Lessons from the Lorax: How to Teach Kids to Recognize Real Food

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“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.

CSA vegetables

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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.

grandma Lorax movie

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.

food coloring candy

(photo source)

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.

Lorax movie bears marshmallows

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?

Homemade 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

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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UPDATE: here is my full Lorax movie review…Also catch my air purifier review and organic crib mattress review.

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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:

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.

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40 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Lenetta says

    Wow, Katie, well done! Great tie-ins! It almost makes me want to take Goosie to see it. :) maybe it’ll be on cable in a few years when she’s ready for these messages. Thanks, and I can’t wait for the full review!

  2. says

    I am still trying to decide if we are going to see The Lorax in theaters or wait until it comes to video. Can’t wait to see your full review.

    I love that you are discussing with your kids so early about what is real food and what isn’t. My oldest kids balk at most healthy food because that isn’t what I served them when they were little. However, my 2 youngest (7 and 9) have grown up with healthy whole foods. They rarely want junk food because they haven’t acquired a taste for it.

  3. Anna says

    I like the run down of rules for helping to identify real foods. At this point with my 5 and 7 year old kids we ask them if God made it and then how much did man have to handle it to get it to you. We eat very little out of a box or package and I then show them how few ingredients are on that box (example: rolled oats or bag of organic popcorn)….meaning man handled it less than a box with many ingredients. Rather simplistic and we will have to add more info as they grow.

  4. says

    Great article! So many parents are unsure of themselves around food and I’ve seen it become an issue between them and their kids. My kids also grew up on real slow food. They were lean and mean (would try anything). Sadly they dropped it as young adults and my daughter is, horrors, feeding her own daughter unreal food. I still have hope that they will return to the real slow food fold, but meantime I gave them the best start that I could.

  5. Christine Robinett says

    Fresh produce has tags. By law all fresh produce must bear stickers indicating the grower, point of origin, code number and whether it was grown conventionally or organically. I was more than shocked to learn that unless you’re going to organic farmer’s markets, the vendors don’t have to post anything about where, how, what, when. So know your vendors.

    It’s too bad IHOP (international house of pancakes) is using the Lorax in their promotions eating pancakes and waffle cones and claiming to help plant a million trees.

    My grandmother (not great grand mother) was born in 1889 and cooked on a cast iron wood-burning stove most of her life. Having watched what she ate as a kid I don’t think I want to use her as an example when she developed Diabetes, obesity and degenerative arthritis. And she lived her entire life on the farm, dying in 1971. Many “dirt farmers” that made it through the severe recessions of the 1890’s and the Great Depression had pretty lousy diets loaded with gluten.

    Sorry to be a party pooper but these are some of the realities that have been twisted into “folk wisdom” myths that need busting.

    • Katie says

      I didn’t say “bar codes” for a reason, as I do know product needs stickers. Packaging is easy for kids to see. I also used the word “might” as much as I could. There are no rules for real food that cannot be broken by industry!

      Also, I went to “great-grandmother” for a reason as well and referenced Laura Ingalls Wilder. yes, they ate white flour bread, but at least they would not have recognized such fake foods as Jell-O, Mac and cheese, powdered anything, etc. This wasn’t a lesson in how to eat perfectly, but a lesson in how to find real food.

      Nothing is easy in health and nutrition anymore, but for kids, we need to do what we can to boil it down.

      :) Katie

      • says

        Katie is right- and she is also generalizing, which she has to do since she doesn’t know the specifics of every person’s situation. First of all, she said (the kids’) great-great grandma (our great grandma…). My great grandma was amazingly healthy, learned to paint in her 80’s, lived on her own until she was 98, and lived to be 105.

  6. CindiCC says

    This is the last “commercial” for me. You can plug a Hollywood movie all you want but that not what I came to read about.

    • says

      Seriously? I doubt you’ll read this reply then (which is sad), but tying a topic in to popular culture isn’t a commercial. We can’t look at pop culture in a bubble- we all interact with it, whether we want to or not.

      But hey, your loss!

    • Katie says

      I actually would tell you to wait until it’s out on video, then watch with only kids over 8 and only if you’re willing to use the pause button and discuss the messages within. Probably not the “commercial” the makers of the movie would want – so I’m sorry it seemed that way, but although this was part of a blog tour sponsored by the movie makers, it was no commercial.

      :) Katie

  7. says

    Love this Katie. I think it’s high time I started teaching my oldest (almost 5) how to decide is something is real food or not.

    Just today I had a proud mama moment when we drove by the Golden Arches. Brody commented on the slide he saw (he’s almost 2) and Gigi said, “Yeah, but they have yucky food.” She’s never been there but knows how I feel about it. I couldn’t believe she remembered my commenting on it sometime in the past but it made me realize how capable she is of starting to discern the difference between real and “fake” food.

    I thought I saw online somewhere that there is a Food Rules for Kids by MP– have you seen that?

    • Katie says

      I always wondered if he would, but I don’t think I’ve seen it – the illustrated version is still for adults. :) Katie

  8. Christine Robinett says

    Look closer at those produce stickers. They have bar codes. Everything has bar codes anymore which becomes a huge concern for privacy when even your body can be radio frequency I’d chipped with it’s own bar code as are your driver’s licenses, passports, credit/debit cards, even your library card and books are now chipped with barcodes that track your every move, what you read and watch, everything.

  9. says

    I can’t wait to see this movie… I know people love to hate all things media and pop culture, and I realize that they are not necessary for us to live, but I enjoy them, and as long as they exist I will continue to enjoy them. Besides, I think that movies do make a difference in peoples lives. I grew up in a very NOT Eco-conscious family. My dad is a conventional farmers and well, they hate “tree huggers” (and he’s so proud now… lol). I don’t know if I would have turned out the way I did without movies like Bambi and Fern Gully. No movie a child sees (or that any of us see) is going to accurately and fully portray a problem or it’s consequences, but they at least introduce the idea that the problem exists, and sometimes (like in Wall-E) introduces the possible consequences. Had I grown up in a bubble with only my parents to guide me I may have grown up with a different set of ideals.

  10. says

    I think we had mirror-image experiences at the movies yesterday, Katie. We allowed the popcorn, and to wash it down, we carried in our own reusable bottles of water.

    • says

      Oops. hit “submit” too soon. For us, Kjell really leads the charge in identifying real food for us. He knows how to read labels, what to stay away from, and he often won’t eat things even if he thinks there’s a chance something could be in it that he shouldn’t have. It’s a long story. We should talk about it sometime. 😉

  11. John says

    Wow, I’d rather let my kid eat a little corn syrup then take them to the Lorax! As I’ve heard the movie is a horrible rendition of the story.

    Junk culture is just as bad a junk food!

    • Katie says

      Very true – I’m pretty careful about what my kids watch, which is why we did not take our 3.5-year-old. It is absolutely not a movie for toddlers or preschoolers! I haven’t read the book Lorax in many years, but I don’t think the measuring stick for the worth of a film is “how close it remains to the book.” (Although I’ve been known to make the same complaint about other films, if I really loved the book.)

      By itself as a piece of art, The Lorax is really quite well done. The bad guys are bad, the good guys learn lessons, and the one guy makes bad choices and then learns from them. It’s got a lot of good messages for kids – BUT I even think my 6yo was probably a little young for it. We did a lot of talking afterward to digest what he saw. I did not like that even the good guys mistreated the bad guys in the final chase scene (name-calling, etc.). That’s definitely a product of our junk culture.

      Overall, though, the Lorax has a lot less objectionable material than some other movies marketed “for kids.”

      :) Katie

  12. Cheryl says

    In regards to rule #1, my husband brought home a banana that was wrapped in an individual plastic wrapper. Wild!

  13. says

    The Lorax was my favorite Dr. Seuss book growing up, and now my toddler loves reading it too. Sometimes I even get choked up when I read the last page haha!

    I’m a big Michael Pollan fan too and have read almost all of his books. We have so far never given our two-year-old any junk or processed food. I’d love for him to grow up with an awareness of where a lot of food and food-like substances come from so that he in turn has the skill to decide whether a food should be eaten or not.

  14. says

    LOVE IT!!!! I was not eager to take kiddos to see this movie since I really don’t like exposing my daughter to the media yet; we pretty much exclusively watch DVDs/Netflix of WordWorld and Curious George. However, I now think that with the right post-movie coaching this one could be pretty educational. Thanks for the review and educational footnotes! :)

  15. says

    This is a great article, and have given me some ideas for how to help my daughter make healthy food choices. I’d love it if you had some resources, or would write an article about how to specifically teach kids about real food. I want to teach something other than the food pyramid (we don’t demonize fat or meat here), and I”m not sure how to go about creating my own “real food” syllabus. I know Food Renegade has one, but I’d like something for younger kids, or nonreaders. Basically, what I’m saying is more of this, and more specifics please! :)

  16. says

    Thanks for your wonderful blog, Katie! I love it and have pulled in so many of my friends looking to change the way our families eat :) I linked this post on my new blog to share the wealth with my friends. Keep sharing your wisdom!

  17. says

    Joe, it’s much more helpful for a writer to receive constructive criticism rather than a blanket statement of personal attack. Just something to consider next time you feel a strong urge to share your thoughts.

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