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On its face, a panel featuring a daytime talk-show host, high-end restaurateur and head judge on Bravo’s hit Top Chef, diet-book author, uber-rich foodie mom, and New York Times writer wouldn’t appear to pose any danger to the restaurants-make-us-fat myth. (This year’s panel at least had better myth-busting potential than last year’s, which featured celebrity chefs—and torrid food nannies—Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters.)
But the overwhelming message of the panel was that parents—not the government or restaurants—are ultimately responsible for what their kids eat.
“We have to take some responsibility for the foods we bring into the home,” said Parker-Pope.
Taking responsibility often means, in the context of home cooking and lunch-sack packing, a healthy serving of chicanery.
“I advocate lying to children,” Parker-Pope declared.
Lying might mean mixing whole-wheat pasta in with white-wheat pasta, declared the chipper Ray, in a husky Kathleen Turner voice.
But lying isn’t the only solution. Colicchio advocated cooking with kids, giving them a stake in the meal. And though Wansink has launched a new project that nudges children to make healthier lunchroom choices, he’s also a father of two daughters, ages 2 and 4, who openly feeds his kids an eclectic mix of foods: “They’re lovers of sushi, vegetables—especially broccoli—foie gras, Diet Coke (when they can steal a sip from me), and McDonald’s cheeseburgers and French fries.”
Regardless of whether kids love healthy foods or not, argued Colicchio, parents are the gatekeepers to a healthy diet, and must be firm with kids. “If some blob of a thing was sitting on the ground, and you saw your kid pick it up and go to eat it, you’d say, ‘No!’” Colicchio said. “And so it’s just a matter of thinking about what we’re eating and sometimes, just saying, ‘No. We’re not going to do that.’”
But Colicchio made it clear that this choice is the parent’s alone.
“There’s a big discussion in some circles, with the Obamas coming in, about getting the nation to eat better,” Colicchio said. “But we can’t have a bunch of elitist chefs getting preachy and telling the country what they should eat. Fast food is here to stay. But we’ve got to get fast food makers to understand that there’s healthy food out there, and the only way they’re going to survive is if they make healthy fast food.”
Still, fast food makers have tried time and again to offer healthier foods, with mostly dismal results. Remember the McVeggie Burger? Regional fast-food chains that boasted fewer calories and less fat, like O’Naturals in Boston, never saw their dreams of vast expansion realized. Why?
One reason is that building a better—or healthier—McNugget isn’t easy. Seinfeld, for one, must know this. Her deceptively delicious chicken nugget recipe—which features healthy ingredients like flaxseed and pureed broccoli—met withering parental criticism at one popular recipe website.
But what about those menu-labeling and trans fat bans? Aren’t those efforts making kids healthier? Again, Wansink says the data doesn’t support that conclusion. “They’ve either been ineffective or disturbingly counterproductive,” he says. “All the data we’ve seen about menu labeling doesn’t show a consistent answer at all.
“Trying to change capitalism is a lot of work,” he adds, “and it won’t work.”
Obesity lawsuits aren’t the answer either, says Wansink.