The lies we tell our children

by Sam Bilton on June 9, 2013 1 comment

At some point in their lives everyone is economical with the truth. Once you have children it becomes a regular occurrence. Sometimes we do it to protect our offspring’s feelings like the explanation offered for why you have just flushed your daughter’s gold fish down the toilet (‘he’s just going to visit his family at the seaside’). On other occasions it’s to cajole your child into doing something you want them to do like eating the crusts on their sandwiches (‘It will give you hairs on your chest’. Although I think this one may act as more of a deterrent). Everyone does it and if anyone says that they don’t they are frankly doing exactly that – being economical with the truth.

As a parent one of the main areas of contention where children are concerned is their eating habits. Mealtimes are when most children push their parent’s buttons. And so parents resort to white lies in order to get the result we want. Won’t eat pork because it reminds them of Peppa Pig? Tell them it’s chicken! Want them to eat a spinach omelette? Tell them the green bits are herbs! It doesn’t always work but often it does get the desired result. So where’s the harm in twisting the truth a little?

Then early this week I read that 18 per cent of primary school children say that fish fingers come from chicken, 29 per cent think cheese comes from plants and 10 per cent believe tomatoes grow under the ground. These figures come from a nationwide survey of 27,500 school children conducted by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF).

“Schools throughout the UK require a national framework and guidance for food and nutrition education to support the learning needs of children and young people, especially at a time when levels of childhood obesity are soaring,” said Roy Ballam, Education Programme Manager at the British Nutrition Foundation.

But are schools really to blame for a child’s ignorance about where food come from? Local authorities will tell you that their already limited resources are being reduced further in a ‘tidal wave of cuts’ which could see the end of free school meals and transport for children from lower income families. Resources to teach children about food and nutrition are most likely seen as a luxury which simply isn’t financially viable for most of our schools.

So where are children getting their duff information about food from? Media commentators love to wax lyrical about the current younger generation’s loss of connection with food and cooking. But this disconnection took root a very long time ago. Even among my own middle aged peers there are plenty of people who couldn’t tell you how tomatoes grow. The fact is we don’t need to know this information. The fruit and veg aisle in most supermarkets could be completely by passed in favour of food items which have been processed and packaged for our convenience. The manufacturers even helpfully tell us how many portions of our five-a-day a ready meal contains. Why bother preparing and cooking fresh green beans when Heinz tells you that baked beans count as one of your five-a-day? And if the parents are unsure about where food comes from how can we expect our children to know?

I think the older a child gets the more savvy they become about food. A four year old may swallow the tale of a fish finger being made from chicken to make it more palatable in their eyes but I doubt an eight year old would. This doesn’t mean they will always be able to make the right food choices. Whilst the majority of children interviewed for the BNF survey were aware of the recommended five-a-day guidelines 67 per cent of primary school children and 81 per cent of secondary school pupils reported eating four or less portions of fruit and vegetables daily. This isn’t a question of ignorance but an economic issue. Increasing numbers of families are falling into food poverty. None of us can have failed to notice that fresh fruit and vegetables are becoming more and more expensive and for some people prohibitively so. It’s a sad fact that for many people control over their nutrition and well being has been taken out of their hands by economic circumstances.

Benevolent campaigns like the BNF’s Healthy Eating Week and Kew’s IncrEdibles festival (25 May – 1 Sep 2013) are great attempts to engage people with food. IncrEdibles aims to broaden visitors relationship with what they eat through various exhibits such as a global kitchen garden, a tea party with a twist and a tutti frutti boating lake.


Global Kitchen Garden at Kew’s IncrEdibles festival

“Our hope is that visitors will enjoy exploring the captivating stories of edible plants, and leave the festival with a fresh consideration for the food they eat and its origin, as well as the future of crops in the UK and around the world,” explained Dr Paul Smith, Head of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank.

Rose Garden Tea Party at Kew's IncrEdibles festival

Rose Garden Tea Party at Kew’s IncrEdibles festival


Unfortunately, the message they convey will reach relatively few people. Three thousand schools participated in the BNF’s Healthy Eating Week. But at the risk of raining on their parade this is only around 12% of the schools in England alone. There are still so may mountainous issues to scale regarding food poverty and it’s implications which stretch far beyond our domestic frontiers. Food poverty is a global issue and one that is unlikely to be resolved in our children’s lifetimes let alone ours.

Professor Tim Lang of City University is quoted by The Observer in this article as saying “We’ve had many summits talking about hunger since the oil and commodity price spike of 2007-08, rightly, but not enough has happened to change the food system…The unpalatable truth is that there are 870 million people starving, 2 billion malnourished and 1.4 billion overweight and obese.”

Should we stop telling children white lies about the food they eat? I think not. In the overall scheme of things they don’t do any harm. In much the same way as they work out that Santa is a myth children come to realise that bread crusts don’t equal hairy chests and Peppa and her cohorts are the major constituents of a pork pie. Perhaps what we should be doing is making our children more aware of food poverty so that they and subsequent generations can continue to work towards eradicating it.


Sam BiltonThe lies we tell our children

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  • su sullivan - August 7, 2013 reply

    Too true Sam, my own white lies to my son “they are big peas” to get him to eat brussel sprouts!

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