teaching kids to cook is essential

115: Why we Must Change (or Eradicate) the Idea of “Kid Food” with Bettina Elias Siegel

Chicken nuggets.


Burgers and fries.

Mac and cheese.

What do all those foods have in common?

They’re identified as “kid food” by children and adults alike.

What else? They’re often served in a highly processed, low-nutrient fashion, and I don’t see many veggies on the list.

My guest today, Bettina Elias Siegel, has been an advocate for school food reform for over 10 years, and her first book Kid Food broadens that mission by pushing for societal change in all the places people feed our kids, market “food” to them, and set our standards of what kids will eat.

If you believe the bar should be raised for kids wayyyyyy beyond and beige and bland, you’re in the right place today.

We dig into some of the more surprising facts Bettina uncovered while researching for Kid Food, such as:

  • The history of kids’ menus and why they were created in the first place
  • The role of obesity in kids’ health (spoiler: NOT as influential as you might think!)
  • Recent research about ultra-processed food and how it affects children in particular
  • How young kids start shifting their diets away from veggies and nourishment  (and the disastrous role of one particular “food” we eat way too much of)
  • A few unique “wins” that the pandemic has offered us in our schools and in our homes
  • How marketing food to kids shapes their thoughts (and why we need to reclaim their palates!)
  • The importance of kids being involved in the process, both talking about food and creating it

…And so much more! You’ll be inspired by this conversation and ready to change the world, starting in your own home.

Can’t see the video? Watch Redefining “Kid Food” here on YouTube!

No time to watch the whole video? Here are the notes!

Eradicating the Idea of Kid Food

  • 0:13: Today on the Healthy Parenting Connector I’m talking with Bettina Elias Siegel about “kid food.” If you’ve followed me for very long, you probably know that I don’t believe in kid food and we’re going to take a stand today.
  • 1:01: Bettina used to be a lawyer after going to both Yale and Havard. After becoming a mom she started freelance writing and now writes about food for kids and school meals.
  • 3:41: Bettina was raised on real food since her mother had an interest in organic gardening and healthy eating. When she became a mother herself, Bettina felt confident in her ability to feed her kids healthily and was surprised at how difficult it really was in a culture full of snacks, treats, and “kids food” with some picky eaters thrown in.
  • 6:59: There are so many marketing messages coming at our kids related to food. As important as it is to teach them to cook and teach them how to eat to fuel their bodies, we also need to teach them to think critically about the culture’s food messages.

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I love the rustic multicolored granules. I love the story on the bottles of how it was discovered. I love that it comes without contamination from modern pollution. I love the 60 trace minerals.

I love sprinkling it on my eggs with abandon, not worrying about the perils of refined salt.

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  • U.S. company (we Americans are not dependent on foreign salt)
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  • Already granulated – no grinding salt just to make bread or muffins

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  • 8:16: Bettina wrote a book, Kid Food, that changes how you think about kids’ food and inspires you to transform the food system.

What is Kid Food?

  • 9:03: So what is “kid food?” We have artificial social constructs that determine which foods are palatable to children and anything outside those parameters is reserved for adults. You see it in schools, restaurants, and even individual homes.

Kids are getting the message from schools that pizza every day is fine. -Bettina Elias Siegel

  • 10:31: Kid’s menus appeared around the early 1900s. Marketing focused on the kid’s menu containing healthy options so parents would feel good about dining out with their kids. It was the opposite of what we do today with kid’s menus trying to please and entertain kids with nutrition on the back burner.
  • 12:14: Kid’s menus changed to what they are today as the American way of eating changed. Parents today give their children much more control over what they eat than in generations past.

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  • 13:38: The cultural view of “kid food” is so pervasive in today’s society that it really shapes the way our kids think about food and eating.

Should Kids Control What They Eat?

  • 14:45: We get into the risks of allowing our children to control what they eat and sticking with stereotypical “kid food.”

We're selling kids the notion that their food has to be entertaining and exciting. -Bettina Elias Siegel

  • 15:48: There’s nothing wrong with eating chicken nuggets, pizza, and tacos as part of your meal plan because your kids like them. The biggest problem here is the ultra-processed foods that are barely food anymore but marketed specifically towards kids. Research shows that a diet high in processed foods is a huge marker for increased risk of disease.

We certainly want to give choices but it’s important for parents to put some parameters around those choices. -Bettina Elias Siegel

  • 17:46: Bettina intentionally doesn’t use the word “obesity” in her book until well past the half-way point. She doesn’t want parents to see this through the lens of weight. Just because a child is slim doesn’t mean they’re healthy and nourishing their body well. It isn’t only overweight people who need to focus on eating well.

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Childhood obesity is a symptom of a much larger problem, the diet of American children across the board is surprisingly poor given that we’re in one of the wealthiest countries. -Bettina Elias Siegel

  • 19:14: When looking at the data, Bettina was surprised by how quickly the average child’s diet changes from healthy, real food to processed junk. The transition happens once they join us at the table and start eating “real food” with the family.
  • 20:19: Kids eat more sugar than any other age group! That’s the opposite of what we want to see!
  • 21:52: It’s easy for parents to fall into the “kid food” trap! You’re busy, it’s a lot of work to cook real food, and then your kids whine and complain that they don’t like it. It’s easier to toss chicken nuggets in the oven or grab sweetened yogurts for a snack.
  • 22:28: I’m 100% on board with changing the meaning of a kids meal! (Check out the #kidsmealrevolution here!)
  • 22:46: I think a “kids meal” should be a meal that a kid has cooked! To transform how we view kid’s food, we have to teach our kids how to cook! Otherwise, they’re at the mercy of fast food and restaurants as they get older.


Solutions to a Kid Food Culture

  • 24:17: So what are the solutions? Parent advocacy is so important! You can influence the menu in school cafeterias, on sports teams, and in the classroom. We need to band together as a culture to stop the kid-targeted food marketing and restaurant kids meals.
  • 25:47: On a smaller level, you have the power to change the food you bring into your home, and you can involve your family by teaching your kids to cook.
  • 27:04: Many families who were not making use of the school food program have realized how important its existence is. Hopefully, this awareness will open the door to further improvements in the system. Even though there are many problems with the food served in schools, it’s all some kids have.
  • 29:53: Another aspect is to teach kids how to critically view the advertisements that are being thrown their way. There are actually studies that show that this can change a child’s eating behaviors. Kids don’t want to be manipulated. Bettina’s video she mentions.
  • 32:07: We leave you with something you can do today to get a quick win! I am 100% behind this one!

A quick note from Katie: We chatted briefly about the free school lunches provided during the pandemic, pros, and cons. To be honest, when I saw processed food wrappers in my teen’s garbage, I asked him if he was grabbing the free breakfast and lunch that’s provided to all students during the pandemic. He admitted he had, and I asked him not to — but here’s my reasoning: If he wants to eat processed granola bars, he can ask me and I’ll buy them in moderation, or he can buy them with his own money. I am strongly opposed to taxpayer money being used to feed kids whose families can afford breakfast and lunch, and I felt it was wrong to utilize that system when I don’t believe it’s intended to serve my son. (Just like I didn’t file for government stimulus for my business in March/April 2020, because I was able to cover my payroll and felt others who were truly struggling should get the aid.)

But – I’d actually never heard of the idea of universal school meals for free until I read Bettina’s work, and I didn’t realize that was something that people were trying to accomplish even before 2020 hit. She advocates that it will strengthen the school lunch program and improve nutritional standards, as well as what’s actually going on the trays of kids everywhere.

I need more time to think about that because I’m not sure I’m wrapping my brain around how it would work — so Bettina and I may disagree on this, and that’s ok because I’m sure there are many ways to solve the problem of school food.

The important thing is to remember that we can all be on the same team with the same goal, even if we take varied paths to get there. I appreciate her wisdom because I gotta tell you — I’m not a Harvard-trained lawyer, so I rarely understand politics. I’ll focus on building skills in the kitchen for kids and advocating for food (and food marketing) literacy for all kids and follow others’ lead when it comes to societal change. <3 <3 <3

Resources We Mention About Kid Food

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Bettina Elias SiegelBettina Elias Siegel is a mom of two and a nationally recognized writer and advocate on issues relating to children and food policy. A graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School, Bettina practiced intellectual property, advertising, and food law in New York City for almost a decade before turning to a career in freelance writing.

Her writing on children and food has since appeared in many other outlets, including the New York Times, the Guardian, the Houston Chronicle, and Civil Eats. She also appears frequently on national and local television and radio, including The Today Show, The Doctors, ABC World News Tonight, and Anderson, and she has been featured or quoted in a wide variety of publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Parents, Texas Monthly, and Politico.

In 2015, Family Circle named Bettina one of the country’s “20 Most Influential Moms.” Bettina lives in Houston with her husband and two children, and may be found on Twitter @thelunchtray.

Who decided what "kid food" means?

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About Katie Kimball

Katie Kimball, CSME, creator of Kids Cook Real Food and CEO of Kitchen Stewardship, LLC, is passionate about connecting families around healthy food. As a trusted educator and author of 8 real food cookbooks, she’s been featured on media outlets like ABC, NBC and First for Women magazine and contributes periodically on the FOX Network.

Since 2009, busy moms have looked to Katie as a trusted authority and advocate for children’s health, and she often partners with health experts and medical practitioners to stay on the cutting edge. In 2016 she created the Wall Street Journal recommended best online kids cooking course, Kids Cook Real Food, helping thousands of families around the world learn to cook. She is actively masterminding the Kids’ Meal Revolution, with a goal of every child learning to cook.

A mom of 4 kids from Michigan, she is also a Certified Stress Mastery Educator, member of the American Institute of Stress and trained speaker through Bo Eason’s Personal Story Power.

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