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June 22, 2014

CEPEDA: Food wars at the dinner table

What is “real food”?

My oldest son’s official definition is: anything that doesn’t taste good but is good for you.

As he witnessed the latest dinner table tug-of-war between me and his picky-eater younger brother, he jumped to his sibling’s defense while honoring my role as health promoter: “It’s not your fault we don’t like real food, Mom. It’s just that everything we ever eat away from home is chemically formulated to taste good.”

At least I know they listen to me when I explain why orange Jell-O and actual oranges have so little in common.

I am but one food-aware mother up against a tsunami of preschool fruity sugar-water and salty cracker “snacks,” and public school trays of pizza and fries.

And though my sources report that the majority of high school students at a local district are no longer bringing family-sized sacks of cheese curls to munch on throughout the day, I have it on good account that in at least one Chicago kindergarten classroom, spicy corn chips — which, in some reported cases, have sent kids to the ER with abdominal pain — are still all the rage.

I recently had a good belly laugh when I read a piece in The New York Times by food columnist Mark Bittman in which he suggests that to stem the rising tide of obesity we must “eat real food.” Though I love the sentiment, anyone who experiences the futility of trying to educate people about nutrition understands how difficult this is.

Most Americans don’t have a clue about how to eat well, much less what “real food” is. If any of us got direct instruction in public school about how we’re supposed to eat healthfully, it was probably through the USDA’s now-defunct, 22-year-old food guide pyramid that told us to, yes, carb up on six to 11 servings of insulin-spiking bread, cereal, rice and pasta. Some teachers still use it as a handout in health or cooking classes.

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