I offer apologies to the woman I saw feeding her grandson at Panera last week, but what I’m gonna say ain’t pretty.

If you want to know why America’s children have such bad eating habits you only have to look at what this well-intentioned woman taught her 4 year-old grandson about food and eating.  Then multiply what I observed by the millions of kids in country.

All over the America, in the name of good nutrition, adults are:

  • Pushing kids to eat high fat, high sugar, and high sodium foods.
  • Teaching kids to think unhealthy foods are healthy.
  • Encouraging kids to snarf down extra calories, and cheering them on when they overeat.

No wonder the obesity rate among the nation’s preschoolers has doubled in recent years.

When I tell you what this woman did you’re going to think I’m crazy.  It’s going to seem benign.

She: (1) ordered macaroni and cheese with a blueberry yogurt for her grandson’s lunch; and then (2) told the boy he could have a cookie if he finished his pasta.   He chose a Flower Cookie.  And skipped the yogurt.

I’m not saying the boy shouldn’t have eaten this meal. I don’t want to live in a world without mac ‘n cheese! But if we’re going to feed our kids this kind of crap, we should be a little more conscious (and honest) about the lessons we’re teaching.

Lesson 1: To prefer high fat, high sugar, and high sodium foods.

In one meal this active 4 year old consumed:

  • 100% of his daily sugar
  • 86% of his daily fat
  • 79% of his daily sodium

Don’t think it’s the cookie that’s messing up these numbers. By itself, the macaroni and cheese provides:

  • 18% of the boy’s daily sugar (Not bad.)
  • 51% of his daily fat (Really?)
  • 66% of his daily sodium (OMG!)

There is mounting evidence that “hyperpalatable foods” — those with just the right amount of sugar, fat and or/salt – stimulate our appetites and can be addictive.

Lesson 2:  Unhealthy foods are healthy.

By offering the cookie as the reward for eating the macaroni, this grandmother was positioning the pasta as a healthy dish—a claim that’s hard to justify.

Compared to the Flower Cookie, Panera’s mac ‘n cheese has:

  • 50 more calories
  • 9 more grams of fat
  • 860 more mg of sodium

And even though the macaroni and cheese has 13 more grams of protein, and a lot more calcium than the cookie, it’s hardly a healthy dish.

It would  have been better to tell the boy that both the macaroni and the cookie were treats.

Lesson 3:  Snarf down extra calories.

We can never know for sure if this boy would have finished the macaroni without a little encouragement, but I doubt it…otherwise, why would he have needed the incentive?

Calories consumed: 890 or 59% of a 4 year-old’s daily allotment

  • Macaroni and Cheese  –   490 calories
  • Cookie   –     Approximately 400 of 440 calories (The boy left a few bites)

After the meal the boy called his mother to brag: He’d eaten all his macaroni and earned a cookie.

Lessons clearly learned!

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

P. S. Don’t think that leaving the yogurt behind was the nutritional mistake.  In 2 meager ounces, the Organic Kids Yogurt Blueberry Flavor packs a 10 gram, 60 calorie punch.  Read Yogurt vs. Coke.


Sources: Computations based on USDA Intake Pattern Levels for moderately active/active 4 year old boy (1520 calories per day); Panera Bread Product Nutrition Information accessed 6/17/2001

Kessler, D. A., MD, 2009. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York, NY: Rodale; Nestle, Marion. 2011. http://www.foodpolitics.com/2011/06/sedentary-work-and-obesity-another-view/. Accessed June 17, 2011;