A couple of weeks ago in the NY Times Magazine's Food Issue there was an article featuring beautiful images of children's breakfast tables from around the world. As you may or may not be aware, for the last 10 months I - along with the editor-in-chief (and mother of two) from Smart Eating for Kids - have been doing the same thing in my home. Daily. And while our images do not compare to the beautifully composed and perfectly lit pictures of Rise and Shine, they have one distinct advantage: they are real.

Breakfast, especially breakfast with kids - especially in a house with two working parents and school schedules that necessitate getting out the door at a certain time - is messy and can be unpredictable. We have a general schedule that we try to stick to each morning, but even maintaining a routine is more of an art than a science. And as often as our table is "formally" set - with homemade pancakes and fruit salad, or yogurt with a selection of toppings - it is equally often covered with papers or in-progress art that is pushed aside to make room for a bowl of oatmeal. 

I have come across a number of different websites and blog lately that present, what seems to me, a glossy and perfected facade of real life: endless images of their chic downtown neighborhood, dustless and perfectly styled apartment, the rain splashing on the fire escape railing, or their impeccably dressed children standing in front of iconic world landmarks. Ultimately, I view these blogs with skepticism: it feels like they are sharing only the best parts of their life, not their real life. To be fair, that might be their real life, and my feelings may only stem from envy that I don't have impeccably dressed children standing in front of iconic world landmarks or a dustless home, but I would be no less interested in what those bloggers had to say if their kids occasionally had dried food on their faces. In fact, I might feel a little more kinship.    

This was my goal with the daily breakfast project. I have a degree in nutrition and spent years researching the link between diet and obesity. Establishing and supporting healthy eating habits and providing quality food is a priority for me. But even in my house there are boxes of ready-to-eat cereal and instant oatmeal. And my kids do eat those things, just not everyday. And they do eat homemade muffins with fruit salad and freshly squeezed orange juice, just not everyday.

Malia Wollen, the author of Rise and Shine, wrote "Getting children to eat sugar is easy. Teaching them to eat slimy fermented soybeans, by contrast, requires a more robust and conservative culinary culture [...]". I agree with her, wholeheartedly. It requires time and patience and energy, too. It requires shifting the way you think about breakfast - about what constitutes breakfast - and how you offer food to your kids. But I don't agree that this means there's no place for cereal. 

I wrote a letter to the editor after reading Rise and Shine. After a number of false starts and cutting more than a page of text down to a mere 100 words, I managed to come up something I was willing to submit. But it wasn't published...so happy reading.

Change our kids, not their foods

Reading between the lines of Malia Wollan and Hannah Whitaker’s recent article Rise & Shine you might think that getting your children to swear off sugared cereal is as easy as putting kimchi on the table. Unfortunately, it’s not. But it is possible. I am a nutritional epidemiologist who studies diet and obesity, and mother of three. Nine months ago I began photographing and posting our own daily breakfasts. Through this process I have realized that sugared cereal is not bad, and that with some firm boundaries, simple guidelines, and a little autonomy kids do learn to choose foods other than cereal (even the sugared kind). I am confident that with a little practice, even American kids can learn to eat vegetables for breakfast.

I don't count calories

I don't count calories. I don't look at how many grams of sugar is in a serving of any single food. I don't generally pay attention to the amount of fat or the percent of my daily recommended amount of carbohydrates I will consume. 

There was a time in my life when I paid close attention to all these things. I kept close track - always making sure to balance the "calories in" with "calories out" - and food decisions were often made based on the information I could find in that little Nutrition Fact Panel box. But I'll let you in on a little secret about that habit: it's exhausting. When you count calories - er, when *I* counted calories - I could never turn it off. I was always counting; making sure that I had the running tally correct.  What's more, I found I was making food decisions for the wrong reasons: because the numbers were right and not because it tasted right. Or felt right.

So I stopped counting calories. And I don't do it for my family anymore either. I want to teach my kids another way to think about food. This is what we do instead:  

  • We limit the foods that we consume that come labeled with nutrition information. That's not to say that the nutrition breakdown of an orange is not available, it's just not branded right there on the fruit itself. And much of our food comes from local growers and producers, who don't provide the saturated fat content on their package of homemade pork sausages.  
  • We eat a variety of foods and, to the best of our ability, don't eat the same thing twice in a row. This is a little trick I learned from a friend and comes in handy for me particularly at breakfast. "You want that Barbara's Multigrain Cereal again this morning? Did you have it yesterday? Well, then, today we'll chose something else and you can have it again tomorrow." The one exemption to this is my husband, who tends to eat the same smoothie for breakfast everyday.
  • We favor ingredient lists over nutrition facts panels. This is one thing that I do pay close attention to, especially when we are trying something new. Rather than learn how many grams of sugar a potential new granola has per serving I read the ingredient list. I look for foods that are free of synthetic colors and flavors, favor shorter over longer ingredient lists, and tend to avoid foods with a lot of preservatives (although I realize it's not necessarily possible - or advisable - to avoid them entirely).   

I know that there are a lot of people out there for whom calorie counting has made all the difference in achieving weight or health goals. Without reservation, I think this is fantastic. For many people, paying attention to their caloric intake is the first step to simply paying attention - which is a HUGE step in the right direction. But there is more to a meal than it's caloric content: there are aromas, textures, temperatures, flavor combinations to think about and experience.  Different foods sits differently in your stomach; it can give you energy or zap you of it.

Counting calories may be something you view as necessary in your own life, but I don't pay much attention to the specific nutrients in my food and I challenge you to do the same thing - even if just for a single meal.