Bettina Elias Siegel, KID FOOD

Bettina Elias Siegel, KID FOOD

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Bettina Elias Siegel who’s the author of Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World. Bettina is a nationally recognized writer and advocate on issues related to children and food policy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and the Houston Chronicle among other publications, and on her widely read blog The Lunch Tray. She’s a frequent guest on national media and was named one of the country’s twenty most influential moms in 2015 by Family Circle. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, Bettina currently lives in Houston with her husband and two children.

Welcome, Bettina. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Bettina Elias Siegel: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: This is such a treat. Kid food, this is always on my mind. I’m delighted to have an expert to tell me the way it really is.

Bettina: I’m glad to be here and do that for you.

Zibby: Can you tell listeners, please, what Kid Food is about?

Bettina: Kid Food is my attempt to explain to parents why they may be feeling that it’s very hard to raise healthy eaters today. If you’re feeling that frustration, if you’re feeling really challenged, I’m here to validate you.

Zibby: Thank you.

Bettina: It is really hard. The book was my attempt to explain in a little bit more detail what is going on in different contexts in children’s lives, so everything from children’s menus to what’s going on in the school cafeteria to why is it that every adult seems to want to give your kid a treat at different times during the day for different reasons? I drill down into each one of those to educate parents. Then the ultimate goal of the book is really to empower parents. I’m trying to help them with any tools I can provide to navigate this very difficult food environment with their kid. Then on top of that, if they want to advocate, if they want to try to make it better, I also offer all kinds of advocacy tips and tools for that as well.

Zibby: How did Animal Crackers lead you down this path?

Bettina: The famous Animal Crackers incident. As I describe in the book, one reason, not the only reason, but one reason why I got interested in this area is that I attended a meeting in Houston ISD, my public school system where I live. This was back in 2010. I was joining a committee that was gathering parents input about the school meal menus. Right away, I noticed that on our breakfast menu the kids were required to take Animal Crackers four out of five days a week. This is not the case anymore, I should say. I raised my hand. I asked the nutritionist, “What’s with the cookies?” I should mention that the rest of the breakfast menu was also really sugary, highly processed, carb-y food like cinnamon buns and sugary yogurt. The answer was so surprising. She said, “Kids need to get a certain amount of iron every week. The Animal Crackers provide the iron.” I’m staring at her thinking, what? Spinach provides iron, and things like that. She said, “It’s the fortified white flour.” That comment blew my mind. It really motivated me to learn more about the National School Lunch Program. How could we have regulations that would permit that? Again, I need to interject. That system has changed, the way we figure menus out. That really led me down this road of learning more about the lunch program. That knowledge coupled with all of these challenges I was facing just as a mom of two young kids is what led me to start my blog The Lunch Tray.

Zibby: Tell me about starting the blog. Tell me about the first time you sat down to write it, what you originally envisioned it as, and your reactions to what it became.

Bettina: I am not a particularly spontaneous person. This might have been one of the most spontaneous decisions of my life. I went to lunch with some writer friends. I was in a writing group at that time. I said to my friend Jenny, “I’m learning all this stuff about school food.” I should mention at the same time my goal in life was to become a freelance magazine writer. I was a retired lawyer, stay-at-home mom, and looking for the new thing in my life. This was just a little side activity. I said, “I’m learning all this stuff about school food and generally want to talk about kids and food. Do you think I start a blog?” She’s like, “Of course you should.” I literally went home that day, bought the domain The Lunch Tray, set up WordPress which I’d never used before. The next morning, wrote my first post. That was it. Again, I really expected this would just be an amusing thing to keep me busy while I’m waiting for Glamour magazine to call. Instead, it completely took over my whole life. It changed the entire direction of my life, which is crazy.

Zibby: The Lunch Tray grew and grew and grew. You became this huge advocate for reform in school lunches. How did that happen?

Bettina: I always want to be very frank. I’m not one of these bloggers who has a million followers.

Zibby: It doesn’t matter.

Bettina: I’m just saying it’s always been this really lovely niche blog in that it right away found an audience of parents. The other thing that really thrilled me was school food professionals started coming to the blog too. I think because they sensed that I had done my homework and really understood their challenges and wasn’t just bashing school food, they felt comfortable coming too. They knew they weren’t going to get vilified. It found this really lovely audience. I won’t go into all the details. I talk about it in my introduction. Because of the blog, over time I got all of these opportunities to engage in all kinds of advocacy, both related to school food but also other issues related to kids and food. I also got to write for other publications, write for The New York Times. All of these things grew from it that gave me this really wonderful platform I never ever expected.

Zibby: Another way into Glamour magazine, a backdoor.

Bettina: Yes, exactly right. Who knew?

Zibby: Let’s talk about some of the stuff in the book about food. You have a part in the book where you say things like, “I was feeding my kids Bell & Evans chicken nuggets and Amy’s pizza and feeling pretty good about myself, but…” Then I read that and I was like, oh, my gosh. That’s what I feed my kids every week. Should I not admit this? I don’t feel guilty, even, about those chicken nuggets. Should I?

Bettina: No. I always have to say this. If you haven’t yet opened Kid Food, you might assume, as a mom said to me at a book event I did on Thursday, “I was so sure you were going to judge me.” I am so not judging anyone because I was there in the trenches. I was serving the chicken nuggets and the mac and cheese and all of that. There’s no judgement here at all. I understand why parents resort to those foods. I get it. The reason why I specifically mentioned Bell & Evans and Amy’s is just to make the point that I had conveniently convinced myself that if it’s coming from whole foods, I’m doing this great thing. We have to really be realistic with ourselves. If it’s a Tyson’s chicken nugget or a Bell & Evans chicken nugget, it’s still a chicken nugget.

The point is there’s nothing wrong with those foods at all. They’re delicious. We can enjoy those foods. I think what parents need to think about a little bit is how they’re offering them. The way I would put it is if you said, “Hey kids, our family dinner tonight is mac and cheese, fried chicken, and salad,” and everyone sat down to that meal, that’s a delicious meal. Maybe you’re not going to eat that every night, but that’s a perfectly fine way to feed your family. What you want to watch out for is, “Hey kids, Dad and I are having salmon and broccoli. I know you won’t eat that, so here are your chicken nuggets and your mac and cheese.” Then you’ve sent a very different message to your children about food and what food they should or can eat, their readiness to embrace healthier food. That’s where I think parents need to pause. What am I teaching my kids with these foods?

Zibby: You address in your book the very picky eater nature of many kids. There’s a term for it. What was it called? Food neophobia, how kids are afraid of new foods. We often just resort to default kid menu type things. Tell me why we should not be doing this.

Bettina: Let me say one thing about food neophobia. If you get nothing else out of this book, I feel like I’m doing this public service to tell parents of really young kids, like babies or early toddlerhood, that I did not know this. I would loved to have known this when my kids were little. All toddlers go through a period of food neophobia. Even if you had that baby that was happily eating every puree that you gave them, they’re going to go through a period where they suddenly back off and get reluctant. If someone had told me that, I would have known this is a normal stage of childhood just like newborns keep you up at night and potty-training can be difficult. You would roll with it. If you don’t know that that’s coming, and I didn’t, then you assume you have a picky eater. To get to your question, what you don’t want to do is throw up your hands and stop offering healthier foods and say my kid will only eat noodles and pizza, so I’m just going to go that route because it’s easier. You have to take the long view, stay the course. They will eventually come around. It’s very understandable why parents often want to just give up.

Zibby: I feel like I know some grown-ups with food neophobia. How do you know when the phase is over? It’s tricky, right?

Bettina: It is tricky. I’m always very open about the fact that I am not a child feeding expert. There are people who are.

Zibby: I know. I don’t mean to be putting you on the spot.

Bettina: No, not at all. I talk about it in the book. I’m glad to talk about it, but I do want to let everyone know that if you really are worried, like, “You’re reassuring me, but my kid hasn’t eaten a vegetable in three years. I’m really worried about it,” I point you in my appendix to all kinds of experts who I have known for a long time or really, really trust and whose books are fantastic who can really help you get over that hump, make sure your kids are on a reasonably healthy path as you’re working toward expanding their palates. Just want to give that caveat.

Zibby: Can we talk a little bit about sugar? You also talk about this in the book. You say that you do feed your kids treats, and that’s okay. It’s moderation. Obviously, we know all this from the news, but how do you think sugar affects kids? How much is too much? Give me some sort of roadmap as a parent of sugar-loving kids.

Bettina: Here’s the thing. We didn’t used to have really firm guidance on how much added sugar is too much for kids. Now the American Heart Association has said kids should not be getting more than four to six teaspoons of added sugar a day. I’ve got to tell you, that’s not very much added sugar. I would encourage parents to keep that number in mind, but it’s tough. It’s really tough to adhere to that quota.

Zibby: Breakfast time, we’ve already blown through the quota. I’m done for the day. It’s nine o’clock.

Bettina: Exactly. Truly, one real societal problem is school breakfasts, for all kinds of reasons that I explain in the book, can be particularly sugary. Kids can get three times that quota just at their school breakfast. I totally feel that. As I say in the book and as you just said, I’m not anti-sugar. I love sweets. I love sharing them with my kids. I think what we really have is more of a societal problem, putting aside what you do in your own home. I’m not telling anyone not to bake cookies with their kids or have a little dessert every night. It’s really outside our homes where kids are getting inundated with sugar. One thing I did in the book is I devoted a whole chapter. It’s called Just One Treat. I take a hypothetical fourth grader through her typical day. I show all the ways in which she gets just one treat from different adults or different situations in her life. By the end of the day, just from the treats outside your home, not the dessert you’re serving them, not even the school meal, they could get three times as much sugar as they’re supposed to have. Certainly, parents have a role to play. We should be reading labels and not go crazy with sugar. Really, we have more of a societal problem that we need to be looking at in terms of the degree to which our children are flooded with sugar.

Zibby: Also, I feel like maybe reasoning with the kids a little bit. Do you think that’s a lost cause? It depends on the age, I guess.

Bettina: I think it depends on the age. You don’t want to make anything taboo because that can always backfire. I think it’s perfectly okay to explain to kids that treats are a normal and happy and wonderful part of life, but they are treats. The baseline of what we should eat is healthy. Then the occasional food should be treats. Some people use a red, green, yellow system to explain food to kids. These are the green-light foods that can we eat as much of anytime. These are the yellow that we might want to go easy on. The red, this is the sort of thing we should have just once in a while. That’s a very simple way of explaining it to children that I think they can understand.

Zibby: You had something really funny in your acknowledgement section about your own kids. I wanted to read this funny quote. You thanked your kids for their help. You said, “I know it wasn’t always easy being my kids, especially back when I was trying to get birthday treats out of your school classrooms or refusing to bring Gatorade to soccer practice like everyone else. ‘Oh, my god, Mom.’” Tell me about this because we are all familiar with the kid eye-roll at this point. How did this research and societal digging into food culture and habits affect your own family?

Bettina: It was hard. That’s why I’m so empathetic with parents because I’ve walked this walk too. It’s so hard to say to your kid, “Every other mom or dad is bringing Gatorade when it’s their turn for soccer snack. I’m bringing water. I’m sorry, but that’s what I’m doing. Here’s why.” It is extremely difficult. What I think is that in that situation, it’s not so much that they want the Gatorade. It’s that they just want to be like everybody else. They don’t want to be set apart. You know how kids care about that so much. That’s part of why I wrote the book. It’s almost more of a cultural and societal issues than your kid just wanting that. Another example is the birthday cupcake. Kids typically want the birthday cupcake brought in because everyone else is bringing in the birthday cupcake. If the teacher had said or the principal had said, “We don’t do cupcakes. The way we celebrate birthdays in this classroom is you get to pick story for story hour,” they wouldn’t think about cupcakes. In other words, there are all these cultural factors that make it so hard for parents to swim upstream. One goal in writing the book is to think about maybe we could change the culture. Maybe we could talk to the soccer coach and say, “Look, here’s the research on why kids don’t need Gatorade.” Actually, crazy statistic, kids who play team sports eat more junk food than kids who don’t, partly because of these snacks. Another crazy statistic, kids often will consume more calories in the snack and beverage at a sports event than they’ll burn off on the field. If we could change it at the top and the soccer coach says to everyone, “We’re just bringing water,” then that takes it off parents’ shoulders because it is very hard to buck the system.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. My son did travel baseball for one season. When you’re not at bat, he sat and ate there, and then stood around the field. How is this exercise? I’m getting more exercise pacing wondering when this game is going to end. I get it. How have you found the reaction to this to be? Have you felt like soccer coaches are open to this idea?

Bettina: I’m not in any way pretending that this is always easy. I do everything I can to support parents. One chapter in the book is called Pushing Back. It’s just devoted to parent face-to-face advocacy. I say in the book completely frankly, I find that really scary and hard. I’ve been on national television doing battle with McDonald’s. That was less scary to me than it would be to go to my soccer coach and say, “Could we just have water?” I really get that this can be scary for parents. I created these fourteen rules not just from my own experience and my many mistakes, but also talking to a number of other really successful parent advocates. I think those rules are really sound, good advice. I even, in the case of soccer snacks specifically, I refer you to a colleague of mine named Sally Kuzemchak who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She has made cleaning up sports snacks her thing and has a whole guide, sample letters you can give to the coach, ways to get other parents on board with you. It’s always better if you have allies instead of going alone. I really do everything I can to make it easier and less intimidating for parents.

Zibby: I feel like your tips are good not just for food advocacy. They’re good for anything you want to fight for or change in any environment. It could be something you want to change in your work environment or one little thing at the school or something. They’re good tips. You can take them anywhere.

Bettina: I think so, exactly. Things like don’t go over people’s heads and be respectful, those are all things that, yes absolutely, we can use in lots of areas of our lives.

Zibby: You have this fifty-page free e-book called Guide to Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom for anyone who signs up for your mailing list at The Lunch Tray. I downloaded it. I feel like I should send this to the headmaster at my kids’ schools.

Bettina: You are welcome to do that. I hope they pay attention. The book was not meant for “Hand this over to your school.” It was really meant to empower parents to talk to their school. If you want to let them know about the book and have them download a copy, absolutely. There is one thing in the book that originated on my blog called The Lunch Tray’s Food in the Classroom Manifesto, not to make me sound like a radical, crazy person. I was so fed up with the amount of junk food in my kids’ classrooms. I wrote a little manifesto on why this is problematic. I’ve been told that parents have printed that out and brought that with them to meetings. It’s really gratifying to hear that that’s become this very helpful point of discussion with their schools.

Zibby: It’s so inspiring to know that you can have any impact on a societal problem. I know that sounds silly, but there’s so many things that maybe aren’t going the way ideally in our heads we would want them. You’re taking a step and ticking away at it and saying you might not change the entire system, but you’re devoting your professional life to this. It’s amazing.

Bettina: I’m trying. As I say at the end of the book, the magnitude of this problem, our children’s very unhealthy food environment, you almost want to throw up your hands because it feels so huge. The silver lining in that is it is so huge that every one of us can do something. Some parents, I understand you’re busy. You’re tired. You’re raising your kids. Maybe you don’t want to be the fiery activist. I get that. I didn’t want to be a fiery activist when I started. You can take on something really, really small. It could just be in your own home, what we talked about, not serving kid food and having everyone sit down to the same meal. It could be taking on the teacher who’s passing out candy, just a really limited context that can make a real difference. Maybe you’re going to get fired up and want to go improve school food which is a huge thing. There’s a role for all of us, in our homes and outside our homes.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Wait, tell me two seconds about how you wrote this book yourself. When did you write this book? How did you find time? How did you get it all done? When did it become a book for you?

Bettina: I have been blogging at The Lunch Tray almost for ten years now. I adore blogging. It’s such a fun medium. It’s instantaneous. You have an idea. You post it. You’re talking about it with people. It’s wonderful. I started to feel frustration because there’s only so much you can do in a blog post. You don’t want to wear out your blog reader. They’re not expecting a tome. I felt like I’ve been doing this for so long, talking to parents, talking to food policy people, talking to school food professionals. I’m so privileged to be at this perch over all of that and starting to get this really big picture. I just started to have this urge. I want to share the big picture now. That’s really what motivated me to write a book proposal and ultimately write the book. I will say, it was hard. It was harder than I thought it would be. I’ve been blogging so long. I had all this hubris. I can write this in a month. It was hard. It was hard to learn how to write a book. It was a real learning curve for me, but in the end, a fantastic one. I so enjoyed doing it.

Zibby: How long did it take to write the book?

Bettina: This is really funny. They gave me eighteen months to write the book. I remember being on the phone with them and saying, “Ha, ha, ha, I can get it done in four months. Don’t worry about it.” Twenty-one months later, I handed in the manuscript. Everyone was furious at me because I was late. There was a long period where even though I had chapter outlines and thought I knew exactly what I was doing, the minute I sat down to write it, I realized I don’t know what I’m doing here. I have such a mountain of material that I share with you. My utmost goal was I want this to be a book a parent could literally bring on vacation. I want it to be readable and hopefully entertaining at points and not in any way a wonky slog. Figuring out how to organize that and make that flow turned out to be so hard. I actually credit my breaking through that writers’ block to a friend of mine who mentioned — I’ve never watched Homeland, but even I know that in Homeland, Carrie has this crazy wall where she has a million things on the wall. She’s like, “You need a wall of crazy.” I was like, okay. I went and got all these poster boards and Post-its and plastered my office with that. Moving the Post-its around, it helped me visually conceptualize the book. That was a huge help in getting myself going.

Zibby: What is coming next for you now? You have this book out in the world, almost.

Bettina: It’s out. I don’t know. It’s a huge question for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I feel like this is the culmination of something. I feel so proud of it. I don’t really know where I’m going next. We’ll find out. It’s kind of like having a baby. It’s so miserable when you’re in the middle of labor. The minute you have that baby you’re like, I could have another one. I sort of feel like maybe I’ll write another book. Also, I want to keep up my blog. I want to keep up my advocacy. One thing that I really have loved is directly engaging with parents through the book. I really don’t know. We’ll see.

Zibby: That’s okay. I feel like maybe I should stop asking authors that question.

Bettina: Do they all say, “I have clue”?

Zibby: I’m interested if people are going to do a second book or a fifth, tenth book, whatever; if they decided, “That was terrible, I never want to do another book;” if they want to now go into screenplays; if they’re like, “I’m done with this. I’m going to go get a degree.” You just never know what people are doing next. It’s okay if there’s no next project. I don’t care. I’m just curious. What’s up with you? What comes after this? I feel like publishing a book is the goal, but that’s not the end.

Bettina: Right. It’s then what? You get this big then what? Just as I said that I’m not a spontaneous person and then I started this spontaneous blog and it led to this crazy and wonderful life path, I trust in that now a little bit more. My lawyerly logical side has calmed down. You know what? I trust that this will lead to the next thing. I really do feel it will lead to the next thing, whatever that is.

Zibby: What advice would you have to both aspiring authors and also the mom out there who’s struggling today and planning on feeding their kids chicken nuggets like perhaps I am tonight for dinner?

Bettina: No judgement. To aspiring writers, I would just say you’ve got to write. You’ve got to make yourself write. Find outlets to do that. It’s funny. You told me you had taken a Mediabistro class when that existed. I took a Mediabistro class too. Having a writers’ group, other aspiring writers, is really helpful. One other thing that really helped me write this book when I was in such a jam was — I was trying to do it in a vacuum. I wasn’t showing my pages to anyone. I was getting really freaked out about the process. Finally, this was so funny, Paula Derrow who you know, your Mediabistro teacher who’s a dear friend of mine, out of the blue — we don’t talk that often on the phone. Out of the blue, she called me. She said, “What’s going on with you? I haven’t heard from you. What’s going on with the book?” It was like she knew. I was like, “I’m freaking out. What do I do?”

She’s like, “You can’t write in a vacuum. You need to get feedback.” I started sending my pages to her and another dear friend who’s a writer and editor. That broke the logjam too, just getting feedback. That’s really important. If you’re an aspiring writer, don’t try to go it alone. It’s really helpful to get feedback from people you trust and respect. Then as for the mom who’s worried and struggling and reaching for the chicken nuggets, first of all I would say please don’t beat yourself up. One of the biggest goals of this book was just for me to validate you. You are not crazy. This is hard. You are doing your best. There are forces in this world, powerful forces in some cases, that are working against you. Don’t beat yourself up. Tomorrow’s another day. Hopefully if you read my book, you’ll walk away educated and feeling like you can navigate this a little bit more easily. That’s my goal.

Zibby: Check for your goal. You gave everybody really specific, actionable, easy-to-follow tips and tools and information. It’s great. It was a great book.

Bettina: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Bettina: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

Bettina Elias Siegel, KID FOOD