The One-upMUMship of Kid Food Instagram
What are the salmon and broccoli burgers really saying?
I don’t like to label a kid's eating as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but if I had to label my 2.5 year old’s, it would be ‘shit’.
If I had to quantify A’s diet it’s probably:
40% bread and pasta
10% those goddamn toddler oaty bars
And about 5% of whatever is on my plate (which by the way, he is eating while sitting on my lap).
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So, why am I telling you this and risking being labelled both a terrible parent and the world's worst nutritionist?
Well, because this is how toddlers and little kids really eat. It is both developmentally and nutritionally exactly what I’d expect from a toddler.
But this is not at all the picture we’re sold on social media. The image we see of young kids’ eating is refracted through the prism of diet culture. A distorted view that spews out a rainbow of perfectly manufactured mini meals, on cute bamboo plates with complimentary cutlery (tell me how any toddler parents can find anything that matches?). And we need to be clear - this is an aesthetic preference, not a requirement for feeding kids.
Take for example, your average ‘nutrition mum’ who creates their own at home studio for styling and photographing their child’s eating, complete with wall-mounted shabby chic backdrop, picture-perfect lighting rig, and *that* £200 high chair. Oh and let’s not forget the prop de resistance - her own offspring who has exactly zero volitional control over participating in this charade.
Contrast that then, with your £12 IKEA high chair and tomato soup splattered kitchen walls and it becomes crystal clear why we feel like trash about how we feed our kids.
Let’s look, too, then to ‘kid food’ brands who are also setting the tone for how to feed kids. Recipes that consist of cutesy, star-shaped carrot cutouts, ‘cookie-dough’ made out of flaxseed and chickpeas, salmon burgers, and broccoli in everything. It becomes a full-time job just to plan, shop for, and prepare these recipes, and requires another full-time paid gig to actually fund them. All for them to inevitably get smeared across your kitchen cabinet.
The copy that accompanies these recipes is laced with diet culture’s favourite pseudo-nutrition buzzwords like ‘natural’, ‘superfood’, ‘immune boosting’, and ‘lighter’ (no really, diet food for kids!). And to be clear - these are all marketing terms that are nutritionally meaningless, and in no way prerequisites for meeting nutritional requirements. But ya know, whatever instills just enough panic in parents (by which I mean mothers, obviously), to fork out for the recipe book and app. The audacity, then, of these same kid food brands dishing up ‘fussy’ eating tips when they are themselves upholding unrealistic standards for feeding kids that lead to rifts in the feeding relationship.
And then there are the mumfluencer-foodie accounts, sharing recipe-inspiration and before and after pictures of their kids’ plates and lunchboxes. ‘They're often beautiful, have obscure shapes or foods and would take a lot of time - very few children will eat everything on their plate for every meal and it's so problematic suggesting this as a norm,’ says Chantal Cuthers, a Registered Nutritionist based in New Zealand, who specialises in reproductive, pregnancy, and infant nutrition.
These before and afters are usually highly staged, stylised and manufactured to send a very specific message. They often portray unrealistic expectations of what a child will eat (eh salmon burgers, wtf?) and, critically, we do not know if those foods were actually eaten or if the image was created for ~content~ (spoiler: it was because how could you have taken the picture without running it through the mental filter of how it will look on the ‘gram?). And even if it is a true representation of what was eaten, we have no idea if the child was pressured, coerced, or bribed into eating. This is the kid equivalent of ‘What I Eat In a Day’ videos; a hotbed of disordered eating and unhelpful comparison.
These hyper-curated images of kid feeding do kids and parents dirty. We can all relate to feeling completely demoralised, deflated, and frankly, resentful, when the meal we’ve lovingly and painstakingly crafted for our kiddos gets plastered across the wall. When Kid Food Instagram makes it all look so breezy and fun, we have little choice but to internalise our kids’ imperfect eating as our own failure, rather than what it actually is - totally normal.
Around 50 per cent of parents report that at least one of their kids has ‘feeding problems’; whereas researchers estimate that only between 1-5 per cent of kiddos meet a clinical threshold for feeding disorders. Three guesses as to why there is an order of magnitude disconnect between those numbers.
There is something so primitive about wanting to feed our kids well; it touches on basic survival instincts hard-wired into our biology. But when what is essential to survival becomes conflated with an aesthetic preferences and social media ‘one-upmumship’, it becomes a problem. When we perceive we are failing, we (completely understandably) worry. When we worry, feel anxious, or threatened, we feed from a place of control. Control-based feeding makes regular old kid food fuckery, so much worse. This is what my colleague and (responsive feeding pioneer) Katja Rowell calls ‘the Worry Cycle’. And the genesis of much of this worry and anxiety? Social. Media.
‘The biggest misconception I see being promoted on social media is that children are supposed to be eating perfectly pre-portioned balanced little meals from cute plates,’ Natalia Stasenko, a Registered Paediatric Dietitian and Responsive Feeding specialist, tells me. ‘They usually feature hefty portions of fruit and veggies, especially those with the "superfood" status. Unfortunately, this myth is perpetuated not only by influencers, but also by some health professionals. There is little awareness about the typical developmental stages in children in reference to their eating and their unique and always-changing nutritional needs.’
What Natalia is touching on here is that appetite - and what actually gets eaten - fluctuates wildly from meal-to-meal based on things like illness, growth spurts, developmental changes, teething, changes to routine or childcare, and for some kids, the moon. Kids have a strong internal barometer for how much and the type of food their bodies need, and it’s often closely linked with growth and development. Some children can go months at a time without growing much at all, and then, quite literally grow almost a centimetre overnight. Similarly, in the first year, babies' growth is rapid and they may treble their birth weight in the first year. Compare that with toddlers whose growth slows dramatically in the second and third years, alongside a concomitant drop in appetite (at least until a growth spurt comes along). But the message we receive from social media is that a kid's appetite should be constant and steady and that it should strictly match up to standardised portion sizes, as determined by an adult. This of course parallels what diet culture teaches us about our own appetites - that any perturbations are to be treated with scepticism rather than curiosity.
Similarly, diet culture shows up in the types of foods we see on social media, giving a distorted idea of what a child actually needs. ‘At this point, a "perfect" plate for a child looks very similar to a "perfect" plate for an adult, while the ratio of macronutrients is quite different in both cases,’ says paediatric dietitian Natalia Stasenko. ‘As a rule of thumb, we see too much protein and not enough carbohydrates on these "ideal" plates.’
Small children need a lot of carbohydrates and fat, and smaller amounts of protein and fibre, but we tend to see the inverse on social media. With ‘whole’, ‘unprocessed’, and from-scratch foods being centred and valorised as a symbol of ‘good parenting’. God forbid we see white rice or pasta. Even though, as Natalia points out ‘children's brains require twice as much glucose at the period of active synaptic growth before they turn 5, so it's easy to see why carbs take a front seat at this time’. Yet many parents have internalised the anti-carb rhetoric of diet and wellness culture, causing them to fear and even restrict carbs in their children’s diets, or only serve ‘good’ carbs, which can lead to mealtime struggles and what parents perceive to be ‘fussy’ eating.
‘I notice that in families where one or both of the parents follow some kind of a wellness diet, or follow recommendations of an influencer, the expectation is that the same (usually protein and fibre-heavy) diet will be healthy for the child. Nothing could be further from the truth,’ adds Natalia.
The vegetable hegemony over other food groups, too, belies the developmental reality that little kids are experiencing. Starting anytime from after their first birthday, children begin to enter a developmental stage known as food neophobia. Neo = new, phobia = fear. In its most literal sense, it’s the fear, and subsequent rejection of new foods. Usually on sight, without so much as tasting it. But don’t let the ‘neo’ part fool you; even foods toddlers and preschoolers have tried and eaten a dozen times before can get rejected - especially when those foods look different from how they’re usually served. Scientists believe this served an evolutionary advantage; if we have an innate scepticism of new and unknown foods, we were less likely to toddle off and eat something poisonous, ergo, conservation of the species.
Rather than explaining that rejecting certain foods, especially bitter vegetables and mixed dishes, is a regular part of learning to eat, and that if they reject vegetables, they can get the same nutrition from fruit and other foods, we are taught a variety of, usually unhelpful strategies to trick kids into eating veg.
So if the picture of feeding kids we see on social media is not rooted in what is developmentally or even nutritionally appropriate for kids - what is driving the proliferation of Kid Food Instagram?
I am reminded of Toi Smith’s writing about Motherhood™ - the institution belonging to patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism that dominates our experiences of mothering. The prescription for which she suggests is:
Lose yourself along with your wants, needs, and desires
Put everyone and everything before you
Take care and nurture the needs of all
Have no expectations of care or support for yourself
Become familiar with exhaustion
‘Motherhood ™ is an enforced identity in which it’s more important that our relationship to the brand be healthier than our relationship with our own children.’
By performing our motherhood through the food we serve (and by extension don’t serve) our kids, we are communicating something essential about our parenting. We think we are saying: ‘I am a good mother’. When actually we are performing our motherhood for the gaze of others, not for ourselves, not for our children.
Relatedly, everything we see on social media contributes to the erasure of women’s labour. Effortless, ‘easy’ meals. Pristine presentation. No mess. It turns feeding kids into a ‘labour of love’ furthering the position that women are innately nurturers who have the knowledge of cookie-cutter shaped sandwiches and broccoli, quinoa and salmon burgers baked into their DNA. Rather than what it actually is: Work. Hard. Fucking. Work.
As well as erasing (the usually middle-class and white) mother’s labour, it also disguises the labour of women who care for their children while they’re performing worthiness as parents through from scratch everything. The women of colour, the women barely making a living wage, the women who have no choice but to feed their own children packaged and convenience foods. The women who forgo feeding themselves to make sure their kids have something to eat.
The culture we live in encourages us to downplay, devalue, invalidate and ignore the labour of mothers (and women, especially care workers, more broadly). Mothers are, by nature, selfless, giving, and innately nurturing. This narrative only serves one kind of person: cis white men.
It feels important to interrogate the ways that feeding our kids is more about brand loyalty to Motherhood™ than it is about nutrition. Where is it about signalling something about our superiority? Performing whiteness, class, and ‘goodness’? Where are we trying to signal ‘I’ve got this, I’ve got this’, when actually we’re drowning and can’t ask for help?
There is, of course, an illusion of safety in this charade. But I am left with a question. What and who do we threaten by continuing to exert our dominance over other women?
Because one thing’s for sure, broccoli and salmon burgers are not tied to our collective liberation.
This was such a good read. So good to know your own toddler has a similar diet to mine - we are deep into food refusal/pickiness and basically potatoes at every meal. It is especially hard to navigate with my MIL who thinks the child isn't eating enough/is definitely eating the wrong things. I try not to follow ambitious kiddy food accounts on Insta because I just find them demoralising and they send me into a worry-spin.
This was so great. Sending to all my mum friends. I am trying to be very chill about my daughter seeming to currently subsist on a diet that is 75% blueberry 😅