Putting the squeeze on meals: Kids feed themselves with pouches
Are food pouches for babies and toddlers the solution to mealtime struggles or a convenient cop-out?
The New York Times
At mealtime, I turn into a vaudevillian. The Contortionist. Dr. Airplane. Maestro the Great.
"I will make this bite of avocado disappear — in your mouth!"
My lovely assistant is my daughter, Mirabel, age 22 months, strapped into a highchair. She might well demur, pursing her lips. Or sometimes she'll meet my overture with raised arms and a single word: "Out!"
It's a challenge that will be familiar to anyone who has tried to feed a baby developing both a palate and free will.
Enter Neil Grimmer, who wants to smooth out an age-old family power dynamic by empowering children.
Grimmer, 40, is the chief executive of Plum Organics, one of the pioneers of a booming new business: food pouches for babies and toddlers. The pouches have little plastic spouts at the top from which a mix of organic fruits, veggies and grains (about 100 calories' worth) can be sucked. Now our children can eat on the run, too.
Since Plum Organics, in Emeryville, Calif., introduced the pouches in 2008, the category has taken off with competitors. In the last year or so, even big names like Gerber and Earth's Best have gotten into the act. So have boutique companies like Ella's Kitchen, Happy Baby and Sprout Baby Food.
And although the pouches cost $1.40 to $2, nearly double the price of food sold in a jar (a difference that reflects, in part, higher production costs), major retailers like Safeway, Target, Whole Foods and Babies "R" Us are stocking up.
Grimmer believes the pouch's popularity can be attributed to the emergence of a new way of relating to our children. He calls it "free-range parenting."
Parents, he explained, want to be as flexible as modern life demands. And when it comes to eating, that means doing away with structured mealtimes in favor of a less structured alternative that happens not at set times, but whenever a child is hungry.
What Grimmer is selling, he said, is a way to facilitate that: mobile food technology for the modern family.
"It's on-the-go snacking, on-the-go nourishment," he said. "It moves with kids and puts the control in their hands. The Gerber generation was raised on the idea that baby food in a glass jar was the pinnacle of health. We're challenging that notion."
Gerber, by the way, doesn't concede that last point. Apparently, there is a new generation of Gerber Babies who are reveling in the control that food pouches give them, a claim echoed by other pouch manufacturers.
Maureen Putman, chief marketing officer of Hain Celestial Group, the company that makes Earth's Best baby food, said: "As a child becomes more independent and wants to self-feed, the pouches are mom's answer. They definitely give the child a little bit of control and confidence."
But they also raise questions about some of our most basic assumptions to do with how we feed our children and who is in control. By handing our toddlers the keys to the kitchen, are we inviting a whole new set of problems down the road?
I'm not alone in feeling conflicted about this. Even some of Grimmer's employees have their moments of doubt.
Sangita Forth, 37, vice president of brand marketing, said she loves using the pouches as snacks for her 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. But when she uses them as a substitute for a sit-down meal (something that happens occasionally, she said), she has mixed feelings."Is it the ideal scenario?" she said. "No. But as a mom, I know at least I'm giving them a healthy alternative. The mindset now isn't that you have to be the perfect mom, but that you're doing the best you can."
Alissa Bushnell, 45, said she keeps a pouch in her bag so she can give it to her 4 ½-year-old daughter during the drive home from school. "I've got 20 minutes in the car with a hungry kid," said Bushnell, a public relations consultant who lives in a rural town in Northern California and doesn't have time to prepare an alternative. She equates the pouch to having a back-seat TV in the car: a convenient distraction in harried times.
When Grimmer and his wife, Tana Johnson, came up with the idea for Plum Organics, they weren't thinking about any of this. All they wanted was to get their baby girls to eat lunch.
Busy parents, they had put their children in day care by the time they were 6 months old, sending them off each day with a box of home-cooked fruits and grains and vegetables — food that would often return uneaten, without the parents there to sell it. But when they tried puréeing the food, in a precursor to the pouch, the box came back empty.
Grimmer, a triathlete and former executive at Clif Bar, a maker of energy bars, soon realized he had made a discovery that might appeal to other parents. "I'd argue that even if we weren't working full time, we're all moving at the speed of light," he said. Long work days, beckoning smartphones, hyper-efficiency. "We want to make sure we're able to move at the right speed, but also do the right thing for our kids."
The proof seems to be in the pudding. Plum Organics conservatively estimates that its sales of pouches for babies, toddlers and children will be $53 million in 2012, up from around $4,800 when it put out its first pouches in 2008.
Other companies are reporting similar results. Gerber said the sales of its new lines of pouches for babies and toddlers are growing at double-digit rates. And Earth's Best said its pouch sales are growing at "triple-digit rates" (sales in grocery stores grew 372 percent in the last year, the company reported) and that the popularity of the pouches is one of the major reasons their sales of organic baby food grew 41 percent in the last three months, despite falling birthrates, even as baby food sales in general have remained flat.
On one level, certainly, the pouch is irresistible. How much time have I spent trying to sell one of my children on a piece of colby cheese? And while my wife and I aren't particularly neurotic, we are not above hearing what I think is a fairly common refrain running through most parents' heads: "My child hasn't eaten in hours and will die on my watch!"
The pouches came out about a year after the birth of our son, Milo, who is now almost 4, and he has tried them on occasion. But Mirabel, his little sister, is a full-fledged member of the pouch generation. After gymnastics class one Saturday morning, when she'd had little breakfast, she slurped down a mash-up of blueberry, pear and purple carrot. The next afternoon, on the way to a party, after a skipped lunch, it was a mixture of zucchini, banana and amaranth.
And then there was the recent night when my vaudeville act failed and I acceded to her cry of "Out!" only to discover that, moments later, my wife had given the freed girl a Yogurt Mish Mash pouch with berries, bananas and beets. She ate it while jumping around the living room, playing trampoline.
Watching her jump and eat, I was struck by several thoughts simultaneously. One, kids aren't supposed to move and eat, are they? Two, if my children don't sit at the table, how will they ever learn manners? (Will they be cast out of polite society, like pirates or hoofed animals?) And three, aren't meals part of the glue that's supposed to hold a family together? Are we in such a hurry to do things efficiently that we're expediting the transition to the can-I-have-the-car-keys diaspora?
I put the pouch question to Brian Wansink, a professor and director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, and author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think."
He's decidedly mixed about it. On the plus side, he said, the pouch promotes nutrition and gives children choice, moving us away from "a generation of a certain kind of discipline and of a clean-your-plate attitude" that was less flexible in its ideas about child-rearing and life.
But "it's going to create a lot of self-absorbed kids," he said.
It also eliminates structure around eating, which he doesn't like: "At age 3, it's a packet of vegetables," he said. "At age 13, it's the chips or candy bar they think they deserve."
Wansink and his wife have three children under the age of 6, and he advocates keeping children at the table and power struggles at bay by "taking the attention off the food." At night, each member of his family answers four questions: What was the high point of the day? What was the low point? Whom did he or she most appreciate? And what direction is your compass pointing tomorrow?
"It takes tremendous resolve by parents to say, 'Mealtime is mealtime,' " he added. Even if meals are not always shared with Dad, as is often the case in Wansink's family, because he travels a lot for work.
I consulted next with Edward Abramson, a psychologist who studies eating habits and is the author of "It's Not Just Baby Fat." First of all, he told me, "Stop worrying, your children will not starve if they miss a meal."
Like Wansink, he also prefers structured mealtimes, which he said promote long-term nutritional health by creating boundaries when it comes to food.
But he acknowledged that there are realities to contend with: Most children lack the attention span to sit for long periods of time, and nearly all parents are busy and need help feeding their children efficiently.
It wasn't the first time I had heard that last bit. True, the pouches allow children to be mobile, but their real appeal may be that they allow us to be mobile, too.
I went back to Grimmer and put the question to him: Is this about our children, or about us?
The pouch "is about recognizing the moment we live in," he told me. "We have ideal selves as parents, but there are also real moments as parents" — I assumed he was referring to those less-than-ideal times when distractions like work make cooking food or cajoling a toddler to eat it almost impossible — "and you need to find solutions."
One solution, I suggested, might be returning to the proverbial baby food jar, the every-night enforced sit-downs we used to have back when we weren't moving so fast.
No, he replied, that ship has sailed. And not just for us, but for our children, too. "My kids are more scheduled than I am as CEO: soccer, ballet, theater."
Regular mealtimes just add one more item to the schedule, he said, whereas the pouch supports "those moments and gaps when they can truly be unscheduled. It's about supporting the idea that they don't have to have every last second structured."
As Putman, of Earth's Best, put it: "We're always asking more from our children. They're expected to be involved in so many activities, sports and music and language classes. How do you fit a meal in in between?"
Her conclusion: "It's just necessary to live life on the go."
At last, I realized the source of my nagging discomfort. The pouch may help us negotiate the age-old battle of wills at the table, not to mention relieving me of my vaudeville act. But it also creates children in our own frenetic image: energetic, vitamin-fueled, moving frantically from one thing to the next.
I wonder if that's a good thing.