Henry’s First McDonald’s: Fast Food or Forbidden Fruit?

April 11, 2013

Parents: How have you approached the conversation of fast foods with your children? Here’s one story from HSC’s Mark Bishop.

by Mark Bishop

Two weeks ago, on a road trip through central Illinois, my son Henry ate his first McDonald’s hamburger. This was a big deal, in that it was not a big deal. Let me explain.

As parents, we all have to make so many decisions at every level, from food and nutrition to how to discipline to the logistics around bedtime. No solution is right for every child; there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to parenting. What works for our family may not be right for yours, and I don’t wish to share this story as some sort of definitive parenting blueprint, but rather as a conversation-starter among our fellow parents who are also trying to do what they think is best for their children.

For my wife and me, food and nutrition are very important in how we raise our son. Fast food is not a regular part of our daily experiences. We don’t eat it, or really think about it. We value having dinner together as a family.  We cook at home as much as possible, and we try to focus on whole foods when making purchasing decisions. That’s not to say that we don’t have our moments of weakness or indulgence or let convenience occasionally take precedence over nutrition. As two working parents, sometimes leading and teaching the values of a healthy lifestyle has its challenges, but we strive to do so the best we can.

My son Henry is in the first grade, a point where he’s observing how his friends and their families approach food. Kids talk about food, and he recognizes that his friends eat fast food. We have tried to be careful about how we approach fast food with Henry because we don’t want it to become a “forbidden fruit” or special treat. We also don’t want to him to be judgmental toward his friends and their families that make different choices than we do.

My wife and I decided our strategy would be to treat fast food as a road trip convenience food. So, on a trip down 57 South to visit some old friends, we would stop for a bathroom and lunch break at McDonald’s.

Henry got a hamburger and fries. He ate them, and he liked them — and for the sake of accurate reporting, we helped Henry finish off the fries. His review was succinct, “Good, but not great.” He gave the meal a 2.5 out of 10 — for comparison’s sake, he gave Chipotle an 8 and the burgers from our favorite neighborhood spot earned an 11.

And that was it. That was his McDonald’s experience.  

We communicated to Henry that McDonald’s wasn’t a treat or a horrible thing, but a road-trip food. He understood pretty quickly that it was “sometimes food,” that it was for those times on the road when you need a clean bathroom and quick bite, and that was okay.

What he said after the meal almost killed me. “I don’t think McDonald’s tries to make great food,” he told us after his meal. “I think they try to make good food cheap.” This struck me in particular because we hadn’t tried to explicitly create any kind of value judgment for Henry around fast food, but it did sound a lot like what we would say, although he perhaps said it less pointedly than I would have. But he understood and somehow drew a conclusion in part from years of the values that my wife and I have tried to teach him.

I’d love to hear from other parents who have had similar experiences. Has a situation like this ever come up for you? How have you approached the conversation of fast food/sometimes foods with your children? How have you approached your child’s awareness of a friend’s family’s differing relationship with food? How have you seen the lessons that you’ve tried to teach your children translate in their behavior? Share your stories in the comments, or on our Facebook page!