Ken Hubener – Bedford Hills father of a 10-year-old boy & 7-year-old girl
Veronica Mcilraith, Esq. – South Salem mother of 4-year-old girl
Luz Michelle – Goldens Bridge mother of a 6-year-old boy & 8-year-old girl
Jessica R. Karamouzis –Bedford mother of a 3-year-old girl
Joe O’Sullivan – Pound Ridge father of a 9-year-old girl
We began our discussion about fast food by attempting to define it. However, we found it to be an incredibly difficult task, and after about 20 minutes, we agreed that a fast food restaurant is: a place that sells food full of preservatives/food with a concerningly long shelf life.
Then, we discussed everything from the quintessential Americana qualities of fast food chains and their place in American culture to how parents should best face the issue of whether or not to feed their children fast food. Here are the highlights from our two-and-a-half-hour discussion.
Katonah Connect: How would you define fast food?
Ken: For me, fast food is anything that is frozen. Anything that comes from a freezer that you can pop in the microwave. It has a long shelf life and can be easily accessible within minutes.
Veronica: I think fast foods are the typical quintessential Americana fast food chains that we pass on highways.
Jessica: I think they’re anything with a drive-thru.
Joe: Technically speaking, food that is not refrigerated will go bad in the next few days. Something that is going to have a shelf life for months on end – it’s questionable whether it’s food or not.
Luz: I would say it’s all the major fast food chains – the ones with drive-thrus. But some are better than others. I take my kids to Salsa Fresca, but McDonald’s is only once a month.
Katonah Connect: Eighty-three percent of American families eat at fast food restaurants at least once a week, and the average American household spends 10 percent of their annual income on fast food. Do you believe fast food to be an addiction for some? How does this concern you for your own children’s intake of fast food?
Luz: I believe it is an addiction. I always compare a happy meal to a box of Goldfish crackers: same thing. They’re just as bad.
Veronica: Yes, fast food is definitely an addiction. My biggest concern is that right now, I have so much control over her snacks and her lunch because she is in nursery school. When she goes to a friend’s house, I know where she’s going and what she’s eating, for the most part. But as I look at the food menu in elementary school, the choices concern me.
Jessica: Yes, I do believe it is addictive. I certainly do not take our daughter to fast food once a week nor do I spend 10 percent of our income on it.
Katonah Connect: How can parents influence their children’s food choices?
Veronica: For me, I think it’s creating good habits.
Luz: I think the education behind food is crucial. There’s a lot to understand about food, and I grew up in a house where it was told to us, it wasn’t taught. So I teach my kids. For example, they know what a chicken nugget is; they know that it’s not chicken.
Jessica: I agree about education. That being said, I think we all need to stop treating fast food as a treat. A lot of people will say, ‘You were so good today; you got a good grade on a test. Do you want to go to McDonald’s and celebrate?’ Treating food as a reward is the number one way to put yourself or your kid on the road to obesity.
Luz: I give my kids fast food probably once a month. I don’t treat it like a treat because my kids are fully aware of what fast food is. They’ve watched the documentaries, and I’m not going to sit there and argue with them going behind my back and having it. If you want to have it, and you are out with your friends when you’re older, and you’re fully aware of what you’re putting into your body, then that’s okay.
Joe: A lot of people just eat out of boredom. So if a kid just ate 20 minutes ago and they say, ‘I’m hungry,’ they couldn’t be hungry – they just had lunch! A lot of it’s boredom. So water is a great trick. Ask your kids to drink water if they are hungry for a snack and see if they are still hungry in 20 minutes.
Katonah Connect: Do you think school lunches are similar to fast food? If so, how could schools change their options to be healthier?
Ken: I read a study years ago that said the average school-aged child who drinks two cartons of milk in their first five years will accumulate over 100 pounds of sugar, just from milk alone. So, I really think the main topic should be sugar. And, I’ve tested food from a prison and a school, and the prison food is 10 times more nutritional than what they are feeding my kids at Bedford Hills Elementary.
Katonah Connect: What do you think about fast food ads?
Ken: What they should do is show the simplicity of it. They should get the people who are actually eating it and show the 300- or 400-pound people, the people with bad acne — I mean, that’s the truth of the matter. They should be honest.
Joe: I think we need more positive role models for kids. I think one of the problems is that there are sports stars who are very inspirational to kids, but the stars have been totally corrupted by these companies. Everything is corrupted, that’s the problem.
Ken: My kids went to someone’s house and they saw a McDonald’s commercial where they spent multi-million dollars to make that an addictive commercial.
Jessica: Talk about an addictive commercial: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, onions, pickles on a sesame seed bun. How long has it been since that commercial has been on the market?
Jessica: How many people do you see smoking outside now? Very few. Why? Because there was a national campaign to stop people from smoking. There was a national campaign to stop people from driving drunk. There has never been a national campaign to get people to eat healthy and to really educate people on the crap that you’re putting in your body.
Luz: The education behind fast food is so important, and there should be more of an emphasis on it. In this day and age, in 2023, if we’re going to McDonald’s or Taco Bell or wherever, there should always be a healthy option. Why can’t I get a salad or a real juice when I’m there?
Katonah Connect: What role do you think consumerism plays in the rush to get fast food?
Ken: The goal is to have uncertainty that keeps people in fight or flight. Because then you buy, buy, buy.
Jessica: American society is also very focused on quantity over quality. Look at the cars we drive, especially here in this area. Why do we need $100,000 cars? We don’t. Why are our engagement rings 2, 3, 4 or 5 carats? Why are we walking around with Cartier jewelry? Why are we walking around with Louis Vuitton handbags? We’re doing this because it’s a societal norm. We’re spending money on these things and then you’re putting crap in your body because you spent $1,200 on a bag or $25,000 on a watch or $100,000 on a car.
Veronica: Consumerism also extends to food. Instead of the emphasis being making food at home, it’s about going out to get food. It’s overconsumption; that’s how it feels to me.
Katonah Connect: How could we look to other countries as role models for healthier eating?
Veronica: I’m originally from Russia, and one of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is that there’s an emphasis on fresh food versus packaged food in Russia, and it’s the reverse here. In Europe, all the fresh food is very cheap and the packaged food is more expensive. Here, it is the opposite.
Joe: There are so many more regulations by the European Union. Even the ingredients in McDonald’s in Ireland are entirely different than it is here.
Ken: In Europe, everything has to be proven safe before it can be put into the public. In America, you’re allowed to use anything until it is proven unsafe.
Jessica: Here’s the other thing: yes there are big cities, obviously. But, in more parts of Europe than not, your lifestyle is walking to the market, walking to work, bicycling. Here, you go into your garage and you get into your Audi and vroom, vroom.
Veronica: When we first immigrated from Russia, we were all sick and vomiting for about a month because our stomachs did not take well to the food here. I know a lot of immigrant families who went through that.
Katonah Connect: How do you believe monetary issues contribute to the choice to opt for fast food?
Jessica: You can feed a whole family at KFC for $29.99. But if you buy lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots at the supermarket, it’s the same $29.99, and then you need to add a protein. It gets so expensive.
Ken: On any given day, I drive past McDonald’s and there are Hondas, Porsches, pick-up trucks – all facets of people are going in there. What I feel for is the people who are making $20 an hour. Fast food is there for a reason. I joke about the people who have hair and shave their heads, like you shouldn’t be allowed to shave your head – I’m bald, so I don’t have a choice. It’s the same thing with food. If you can afford to buy healthier food and you’re still eating at McDonald’s, it makes no sense.
Katonah Connect: Final thoughts?
Jessica: In moderation with education.
Joe: Education, I think that’s what we’re lacking.
Veronica: In schools too, it should be taught on a broader scale because eating is something we do every day.
Ken: We do so many things differently here than they do in the rest of the world. We need to stop educating ourselves through television. We should teach our kids how to educate themselves. They have to learn to ask themselves the questions, like how do they feel after eating that food?
Luz: I really believe in education also. Everyone should know what they’re putting into their body.
This article was published in the July/August 2023 print edition of Katonah Connect.