Nutrition Month 2024: ‘Parent-Shaming’ Undermines Value of Choice at the Grocery Store

A critical part of understanding nutrition is the recognition that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. As a professional in the consumer products industry, I find the current rhetoric around the loosely defined term “ultra-processed” frustrating and misguided. As a mom of a special needs child, I find it infuriating and elitist.

This trope of thoughtless “parent-shaming” online does little more than come across as lacking empathy and fails to consider the unique experience of every parent and the realities about making choices for our families.

Consumers’ relationships with food are simultaneously complicated and evolve over a lifetime, and working for the industry that represents the makers of America’s food and beverage products doesn’t make me immune to those feelings and memories. Thinking of my childhood to my life now as a parent, it’s become increasingly difficult to accept some of the most current rhetoric around “ultra-processed” foods.

I grew up in a single-income household. Trips to the local grocery store with my mom, dad and sister were lessons in how to stretch five dollars to get enough food to pack our lunches for the week — and we certainly were not the only family in rural Pennsylvania going through the same routine. Fast forward 30 years, and there are countless families going through those motions. It’s about a family’s ability to provide for itself, make its own decisions about what to eat and send children to school knowing they have food. It was — and is — that simple. My parents strived to provide us with affordable, nutritious food to keep us fueled to learn, play sports, do our chores and whatever else was required of our family on a given day. Sometimes, that was canned fruit. Other days, it was chicken nuggets. And on occasion, it was an ice pop, because we were kids, it was hot outside, and it made us happy.

As a mom of two kids myself today, trips to the grocery store take on some of the same meaning but are colored by my real-life circumstances. While not limited by the same financial constraints, I have a lot to think about: a picky eater, preferences for one flavor over another, school lunch versus one packed by mom or dad. And more importantly, products that allow my child with developmental delays to sit in the school cafeteria with her friends and enjoy the same lunchtime break and banter as her typically developing peers. Guess what? Those products look a lot like the ones we chose as kids — individually-sized cups that contain pre-cut fruit and veggies, a bar, fruit juice, a Lunchables with easy-to-handle slices of meat, cheese and crackers. It’s these modern conveniences — and dare I say processing steps — that are affording my child her independence and my husband and I some peace of mind about just a small portion of her day.

My daughter likely will never live on her own, but it’s our goal every day to find products that allow her to get just a little closer to functioning like her little brother. On the food front, that means embracing many items now being demonized under the broad and misguided umbrella of “ultra-processed.” (And, not for nothing, those same Lunchables I mentioned will now come with the option of a variety of fresh cut fruit in the packages.)

Sweeping accusations, generalizations and hand-wringing articles not steeped in science but holier-than-thou opinions that attempt to shoehorn food categories into a mold for everyone benefit no one. Just like my parents understood decades ago, treats are different from fresh produce. Attempts to shame parents about the food choices they make ignore the multitude of real-life, daily circumstances behind those decisions, whether they are financial or based on the special needs of a family member or offer some time back to a parent trying to manage school, work, activities and life in between.