Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Toying with Nutrition

My child loves to push the grocery cart. Not the handy child-size one, but the big one. She started this around the age of 7 months, where strapped to my chest in a carrier, she would grab the cart handle and take over. The game even evolved over time in that she would pull the cart back toward me and push forward again if I was not going fast enough. Eventually, we ended up tearing through the aisles as I make car noises complete with revving engine at stops, screeching tires around turns … well, you get the picture. I am certain everyone at Target thinks I am psycho. Oh well.

So, no surprise that one fine Easter, I decided the best “basket” for my child would be a toy shopping basket complete with plastic grocery food. The cart was no problem, other than the hard to decipher pictogram assembly instructions. The food, on the other hand, presented some issues. More like a horrific revelation.

As I reached out, without thinking, for the bargain 120-piece plastic food set, I took a second look at the item. Then a third look. Then I looked again at the whole aisle. Of the 120 pieces of gourmet plastic, most of the pieces were junk or fast food. Pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream, cookies, French fries, donuts, candy, fried chicken, soda, and — way over in one corner — a few lonely vegetables and fruits.

I looked further down the aisle. Same thing. The “Just Like Home Food to Go” Play Set. Just like home? Now, you are likely to hear a lot of colorful phrases in my kitchen, but “You want fries with that?” is not one of them.

The whole aisle it seems was loaded with junk food, especially BRANDED fast food: The Pizza Hut Delivery Set; Subway Sandwich Shop; and that irritating rodent mascot of bad pizza, Chuck E. Cheese’s Party Play Kit. And McDonald’s kits, lots of McDonald’s kits; the McFlurry maker, the McD’s Food Cart, The McD’s Backpack to Go with Burger, Soda, Fries … Basically, the culinary equivalent of Candy Cigarettes.

See for yourself. Pull up your favorite online toy shop and search on “toy food.” 335 search results later, I am still not sure about the implications of items like “fart gum” and “surprise fish candy,” but I did notice a disturbing junk food bias for the most part.

There are, of course, a few items at the opposite end of the spectrum. Like the Food Network Chef outfit and Food Network “Plan a Dinner Party Play Set with matching dishes and place cards!” I have my own version of this last toy. It goes like this, “Here’s the dishes and silverware, please set the table for Mommy.” Except my dishes don’t match. And I am perfectly okay with place cards written in crayon.

Think I am over-reacting? Think again. When you purchase these items, you are telling your child that THIS is what goes into the grocery cart. THIS is what we EAT. For the fast food brands, this is better than a TV commercial during Sponge Bob hour. Children everywhere are engaged in daily interaction and play with your brand. Your brand is not just a household word, it is a toy in the household. And the parents are paying for it, too! For just $12.95 you can help McDonald’s acquire its next generation of consumers. Ages 3 and up.

At the very far end of the aisle were small individual plastic bags of fruit, vegetables and breads. The three kits, about 15 items in all, cost more than the 120-piece kit. I bought them. All three. Later, as my child was handing me each item and I was naming them for her, I knew I made the right choice. I hope that helps her make the right choice of food later on in life. Like grade school. Yeah, that soon.

Have you seen “SuperSize Me?” The fact that daily consumption of McDonald’s and the portion sizes had a negative effect on the documentary author was no shock. The expose on soda and junk food manufacturers subsidizing school lunch programs in exchange for selling their products scared me shhhii, uh, witless.

So, no, I am not over-reacting. I am reacting. And I am not crazy. Except maybe when I am running through Target with my super-charged cart.