“Can we get a real drink now?” the little girl said the moment The Lorax movie ended.
I overheard a young girl bug her parents for a soda pop, or a juice, or “they even have Vitamin water!” as folks were stocking up on concessions before the screening of The Lorax movie last weekend. When the movie, which featured such ridiculous atrocities as bottled air and plastic grass, finally ended, she asked for that “real” drink…meaning something from the concession stand. I restrained myself from directing her to the water fountain and reflected on the concept of “real food” in our culture.
As I sat there with our popcorn, a fun concession – that’s right, double meaning, as in a movie concession that was a small concession on eating real, wholesome food – I couldn’t help but be in awe of the irony around me. It seemed that every person in the theater had soda, candy, nachos, or at least bottled water, settling in with their overpriced, overprocessed, non-nutritive “food” to watch a movie that was about to emphatically declare them all idiots. (Without using that word – it’s marketed as a kids’ movie, after all. It’s not a kids’ movie. More on that later when I write a full Lorax movie review.)
What is a “real” drink? What is “real” food? And how do we explain that to children, who are drawn to crinkly packaging, bright colors, and explosions of sugary sweetness on their tongues?
Michael Pollan has a lovely book of “Food Rules” to set the stage for adults deciphering real vs. fake food. His 64 rules, which I’ve written about here and here and highly recommend for adults and teenagers, are a bit much for children.
My kids are only 6 and 3 (and the baby), so we’re still learning a lot about food. As you might imagine, in a household where Kitchen Stewardship lives, we have many conversations about food. Simply by what we eat and don’t eat, what we say is the “best growing food” on their dinner plates that they should eat first, and what we don’t allow them to have outside the home, we begin to form their ideas about real food and nutrition at a very young age.
I asked my son this morning some questions about real food. He accurately pegged blueberries as real food, said that bread would be sometimes, and sometimes not, and that a chocolate cupcake is real food but a blue frosted one is not. (We’re working on identifying artificial colors right now, so he explained that brown is not usually a fake color.)
Bread is real food if it’s homemade and “probably not” if it’s at a restaurant, and maybe from the store. He didn’t know what the processed bread might have that would be different from home, but that’s a great start! He also seemed to demonize sugar – if anything had sugar in the ingredients, he would say it was not real food. I’m okay with that.
I had dropped the conversation when he said, “Some cherries are real food and some aren’t.”
“Like the cherries on top of our sundaes at a restaurant. Those aren’t real food.”
Why not? I couldn’t wait to find out.
“Just taste them, wow! There’s something else in there other than cherries!”
Yes, son, there sure is something else in there. I asked, “How about these dried cherries?” gesturing to the homemade granola we were eating (from Healthy Snacks to Go). He thought a moment, then decided they were probably real food. I pointed out that they’re pretty different than real cherries.
“Yeah, they’re probably just dehydrated though.”
Smart kid. Proud mama.
Want to teach your children about real food? Here are my 5 top rules:
1. If it doesn’t have a package or wrapper at all, it’s probably real food.
Point out the lovely colors in the produce section and how you get to put your own food in a bag. Better yet, the Farmer’s Market is a great place to find real food without bar codes.
Other ways to state the same rule might include:
- If you can pick it from a plant growing out of the ground, it’s probably real food. So the fact that there isn’t any dirt, anywhere, in The Lorax movie is a pretty clear indication that they won’t have any real food…and they don’t.
- If it has one ingredient, it’s almost always real food. For example: carrots. Bananas. Blueberries. Lettuce.
2. If your great-great-grandmother would have recognized it and put it on the table, it’s probably real food.
There’s a scene in The Lorax movie where the main character is eating dinner with his mom and grandmother, and the three items on the plate are all brightly colored, reflecting light, and twanging around like Jell-O. “Don’t play with your food, Ted,” the mother says as Ted absent-mindedly bounces his green “broccoli” up and down.
“You either, Ma!” she says angrily as the grandma, one of my favorite characters in the film, bounces her fake food into the air and catches it in her mouth. Grandma knows how the world has changed, and I guarantee she’d tell anyone in a media interview that the food was not real food.
I think any classroom of 3rd graders or older should watch The Lorax, but only with an interested teacher who will pause it every 5-10 minutes to digest the lessons within. This scene would be a perfect setting to discuss real food.
I also turn to historical fiction, like the Little House series, to help unpack this rule. Those books open up many conversations about how food was prepared, the time it took to grow, harvest, and preserve food, and what people 100-200 years ago ate in general. Kids can understand real food after reading Little House in the Big Woods, and with very little prompting notice that Laura and her family don’t eat many sugary desserts and do eat a great deal of homemade, single ingredient foods.
What would great-great-grandma eat? Ask Laura Ingalls Wilder, or any child who has listened to or read her books.
3. If it looks more like a box of markers than a forest of trees or a field of flowers, it’s probably not real food.
The jury is still out in my house whether those artificial food colorings are an occasional compromise or something we’ll never eat again (they are neurotoxins, after all), but regardless of how you feel about them, fake food dyes are a clear indication that the food is processed. That’s not real food.
Teaching kids to look for the fake can help them separate that from the real.
4. If any of the ingredients are something you don’t recognize or don’t have in your kitchen, it’s probably not real food.
When we talk to adults about real food, we usually say if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, it’s likely a chemical made in a lab, and therefore not real food. (photo source)
Kids can’t pronounce a lot of things. But they can be taught to read ingredients as soon as they can read and ask for help on the big words. This will create food conversations about real food, fake food, and weird chemicals.
“What is partially hydrogenated soybean oil, Mom?” and “Dad? How do you say monosodium glutamate?” are the kinds of questions I want to hear. Hopefully when the parent realizes they don’t know what that is or how it’s made, they’ll consider strongly whether it should be in the food they’re serving their kids. (Or read up on trans fat or MSGs to learn more…)
5. If it has a cartoon character on the box or sugar/high fructose corn syrup in the first three ingredients, it’s not real food.
Really, if it’s coming in a box, that’s a bad start, but this rule can again really open up some conversations. If the food industry needs help from a cartoon character to market their food, you can bet someone made it in a factory and probably made many of the ingredients in a lab.
Farmers can’t afford professional spokespeople, especially popularly branded animated ones.
Teaching kids to look for sugar near the front is another great skill to acquire. Ingredients are listed in the order of quantity, greatest to least. If sugar is near the front, there’s way too much involved.
My son is probably more accurate in saying that anything with sugar in the ingredients, period, is not real food, but I want to be realistic here too. A little sugar doesn’t automatically mean the food isn’t real – take our dried cherries. They do have added sugar, but they still pass (my) test.
High fructose corn syrup, on the other hand, should be branded “not real food.” It already breaks rule number 4, since people don’t have it in their kitchens. It’s also a signal, as Michael Pollan frequently points out, that the food is highly processed and best avoided.
An appropriate addendum to this rule is: If it contains high fructose corn syrup, do not eat it.
Another favorite foodie scene in The Lorax movie is at breakfast, when Ted is eating “Empty O’s,” a cereal box emblazoned with things like “Fun fun fun!” and other non-nutritive, hilarious phrases, much like Maira Kalman’s illustrations in the newest version of Food Rules.
And am I the only one who will notice the irony of the Once-ler plying the animals and gaining their favor by corrupting them with marshmallows, truly the epitome of fake food?
My son is pretty sure that anything made at home is real food, and he should be confident in that, because he has a mama who makes it a priority.
One last question to ask, if you’re brave enough, is this:
Can you make it at home?
If so, you probably should be. That’s where the bravery comes in. You might have to look up recipes for your packaged favorites, like
- Homemade Hamburger Helper
- Homemade Ranch Dressing
- Homemade Tortillas
- Homemade Crackers
- Homemade Chicken Stock
- Homemade Yogurt
- Homemade Granola Bars
Homemade Baked French Fries(recipe no longer available)
- Homemade Refried Beans
- Homemade Chicken Rice-a-roni
- and more homemade recipes…
The GNOWFGLINS eCourses where I occasionally guest lecture are another great resource for cooking like your grandmother. They’re even offering a free webinar next Friday titled “ABCs of Grain Mills.” You can download the file if you can’t make it live, and everyone who registers gets a free PDF booklet with tips and entries into a drawing for a grain mill! Register here.
The Bottom Line
If you want your kids to eat real food, you can talk at them, give them rules, and explain real food…but if you want any lessons to “stick,” you’ll have to lead by example.
Surrounding your family with food that grows in the ground and eats things that grow in the ground needs to be a priority, or I fear many parts of the Lorax movie, from the fake food to the deforestation to the over-materialism and consumerism, will come true. (Wait – that is already happening…)
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not. (Dr. Seuss, from The Lorax)
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This post is part of a blog tour in support of Universal Pictures’ DR. SEUSS’ THE LORAX, in theaters March 2. Visit the others:
- Feb 20 New Green Mama
- Feb 21 The Green Parent
- Feb 22 Eco Child’s Play
- Feb 23 The Smart Mama
- Feb 24 My Plastic Free Life
- Feb 27 Retro Housewife Goes Green
- Feb 28 Groovy Green Livin
- Feb 29 Mindful Momma
- Mar 1 Green and Clean Mom
- Mar 2 Moms Going Green Blog
- Mar 3 (you’re here!)
- Mar 4 Nature Moms
Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Universal Pictures, but my opinions and thoughts are unequivocally my own. I am an affiliate for Amazon and partner with the eCourses. See my full disclosure statement here.
Movie images provided by Universal Pictures.