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“But Mom, I’m supposed to eat a rainbow every day!” Sigh…

Posted by on Jul 16, 2012 in Blog Posts | 11 comments

We were enjoying a lovely dinner at Olive Garden, M’s new favorite. I dipped a bread stick into my soup, and said to M, “Try this, it’s heaven!” (I know, we were really hungry, and all my foodie friends will have to grin and bear this post…) So M did, then she says, “Mom, dip yours in my marinara sauce, it’s beyond heaven…”

I giggled, then noticed her naming colors. “Red sauce, green salad, I had orange carrots at lunch…” I knew exactly what had happened. Someone had told her to “eat a rainbow every day.” Sigh. I asked anyway, and she told me that she has to eat a rainbow every day because it’s “healthy.” (M is a sweet child, but she also likes to please the adults in her life, so she is particularly vulnerable in my mind to the insidious nutrition messaging she is beginning to hear more and more…)

Where to begin. So, I started with helping come up with yellow (the top of the bread stick) and we agreed that blue was really hard (there was some purple cabbage in the salad). We had blueberries that morning in our smoothies, and then I delighted in naming her blue freezie pop, and the blue laffy-taffy she’d had earlier in the week, the blue Icee she had the previous month at Skyzone… I’m sure NOT what the “eat a rainbow” crowd has in mind. We also talked about white and brown meals that are healthy, like chicken and cauliflower and potatoes. We agreed that eating rules are silly, and some days you might eat all the colors, and others you might not, and that it’s all OK, and that listening to our bodies is the best way to eat. We talked about how the idea of “eat a rainbow” might help remind people to eat lots of different foods, and that’s okay, because eating different foods helps you be healthy. We talked about how you could eat rainbow-colored candy all day, but that wouldn’t be healthy…

I also thought about the kids in her camp who are on free lunches and who maybe can’t afford the stop-light bag of peppers, or maybe blueberries or orange peppers, and if they can, it sure as heck won’t be organic, and how all these food rules can makes kids feel bad about how they eat, what their parents provide and what they can afford. How maybe they’ll eat a lot of peppers for a few days because that was on sale, or eat a lot of corn because it’s fresh…Sigh, again.

I wonder if eating a rainbow goes along with  eating local or seasonal. Not much of a rainbow in Minnesota in the winter… Kiwis? Bananas? Not local or seasonal. All these food rules are getting confusing…

What do you think? I know I’m hypersensitive to any food “rules,” because so far my daughter eats so intuitively and such a great variety with so little cognitive noise that I want to protect that as long as I can. And even pretty rules like “eat the rainbow” are still rules and noise that can mess up her intuitive eating.

Oh, and back to the Division of Responsibility, it’s MY job as the parent to decide what she eats, MY job to buy the variety. When we tell small children to do the jobs of the grown-ups in their lives, it’s simply not fair.


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  1. Maya

    Excellent article! The ‘elitist rhetoric’ around healthy eating is just as bad here where I am (in South Africa) People are advised to have three to four portions of oily fish daily- totally unaffordable by 90 percent of the population!

    • katja

      Thanks for chiming in. Sometimes I think we have it worse,and I suspect we do, but my parents said there was an article in a German magazine about how everyone feels free to comment on food choices. Getting a salad? “Are you on a diet?” Skipping dessert? “You must be trying to impress your date…” Seems like it’s all becoming fairly universal…

  2. Jennifer Hansen

    I strongly agree that these rules don’t take privilege or local markets into account. How can I feed my children red fruits if strawberries always show up moldy, red plums are either rotten or sour, grapes cost twice as much as I can afford, the red apples didn’t get on the barge this week, and it isn’t watermelon season? And then there’s appetite. Why should I bug my daughter to eat 5 or 7 or 10 vegetables and fruits today when she demolished a can of pineapple for lunch and is all fruited out for the day?

    “Try to eat a rainbow just for today” might be a nice way to help kids venture out of their comfort zones and try something new, if it’s optional and if the person setting the challenge knows that this child can actually eat a rainbow. No point smacking a child in the face with the fact of her own poverty.

    • katja

      Thank you for writing! Yes, seems like a poster with kiwis and peppers and other costly fruits and veggies can do just that, smack them in the face. it also negates and shames children and adults who rely on canned and frozen fruits. You never see canned or frozen on those posters, but they are often equally, if not more nutritious than “fresh” that may have been on a truck and in the ripening room for weeks…
      Yes, sometimes we take the “variety” thing too far. Does it have to be 5 DIFFERENT fruits and veggies every day, when perhaps a family has to eat up what is in bulk? Or 5 servings of fruits and veggies. We are not little test tubes, and I think that stressing intake over a day, for whatever reason, versus over several days or a week is reductionist. (I think that’s the right word.) Thanks for writing!

      • Jennifer Hansen

        The wild berries are just beginning to ripen here. That’s a good thing, because we have been eating watermelon, watermelon, watermelon until the kids are actually tired of it. When your budget is tight, you do have to buy in bulk and eat on it until it’s gone. Come to think of it, in the goode olde dayes when everybody ate super virtuous organic food, i.e., when most people had farms or bought straight from the farmer, that’s what they did. In strawberry time, you ate strawberries; when peaches came ripe, you ate peaches. Rainbow eating was for people so rich they could keep hothouses.

        Price check: For $1.79 I could buy just over a pound of bananas or carrots, or a handful of cherries, or one kiwi. Peppers are normally $2.00 apiece.

        • katja

          Thanks for the reality check! Yes, in the olde dayes, you ate lettuce, greens, asparagus, then carrots,corn, kohlrabi… and lastly the root veggies. (Forgive me if I got those out of order…) I imagine winter was pretty non-rainbow. So much of our nutrition rhetoric has an elitist aspect, and I’d love to see more acknowledgment of that. Thanks again for writing.

  3. Kris

    Every year, the employee health program where I work sponsors an initiative very much like “eat a rainbow.” You can get handouts and a tracking form that you’re supposed to fill in to show how many servings of each different color of food you ate each day. You’re supposed to eat at least one serving of each color every day, but some colors are “better for you” than others (e.g., dark purple, dark green, or blue). Basically, the deeper the hue, the better the food is supposed to be for you–at least you get extra credit for the darker ones. Joining the promotion is voluntary, but in addition to little prizes you can also earn credits toward reducing your health insurance premium by participating.

    I do think the idea of it could be useful for those who don’t typically eat a variety of foods. It could encourage people to try new things or break out of old habits. But it’s also just another set of “rules” that in my opinion construct an unneeded framework around something that I think are already very simple concepts: eat a variety of foods, try new foods and new ways of preparing familiar ones, and above all ENJOY eating!

    I suppose I should be grateful that my employer sponsors various health programs throughout the year, and that participation is voluntary. A lot of folks don’t have that sort of perk available to them, so I’m fortunate to work for a company that does truly care about its employees’ health even if they sometimes don’t implement things perfectly. Something new they have been trying at my office is a mini farmer’s market once a month, where local farmers bring in small quantities of fresh produce and sell it in the lobby of the office building.

    Anyway, for some folks I suppose the structure of the rainbow could be useful, but I just find those sorts of rules to be annoying and not very helpful.

    • katja

      I love the idea of a farmer’s market at work. Is there anything else they do that you like? Yoga, meditation, mindful eating?? Just curious.

      • Kris

        Yes, yoga classes are available at my office daily. Meditation is available once in a while–usually a class a week for six weeks when it’s offered, which is about once a year.

        My company is very invested in employee health. We actually have a clinic and a gym on site (not free, but very cheap). I am very privileged at my workplace to have the resources available like this. Sometimes the programs offered are on target and other times not, but they are really trying and are investing a lot of effort in us.

        Even with all of that it is not easy, as Jennifer mentions, and I have great options available to me.

  4. cecile

    It’s like the “eat 5 vegetables a day”, or 10… I agree with you, it’s good as a reminder to eat various foods, as long as you can afford it, but sad if not. Still, it would be great if schools gave a lot of colorful options for kids to eat, no ?

    • katja

      I have to say, I still love the food groups. I like to think about 1 meat/protein, 1 grain or potato/pasta and 2 veggies and/or fruit. It would be lovely if kids had great choices at school. Luckily M’s school does a great job overall 🙂 I was pleasantly surprised.


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