Pardon Me While I Proudly Feed My Kids Kale AND Chemicals

by McCall Dempsey
Originally Published: 
McCall Dempsey

Recently, I posted this picture of my children enjoying ice cream sandwiches following dinner with a caption that said:

“Years ago, I would spend nearly an hour in the grocery store’s ice cream section. Opening and closing every glass door, pulling every carton out and quickly putting it back in. My mind raced as I carefully analyzed every black and white nutrition label. Too many calories in this one, too much sugar in that one. I would ultimately walk out with the lowest fat/cal/sugar ice cream-ish substance I could find. I would also leave in the throws of a massive panic attack. Because of my eating disorder, a task as simple as grocery shopping left me crippled by anxiety.

When the ice cream made it to my freezer, it haunted me. I wanted throw it away. I wanted to eat it all and purge it. But all I really wanted was to stop the monster in my brain. I wanted ice cream to be just that – ice cream. I wanted freedom from my eating disorder.

[Seven years later] Today, I quickly push my cart up and down each aisle, tossing in items on my list: avocados, black beans, chips, crackers, milk. I strolled down the freezer section and caught a glimpse of ice cream sandwiches. “That sounds good!” I thought and tossed them in. I kept my quick pace to the check out so I would make it home to unload the groceries before it was time to pick up the kids.

I often hear from parents they limit sweets or do not keep them in the house at all. It is SO important that we offer our children a variety of foods and do not label food good or bad. Food is food – no moral value. All foods fit! When we deny our children certain foods, it creates a hierarchy of food and can possibly shame them from eating it in the future, associating the food with feelings of guilt. Above all else, it is so important for our children to see us enjoying a variety of foods. This evening, my kids and I enjoyed the delicious ice cream sandwiches. I never take a single moment of recovery for granted and the ability to share it with my children. I am so thankful for my recovery and the freedom that comes with – both in and out of the freezer aisle!”


The post was shared widely across social media with many “YES!” comments and women in recovery posting about their own journey with ice cream. However, I knew it was a matter of time before someone questioned my “All Foods Fit” approach to food.

“I disagree in one respect. Junk food is junk. Chemical filled and not healthy. Once in a while a Twinkie or something junky is fine. But children should learn about healthy foods.”

“Moderation is so key. As long as my dd eats a balanced meal that covers most of the food groups, I don’t mind sharing my ice cream with her. She’s such a fruit & veggie eater, she’d rather have fresh picked strawberries most days over processed sugars. The biggest thing I want her to take away from childhood & food, is that she try new things when they are offered (she nearly always has a different meal than me & hubby) and she get a little protein in. (Like I said, she’s a fruit & veggies kid, but getting her to eat a little chicken or pork is tough some days.)”

I began to respond, but soon decided my response warranted a longer reply than a simple social media comment.

So here goes:

Thank you all for your comments. I understand your thoughts around moderation and labeling food as “junk” because that is certainly what society and many “experts” tell us.

“Don’t eat junk. Childhood obesity is at an all-time high! Limit processed sugars. Moderation is KEY!”

I get the “Moderation is key” a lot. And to that, I completely agree 100%. Is it healthy to eat ice cream and pizza all day long, every day? No way. And on the other side of the coin: Is it healthy to eat kale and apples all day long? Nope. So yes, moderation is key.

McCall Dempsey

I cringe when I see people talk about “chemical-filled” food. This has little to do with my eating disorder history and more to do with my daughter’s cancer. Two years ago, when my daughter was in the hospital fighting neuroblastoma, I posted a picture of her with cupcakes sent by my sweet sorority sisters. I was shocked when I received an anonymous email warning me to keep all sugar away from my daughter.

First of all, my daughter was 8 months and had just spent a week in the PICU. She wasn’t even close to starting solid food yet. Secondly, sugar does not cause cancer. I realize I might be opening Pandora’s box here, but my daughter was diagnosed at 7 months old. All she ever had in her body was breast milk. Cancer just happens sometimes. Sure, smoking causing cancer, but there is very little evidence to connect sugar/processed foods to cancer.

Trust me, I have tackled every doctor and nurse on our oncology floor and beyond, asking them what caused Marjorie’s cancer. I asked them what I can feed my children to prevent it from coming back or to keep my son from developing cancer. Unfortunately, there is very little I can do. Cancer just happens sometimes.

My daughter’s oncology nurse once told me there were two kids on the unit, both with the exact same cancer. One of the patients came from a family that was vegetarian and ate everything organic. The other child was of a lower socioeconomic level with two working parents. His diet consisted of a lot of fast food. Extremely different diets and home life — exact same cancer. You can’t keep your children from getting cancer.

Again, is it good for us to eat processed foods and lots of sugar all day, no. Moderation. Kale and cupcakes. Hell, kale and chemicals if that is what you label cupcakes and ice cream sandwiches. And to be completely honest, I do buy organic meats and dairy. That is just my personal preference. You will also find non-organic bananas and Oreos in my pantry too.

At the end of the day, we can’t deny our children and ourselves what our bodies want. You can’t tell me that at the end of a hot summer day, an ice cream sandwich didn’t sound amazing! I don’t think I’ve met anyone who craved frozen kale after a hot day on the beach.

Food is food. Sure, some foods pack more nutrient punch than others, but it is so critical not to create a hierarchy. When we limit or deny our children (or ourselves) certain food or food groups, that is all we will crave. When we can truly listen to our bodies, it will tell us what we need. Our bodies might signal us to want leafy greens, or they might crave a burger because our iron is low.

My children are small, but they understand that food is food. My son sometimes turns down cake for bananas and sometimes vice versa. The bottom line is we are born with an amazing hunger/fullness system that gets distorted with every diet or food denial. Oftentimes, we unknowingly pass that guilt on to our children. We love our children and want to see them healthy and happy, so we limit sweets or fast food. I can’t tell you how many young people I meet who feel like they have to sneak McDonald’s because they feel so ashamed about it. What if we drove through McDonald’s with them? No, seriously.

I recently gave a parent presentation with Oliver-Pyatt’s amazing director of nutrition, Mary Dye. A mom challenged the All Foods Fit theory, saying that if she allowed her daughter to eat whatever she wanted, her daughter would go through McDonald’s every day.

“Let her,” I said.

“She will kill herself with it,” the mother responded.

“No she won’t. I promise,” I said. “She will get tired of it. It will lose its novelty. She won’t eat it forever, and it will not kill her.”

Mary then elaborated with a story that gave me chills:

“I once had a patient who struggled with binge-eating disorder,” Mary said. “Her father was a cardiologist, and she grew up in a house that shamed and labeled food bad, especially fast food. My work with her was to normalize food and to eliminate the shame factor. In fact, as a therapeutic exercise, we drove to McDonald’s. Fast food was something she would binge in secret and shame, alone in her car. I wanted to normalize the fast food experience for her. So we drove through, ordered, parked, and mindfully enjoyed our meal. The more we deny, the more we want.”

I have told that story countless times. And what I would give to one day meet the brave patient who did the hard work of recovery, changing not only her life, but maybe her family’s as well.

I know the thought of keeping a variety of foods in the house or even you yourself driving through McDonald’s is outlandish, but try it. You might even surprise yourself. I never thought I could have ice cream in my house. Today, I have ice cream, candy, cookies, bananas, kale, crackers, chips, cheese, apples — you name it. And guess what? I don’t think about what I have in my pantry or freezer — unless, of course, I’m heading to the grocery store and need to make a list.

My motivation to recover was to not only be a mom, but also to be a mom who led by example. I wanted to be a mom who could eat ice cream and kale and everything in between. I am proud to say that I AM that mom today. There is also no doubt I am screwing up motherhood in a thousand other ways, but I make a conscious effort every day to do my best to live and lead by example.

My hope and prayer is not to raise healthy kids, but kind kids who love and live life, kids who forget there are cookies in the house unless their bellies tell them they want one. I want my kids to listen to the amazing bodies God gave them. Moving their bodies when they have bursts of energy or when the sun is shining just right, eating when they are hungry, stopping when they are full, and if they eat too much, well, then they know next time to stop. Food is not the focus of our lives — it is important, but our day does not revolve around it. Our daily focus is on loving and living — playing outside, building towers, chasing lizards, and avoiding shoes flying through the air when Marjorie throws them in her daily tantrum!

Raising healthy kids isn’t as important to me as raising kids who love themselves. At the end of the day, if we love ourselves, like truly love ourselves, we will honor our body. We will nourish, move, and rest it as it desires and needs. When we love our bodies, we take the time to take care of it in all aspects: mind, body and spirit.

So go ahead, eat the McDonald’s, the kale shakes, the daffodil sprouts, and yes, even the “chemicals.”

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