hesitates to make judgements about the parental role, because I know it is certainly not an easy one for any, least of all for working, single parents or those that struggle financially or otherwise. Still, I can't help but reiterate that the buck stops with the parents. They have, by far, the biggest influence on what their children eat each and every day. Some might argue that the school system has a responsibility as well, or the government, or the community at large. I agree that it truly does take a village to raise a child, but this does not release the parents of their ultimate responsibility as caretakers.

We all know it's not healthy to smoke around children (or to smoke at all), and parents who choose to expose their children to second-hand smoke are often judged harshly by others. Right now, it still seems socially acceptable to take your kids to McDonald's, feed your 3 year old sugar pop, and give your child Fruit Loops for breakfast. I hope that sooner, rather than later, we will realise that unhealthy foods are the 'cigarette smoke' of the early 21st century. Many parents are, on a daily basis, exposing their children to poisons in the form of unhealthy, processed foods that will, cumulatively, reduce the child's quality of life for the rest of his/her life. It's up to us, as individuals, to take control of our own health and those that depend on us.


Rob said...

Bang on Shannon - I was stunned last week in Toronto to see how many parents on the subway were stuffing their overweight, unhappy kids with sugar snacks. It was constant. A teen on the flight back had 3 diet cokes on the 2 hour flight!

I think we are at the stage where Camel Ads told the public that Dr;s thought Camels were best.

Have to climb a big hill or we are lost as you say for soon - no one will know how to cook

Sally said...

Great post Shannon. I have seen many similar situations and come away shocked everytime. The bigger question is why do Hungry Man dinners exist at all...ugh.

al said...

Negligence, or protracted attempted murder, either one.

GracesGroovyMom said...

This is a great article. I think it probably goes without saying that many of the kids are eating their Hungry Man dinners in front of the TV. I think the lack of activity goes hand in hand with the nutrition piece. And again, if you don't have time to make dinner, how will you make time to take a walk with your kids?

Kate said...

Hi Shannon - interesting article, well written as usual.

I'm glad you touched on some of the broader context issues. As much as we can claim that any individual has the right to chose their own health behaviours (or choose for their kids), the research clearly shows that our health behaviours are directly impacted by our environment.

The Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) are fundamentally issues of access to resources (money, power, information, a social network etc.) Any work to change an individual's behaviours needs to be balanced with work advocating for systemic change (which I know you do!).

While sharing experiences is good (I have lots of similar stories that make me cringe), there is no point in blaming this mom, or any other person who is making choices that are either the best options she can, and are, for the most part, considered 'normal' to many.

On that note, one tidbit from some past research that I remember from interviewing a food security expert,is that if your finances are not allowing you to be part of the 'norm' in your eating habits, your goal is to be as normal as you can be... and currently being normal means working towards taking your kids to McDonalds for a treat,(or maybe a frozen dinner)... not planting beans in your garden, or shopping at the farmer's market. Until we shift what the 'normal' standard is, the struggle with how to address all the concerns you listed will continue.

It's a long uphill road, but it's great there are people like you out there working hard to trudge it!

Anyone interested in learning more about Fundamental Causes and SDOH should visit or
or or

Anonymous said...

I think numbers 2 (the knowledge) and number 5 (the money) go hand in hand. If you don't know how to cook a nutritious meal, you aren't going to spend your money on healthy foods. Bring back Home-Ec and get someone passionate about food to teach it!!