DEATH to the CHICKEN FINGER
How a single tender of meat led to an entire generation of unsophisticated eaters — and what we can do to stop to the deep-fried cycle
Cut up a fresh, bone-in chicken breast and you’ll notice that it naturally separates into two distinct parts: a larger, teardrop-shaped lobe of flesh — the piece of meat that you probably think of when someone says “chicken breast” — and a more narrow piece sometimes referred to as a “tender.”
The chicken finger originated in the need to find something to do with that tender, explains food historian Gary Allen in a short history of the convenience food published online five years ago. Chicken fingers, Allen says, were seldom seen before 1990 or so, but by the end of the 1980s, fear of saturated fats turned many North Americans away from beef and toward chicken. Increased demand meant billions of additional chicken breasts were processed — but what was the industry to do with the tenders? The answer is on children’s plates.
We can look at Allen’s mini-history of a mini-food as a metaphor for how cuisine has come to be divided in contemporary North America: The prime cuts go to the adults while the less healthy morsels — dressed up in extra salt, fat and sugar and processed almost beyond recognition — end up on the kids’ menu, both in the family restaurants that traffic in such fare, and at home.
For a generation, many North American parents have indulged children’s picky eating tendencies by sticking them in an endlessly repeating loop of chicken fingers, burgers, pizza, plain pasta, mac and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Anyone who has sat down for a meal with youngsters over the past 25 years will recognize this list of typical “kids’ foods.” Pushed out of the picture, to varying degrees for different children, are fruits and vegetables and anything else that might challenge them, from spicy delicacies to unfamiliar proteins. To picture what this might look like to a visitor from almost anywhere else in the world, imagine we just mashed up some bread and cheese and mechanically separated chicken flesh together, called it Kiddy Chow, and bought it by the bag to rip open to feed the tots.
Mealtimes for children were quite different just a few decades ago. Over the past few months, I’ve spoken casually and in formal interviews with dozens of people about food and childhood. As a general rule, people who grew up in North America and are now over the age of 30 recall that when they were children, kids ate what the adults ate. Families usually dined together at the table. There might have been foods you didn’t like; depending on the rules of the house you might have been expected to try them or even finish them. Or you might have been free not to, as long as there weren’t too many foods you were refusing. Either way, it wouldn’t have occurred to you that an adult was going jump up from the table to prepare you something precisely to your liking. And if you didn’t eat, you might have to wait quite a while for the next opportunity: Studies show that North American kids snack more often and consume more calories than they did in the 1970s.
So what happened? What stopped us from feeding normal adult foods to children?
Knowledgeable fingers are frequently pointed at the gradual extinction of the family dinner, which in turn usually gets blamed on parents’ busy schedules, which in turn gets partially blamed on hockey practice and piano lessons. Michael Moss, a New York
Times reporter whose investigations into the evolution of processed food led to the 2013 book Salt Sugar Fat, knows it’s easy to fall into the habit of feeding beige foods to children because he’s done it many times himself. “I’m a parent of two boys, living in Brooklyn, being highly motivated by work [with] long hours, having these kind of fractured dinners,” says Moss. “When you’re crazy busy and you’re not focused on this goal of having an adult kind of meal for the entire family, you can succumb to that immediate feedback from the kids to go the easy way and serve highly palatable but sort of limited types of food.”
The busy house with a full freezer turns into something almost like a restaurant, and the kids get what they want, with the food industry playing an instrumental role in exploiting children’s preference for nutritionally dubious foods.
The 1980s and ’ 90s saw the advent of countless convenience and snack foods, from fruit and chicken nuggets pressed into “fun” shapes to sugarladen yogurts and foods kids could assemble themselves. Grocery stores increasingly sold meals that resembled fast food. As Moss chronicles in Salt
Sugar Fat, these products, many of them portable and/or frozen, helped transform the North American diet. Their flavour profiles, packaging, and advertising and marketing programs were often designed to appeal specifically to children with a sophistication that made the 1960s breakfast cereal explosion look limited and quaint.
And why wouldn’t a child, given the choice, select from typical kids’ menu items? “The sensation of biting into a toasted cheese sandwich or pizza,” Moss observes, “especially when it’s hot and gooey, and with all the aromas … is actually quite powerful from a psychobiology and sensation standpoint.”
Regardless of the processed food industry’s role, putting children on their own restricted, bland diet would never have been possible had parents not gone along with the shift. Observe what happens when you try to challenge other people’s children by feeding them something unfamiliar. It’s often the parents themselves who will push back, giving up before a battle has even begun (“She won’t eat that”). A less challenging food like grilled cheese and fries offers a path of least resistance, guaranteed to succeed — if success is narrowly defined as getting the kid to actually eat it.
By now, the effects of the modern kids’ diet are relentlessly well-documented. Diverse eating habits tend to lead to healthier children, and those who don’t eat their fruit and veg are more likely to be overweight or obese. Just two out of five children were getting their five servings of fruit and vegetables a day as of 2004, and this year Statistics Canada will conduct another survey to find out if the problem has worsened. Children and adolescents are twice as likely to be overweight or obese as there were a generation ago. Twenty per cent of Canadian children and youth were overweight as of 2011 and a further 12% of them were obese. In 1979 (incidentally, the first year a McDonald’s Happy Meal was served), around 14% of children and youth were overweight, and childhood obesity practically didn’t exist in Canada — figures for children under 12 were so low that government reports treated the problem as a statistical zero.
Less explored is the cultural consequence of carb-heavy kids’ food. Do picky children become adults with infantilized palates whose restricted tastes will make for a duller culinary world? In 2010, The New York
Times reported that restaurateur (and father of two) Nicola Marzovilla refused to offer a children’s menu at his Manhattan restaurant, telling the Times: “Children’s menus are the death of civilization.” Marzovilla further explained that any food his children refuse to eat at the family table entails a loss of culinary heritage. As an Italian-American, he said, octopus is part of his culture, so the children must eat it.
Yet in the real world, the diversity of culinary heritage isn’t disappearing, it’s arriving on our plates all at once. While we’re feeding children a dumbed-down diet, adult cuisine is becoming more challenging, with restaurants serving up previously unfamiliar foods like kimchi and duck hearts and sea urchin. Where does that leave a child raised on mac and cheese, who never “learns” to eat adult food? It’s easy to imagine how an adult picky eater could be stigmatized for, say, refusing what everyone else is eating at a work lunch. Online forums for adult picky eaters are full of stories about embarrassment at restaurants. Food restrictions are generally considered fine and normal in urban middle-class Canada if they have a basis in biology or moral concerns. Celiac disease, lactose intolerance and vegetarianism are not social faux pas. But refusing to eat vegetables because they taste yucky? Not cool.
For all these reasons, “I believe the children’s menu should be abolished — not by government intervention but by re-educating and making it culturally normal [for kids to eat adult food],” says Brian Tang, who runs a diverse-menued school-lunch catering company in Vancouver, Foodie Kids Inc., with his wife Michelle. “I don’t think kids genetically have changed in the tastebuds [since the 1980s].” It’s their upbringing that has. What children are missing, say the Tangs and others who work with children and food, is an education about how to eat.
For a lot of parents, the challenge begins during toddlerhood, when many children start to grow suspicious of certain foods and refuse to eat them. Vegetables receive particular disdain. Marcia Pelchat, a taste researcher at the Monell Center in Philadelphia, says there are two possible explanations to be found in human evolution (neither factor conflicts with the other, so both might have played a role in our evolution). First, children who are just learning to walk are also mobile enough to start grabbing a fistful of wild plant material to jam into their mouths — which could be poisonous, as bitter-tasting plants are especially likely to be. Second, children might crave higher levels of sugar, fat and salt than adults because they’re still growing, and their need for huge amounts of energy turns them into little calorie-seeking monsters.
While as many as three-quarters of children show some degree of pickiness around this age, there is debate about whether there is such a thing as a naturally super-picky eater. (And some caution that labelling any child a picky eater can be a self-fulfilling designation.) All can agree, however, that most children aren’t born liking Brussels sprouts, and only intervention guides them toward culinary maturity.
Advocates of healthy and diverse diets for children often find inspiration in France, a country where the food landscape for children retains a pre-1990s quaintness, and where the concept of a picky eater almost doesn’t exist. French parents and teachers
‘I find it interesting when people say, “Oh, they will not eat this and that.” Well, they’re the kids. We try to educate them and explain to them, “You’re the parent. Don’t give them the choice” ’
explicitly talk about the food education that children require in order to become mature eaters. They receive training that gently pries open the natural fussiness that most small children exhibit to some degree, opening their little minds and palates to a world of flavour.
“At the core of the French approach is the belief that you teach your kids to eat just as you can teach them to read,” says Karen Le Billon, author of the 2012 book French Kids Eat Everything. “You start young, it takes time, and some kids take more time than others. And unless there are underlying medical issues, all kids can get there.” An Anglo-Canadian university professor, Le Billon moved to France for a year in 2008 with her French husband and two young, Vancouver-raised daughters — whose starch-loving, snack-dependent, picky Canadian ways quickly raised the ire of her in-laws and others they met in a little village in Brittany.
Here are some rules for French children, as enforced in the cantines scolaires (school cafeterias) that are standard throughout the country, and described by Le Billon: A child is not forced to eat any particular food, but won’t get an alternate choice. Parents and educators don’t make a big fuss when children refuse; they just take the dish away and try again another time. When the next meal comes, the adults figure, the kid will be hungry enough to try anything. And if the next meal is dinner, the child is likely to have at least one parent there to help him or her along. The French also avoid scheduling children’s lessons and activities for weekday dinnertimes.
What French children don’t get is junk-shaming: lessons about fat and sugar and salt and a list of dos and don’ts, the way Canadian kids encounter. What would be the point? What they eat is not up to them anyway, and the only culturally permissible snack time is the late afternoon.
The outcomes as described in Le Billon’s books sound admirable: Simply put, most kids eat most foods, and you can fill a room full of French schoolchildren and watch the major- ity happily chow down on, say, fish stew or beet salad.
If we can’t bring every North American child to France, we can at least try to bring a little of France to them. For about 30 Vancouver-area schools, this happens when Foodie Kids Inc. shows up to serve lunch (for some schools this is an occasional treat, whereas at others, Foodie Kids provides the regular cafeteria service). The Tangs are keen students of the French approach. Their menus can include lemongrass chicken, squash soup and onigiri, the last being Japanese triangular pockets of rice wrapped in seaweed with fillings in the middle such as tuna or plums. Unlike the typical French cantine, which stick mostly to French dishes, Foodie Kids strives to introduce Vancouver children to the multicultural cuisine they’ll encounter in the real world.
Because this is Canada, the Tangs have to offer kids chicken fingers and the like as well. Canadian parents, they say, simply expect their children to be given a choice about what’s for lunch. And if you put lemongrass chicken up against chicken strips, the Tangs moan almost in unison, “80% of kids will go for the chicken strips.” At least Foodie Kids offers familiar foods in unprocessed form, made from scratch from local ingredients where possible. The company can’t solve the problem of limited juvenile palates by itself, but the Tangs, who are in their mid-thirties and have children of their own, rail against feeding bland food to kids in conversations with friends. “I find it interesting when people say, ‘Oh, they will not eat this and that,’ ” Michelle Tang says. “Well, they’re the kids. We try to educate them and explain to them, ‘You’re the parent. Don’t give them the choice.’ ”
It can’t be impossible to send the chicken finger to the guillotine. A generation ago Canadians ate much the way the French do now, without even thinking too much about it. “This is something we can easily recover, not something so culturally different that we can never hope to emulate it. It’s the way we all used to be, the way a lot of parents were raised. It’s just a question of changing habits a little bit,” Le Billon says. “It’s not that daunting, really.”
I’ve seen the cultural shift toward juvenile food happen in my own younger siblings’ lives, and wonder how I can help turn the clock back for them. No one over 30 seems to think I had too unusual a culinary ride during my 1980s childhood (in Toronto, in a part-WASP, part-Italian, part-Jewish family). Yet it would look that way to many children being brought up today. We kids used to watch the adults cook, which experts now say is important to make children curious about food. We would go to grownup restaurants and my mother would often let me and my brother order off the grown-up menu. I can still remember my first bites of Thai food and sushi. My mother and grandfather even tried to get me to try some winkles, which are tiny snails served cold out of a pail. It’s hard to imagine any small Canadian child being offered cold snails from a bucket in 2015 — including in my own family, which has largely put its children on the bland food regimen like everyone else. My 11-year-old brother, for example, seems to subsist on bagels with peanut butter and spent a twoweek family trip to Italy picking the basil off margherita pizza.
Being realistic, we probably can’t make winkle-eaters out of pizza-bagel fiends overnight. And if we want to change the kids’ menu it will help to start early: The wider a variety of foods an infant is exposed to, experts say, the more they’ll eat later on without complaining. Canadian pediatricians and dietitians now recommend flavourful food for infants as soon as they’re ready for solids, not the previous generations’ bland mush. There’s even evidence that taste preferences start in the womb; a Monell Center study showed that mothers who eat a variety of fruits and vegetables while pregnant give birth to babies who do, too.
Beyond that, a few pieces of advice come up over and over again. Some may sound familiar: Sit with children and serve them the same meal you get. Serve them challenging foods and encourage them to eat, but don’t force them. Fighting about it can create negative associations for that food. Listen to kids’ ideas about what they want to eat, but don’t turn the menu into a point of negotiation once dinner has been decided upon. Involving children in food preparation sharpens their appetites, so involve them whenever possible in grocery shopping and gardening, and let them watch you cook.
Sound daunting? The kids might surprise you. Children like to meet expectations, notes Toronto restaurateur Richard Zimmerman, owner of The Borough and a former schoolteacher. But they can only meet our expectations if we give them ones to reach for in the first place. And it’s probably a good idea to let them know that it’s all right if they don’t like everything they try, he says. “Some things might gross you out. That’s OK.” The Borough refuses to offer a children’s menu because, “We don’t need one. There’s food there that they can eat,” Zimmerman says. “Kids will make the choice themselves. Something will appeal to them [on the adult menu], just like something will appeal to you and me when we read a menu. Kids like making choices. They’re trying to be grownups. They’re emulating grown-ups.”
The lack of a children’s menu at his restaurant leads to kids being served things like smoked carrot soup and bangers and mash with braised cabbage and caramelized onion jus. “I think for the most part the parents are surprised when the kids grab something [unfamiliar],” Zimmerman says, especially parents of so-called picky eaters. “The foods that we’re serving the kids, the plates are coming back empty.” Granted, “the dads always grab the last couple of bites.”
Perhaps the best thing to do is just jump right in with a new approach. One recent Saturday afternoon in Toronto, I took five under-12s out for lunch at Le Sélect Bistro, a Frenchstyle restaurant that offers a menu for children, but not a typical one. Young diners are expected to order what is essentially adult food shrunk down to kid-size portions and prices, including duck leg confit and a “tarte niçoise” that includes anchovies.
The kids were all connected to me socially somehow: three were the children of friends, and the last two were my own younger brother and sister. And there were cameras around. It was an artificial situation, but it did help demonstrate that kids will eat when they’re expected to. At Le Sélect, my sister Francesca, 11, had salmon for maybe the second or third time ever — which sounds crazy to me, because salmon was a really common staple in our house when I was her age — and ate the whole thing. My mom and stepdad were impressed that Nicholas, the bagel-eating basil-remover in their house, ate mushrooms for the first time — and porcini mushrooms at that. One dad was happy that his eight-year-old son, Thomas, ate the frites that came with his steak without ketchup (I had asked for mayonnaise, since this was a French restaurant), and that he managed to eat the steak without having it cut into little pieces for him.
Probably the most adventuresome eater was Audrey, 11, whose favourite dish at home is vegetables in a spicy Malaysian sauce. I wondered aloud if anyone would be brave enough to try the tarte niçoise. Audrey took the bait and ordered it, anchovy and all. When it arrived, she picked glumly around the edges, avoiding the salty red and black flecks in the centre. “I challenged myself,” she said, “but I don’t like it.” I told her it was OK to push aside the anchovy-laced plate because she had at least tried, and she started wondering aloud about an easier choice — whether to have the lemon tart or crème brûlée for dessert.
Just for kicks, I ordered something I didn’t expect the children to eat: the “terrine tête-à-queue” (head-to-tail terrine, similar to pâté) and explained, by puffing out my cheeks, that much of the meat would have come from a pig’s jowls. The kids giggled and grimaced. And then four out of five forks swooped in for an exploratory bite.