Feeding a family. Raising healthy eaters. Topics I’m passionate about. Even while I was still working on my degree, I knew that helping mothers feed their families and raise healthy eaters was what I wanted to do as a career. I made that the focus of my graduate work. After a stint in long term care, I moved to WIC, where I was able to live my dream (at least as far as career goes.)
Subtitled “Raising Whole Wheat Kids in a White Bread World”, Betsy Block’s book should be right up my alley, right?
I should have known from the blurb on the back cover:
“A harried mother of two, Betsy Block is in pursuit of the perfect family meal: local, toxin-free, humane, and healthful.”
But the book was in a Dewey Decimal category I was trying to close and I figured “how bad can it be?”
Betsy Block’s The Dinner Diaries is basically a manual on how NOT to feed a family or raise healthy eaters. In order to save you the work of reading it, allow me to summarize the main points.
Tip 1: Start with all the wrong priorities
It’s no mistake that “healthful” is last on the list of Block’s priorities a la the back of the book. In reality, her definition of “healthful” is suspect enough that you might as well knock it off the list. Block is all about the local (which has very little impact on health), toxin-free (the American food supply, with the exception of methyl-mercury containing fish, is actually one of the safest in the world), and humane/sustainable (an ideological issue but not a health one.) Her couple of concessions to actually health practices include trying to eat less sugar and (at the very end of the book) attempting to eat more whole grains.
If you’d rather actually have some success at feeding a family or raising healthy eaters, I recommend starting with priorities that will actually help you achieve health. Try: increasing fruit and vegetable intake (no, it doesn’t have to be fresh – frozen or canned are fine), increasing variety (of protein sources, vegetables, starches, you name it – variety is good), sitting down together as a family to eat (even for snacks), having sweets around less frequently and subbing fruit instead, or experimenting with forms of cooking other than frying. I can give you more suggestions if you’d like, but those are some of the biggies.
Tip 2: Lecture your children about food
There’s nothing like a good guilt trip to help kids form a healthy attitude toward food, amiright?
But Block seems to think it’s a great idea. She lectures about all those wrong priorities, lectures when kids won’t eat something, lectures when kids do eat something. She sets up learning opportunities for herself (like going to see a pig that she’s later going to eat) and leaves the children behind lest it be too tense for them – not that she won’t lecture them about it when she gets home. When her daughter asks to help cook, Betsy asks if that means her daughter will eat what they prepare. When her daughter says “probably not”, Betsy declines the offer of help.
If you’d like your children to actually develop a healthy attitude toward food, start by modeling healthy attitudes towards food yourself (by the way, Block’s obsessive interest in “perfect” food isn’t healthy.) Eat in moderation. Eat a variety. Don’t obsess over food (either in a “I must have sweets now” or in a “my diet must be absolutely healthy all the time” way).
If you’d like your children to develop a healthy attitude toward food, involve them in selecting and preparing food. Preschoolers will love searching for a red vegetable at the supermarket. Kids can learn to cook early on. Gardening or going to a farm to see how food is made is a great activity for kids. BUT…not as a way to coerce your kids into eating something. That’s Betsy’s mistake. She read that when kids cook with their families, they’re more likely to eat what they make – so she thought she could coerce her daughter into eating by letting her help cook. Letting your child cook isn’t a one-time magic bullet to healthy eating. Instead, it’s a process by which children develop positive associations with food, take ownership of food (in a healthy way), and learn skills that will help them eat well when they decide that they’re willing to try eating asparagus.
If you’d like your children to develop a healthy attitude toward food, move the conversation from nutrition to habits. Dina Rose’s excellent website It’s not about nutrition is a great resource for changing the way families talk about food. The gist of Rose’s message is to start talking about proportion, variety, and moderation (Check out this article for more info.) Changing the conversation makes a real difference, both in helping kids eat healthfully, but also in helping them think healthfully about food.
In the very first chapter of Betsy Block’s book, she writes of a nutritionist who refused to work with her because of her emphasis on organic foods. Block was shocked that organic foods were controversial. Except that to call the “health benefits” of organic controversial is putting it mildly. Despite many attempts to prove otherwise, there is no compelling evidence that organic foods are more nutrient-rich or more safe than conventionally grown ones. It’s fine for people to eat organic, but they’re fooling themselves if they think that organic = healthy. Block’s choice to focus on secondary issues instead of primary ones meant that her memoir is a recounting of an exercise in frustration, accomplishing next to nothing in terms of changing her children’s habits and attitudes regarding food.
The nutritionist who ended up working with Block (although we only hear about her in the first chapter) did a good job of trying to get Block to focus on some actually beneficial eating practices (unfortunately, she did not address the task of how to communicate with children about food) – but it was all for naught. Block would not be dissuaded from her ill-informed search for dietary perfection and from her agenda of changing her children’s eating patterns by coersion. I think the first nutritionist made a wise choice.
Please, people, don’t be Betsy.
Rating: 1 star
Category: Food memoir
Synopsis: Betsy Block tries to make over her family mealtimes.
Recommendation: Ugh. No.