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Why Kids Can't Make Informed Food Choices

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Campbell Soup Company, the giant maker of condensed soups and other ready-to-eat products, has a new advertisement out, titled the "Wisest Kid in the Whole World." The just released campaign depicts a young boy (with long facial hair, no less), clad in Tibetan monk-style clothing and seated in a meditative position while sucking on a circular string of noodles that comes out of a bowl placed next to one of Campbell's iconic soup cans. The kid knows what he's doing: "When the mouth slurps, the belly smiles," say the captions below. He's having fun -- and he is doing something good for his nutritional health. There is wisdom in eating this product.

The underlying message, of course, is this: Kids are smart enough to know what's good for them and therefore should take the lead when it comes to stocking the pantry. Parents, towards whom the ad is really directed, are well advised to take the young guru's recommendations to heart and follow suit.

"Who knows more about what kids like than kids?" said Ed Carolan, president for national retail at Campbell, when asked about the campaign in an interview with the New York Times.

"Moms and dads still struggle with what we call the real-time dilemma at mealtime: they want to be happy about what their kids eat, but the kids have to like it," he added, suggesting that Campbell soup can bridge that gap.

I'm not at all opposed to serving children (or adults) soup, although I would always recommend made-from-scratch versions over processed ones. But when there is not enough time for elaborate meal preparations, opening a can of condensed chicken noodle or tomato soup can be a reasonable substitute.

What I have a problem with, however, not only as a dietitian and health counselor but also as a mother and grandmother, is the idea that children can make consciously healthy food choices for and by themselves. Allowing kids to be in charge of their diet, especially in an unsupervised manner, is a recipe for disaster.

The fact is that at an age when their growing bodies and minds need proper nourishment the most, too many youngsters already begin to acquire poor eating habits that often lay the groundwork for lifelong health problems. Bombarded with snack food ads on daytime television and bribed by fast food chains with toys and entertainment, many children believe that the best foods are those endorsed by their favorite cartoon characters and action heroes. Regardless of taste or how they make them feel, those are the ones they choose, those are the ones they nag their parents about.

What irks me the most is the whole concept of playing tricks with young minds. Children, wise ones or not so wise ones, should never be put in a position where they, even on rare occasions, are responsible for their own wellbeing.

Yes, it can be fun to make a grocery list or roam the supermarket aisles together as a family where everyone can make a wish. But parents should never derelict their duty of supervision and guidance, especially in matters of health and nutrition. It is, and will always be, highly objectionable when outsiders like food manufacturers, restaurateurs and advertisers attempt to interfere with that parental role by sending out messages that say: You are old enough to decide for yourself - and here is what we want you to choose.

Children develop healthy as well as unhealthy eating habits early on by following the example of others, at first their parents and older siblings, later their peers and the media. By the time they reach adolescence, parental influence vanishes. If solid foundations have not been laid by then, it will be hard to make corrections for many years to come. That is the reason why parental authority cannot and must not be delegated, not even to the wisest kid on the planet...

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading "Food Industry: Walk the Talk to Protect Our Kids' Health."

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson, RD

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