Bread, candy and shrimp cheese in a tube. Why do kids in Norway get such bad food?

My child was a bit over 1 year old, and we had our first parental meeting with the barnehage pedagogical leader, a person with high authority in a Norwegian barnehage.

“You child will have great difficulties to learn to speak” she said.

I was horrified. I am neither a health personnel nor an expert in child behavior, I am just a mum. She is an expert, did she catch something I had missed about my child’s development?

“It is because he does not eat enough bread. Bread allows children’s muscles to develop in the mouth area, which they will need to learn to speak” she said. “He needs a Norwegian diet to develop”.

My husband and I are both foreigners. I am French and he is Romanian. We send all sorts of food in our son’s lunchbox (matpakke) including vegetables, rice, meat, polenta and beans. But it is true we send little bread and Norwegian pålegg. Apparently that was all wrong.

We were speechless. As we left the place we looked at each other “Did we hear the same thing?” What the actual f…

It made me very mad. Because I felt racism, but also arrogance. We felt like we made good food for our son, cooking from scratch and using good produce.

Norwegians are 5 million people. Indians and Chinese and basically most of Asia eats bread very seldom, and from what I know many of them speak 3 languages. According to this supposedly expert, does that mean anyone in the world who does not have a Norwegian diet (90% of the world population) won’t make it at speaking and developing properly?

Is there any reason for this lady to be so proud of Norwegian diet for children? Let’s find out!

To be fair, Norway does have good food. They have amazing cheese in the world (one Norwegian cheese won the prize of best cheese in the world in 2018) and some of the best carrots and potatoes I’ve eaten in my life. A wonderful fish called skrei, wild blueberries, raspberries.

Sadly food given to kids is something else. When my kid started in barnehage around 11 months old, I was expecting the best food this country has to offer. Norway is not only one of the richest countries in the world, but child protection, health and education seems to be a top priority. There are numerous studies now showing the impact of healthy food on both our physical and emotional health, so I assumed the food they would give them at kindergartens, two to three meals a day, would be the best of the best. Fresh vegetables, local dairy products, no processed food and all cooked from scratch.

You can imagine how shocked I was when I opened the fridge to my son’s kindergarten. There was no skrei from Lofoten or blueberries from the forests. There was a lot of bread and a big fridge with a lot… tubes. Pink tubes, blue tubes. This is sadly representative of most kindergartens in Norway. The lady who worked there said they are called bacon cheese, another called shrimp cheese.

Who got the idea to mix shrimp, salt, sugar and liquid cheese, put it in a tube and give it
to toddlers? Is this food? I wondered.

«They get bread twice a day, every day, with these varied pålegg» she said. (Pålegg is anything that is put or spread on a slice of bread or knekkebrød/hard crispy bread)

When she saw my face, she said “Don’t worry, they also get warm food once a week”.

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“Great, what is the meal this week?” I asked.

“This week it is pancakes, and next week it is tomato soup” she answered. In my book, pancakes is just a warm version of bread.

“Homemade tomato soup?” I asked.

No of course not. It is a soup from a processed powder produced by Toro. It is salt, sugar and some kind of white flour with a tomato flavour. They mix it with hot water.

At this stage I was in hyperventilation.

What kind of nation gives its kids leftovers from the meat industry, highly processed, sweet and salty artificially preserved pastes in tubes, you may ask. A poor country, with so little money it cannot even afford food for children? No, there are much poorer countries that prioritise good food for kids. Norway does not.

So what do they eat? Lots of bread. Sausages (the cheapest and highly processed version). Lots of pålegg in tubes. Kaviar (fish eggs mixed in a sweet mayonnaise), leverpostei (liver paté), shrimp cheese in a liquid paste, maquereau and tomato in a liquid form, liquid cheese with small pieces of bacon etc. They do have fruits and vegetables available, usually banana and cucumber.

In theory kindergartens follow Norwegian health authorities dietary guidelines, but most of it is not mandatory but just advisory. For example these guidelines advise not to give sugar to kids in kindergartens for birthdays (1 to 6 year old children). But it is up to each kindergarten to decide whether they will have ice cream, cakes and even candy for each kid’s birthday.

Toro chocolate cake has sugar as its first ingredient and lots of other great stuff for toddlers like glucose syrup) Toro chocolate cake is the favorite cake for all birthday parties in Norway, as well as in barnehage when tehre are parties. It has sugar as its first ingredient and lots of other great stuff for toddlers like glucose syrup)

 

When we give solid food to babies in France, from age 6 months, we take it slow. They should have food that is as clean as possible, avoiding processed food. Lots of vegetables, usually steamed. Cooked fruit, wholegrain corn. The idea is to avoid anything containing preservatives, additives, sugar, salt and artificial colours. We want children to develop a sense for a taste for single produce and get a varied diet as early as possible. It will surprise you to learn these are also the dietary guidelines for children set by the Norwegian health authorities.

The mystery for me is that in Norway, even health stations (responsible for the follow up of small kids in Norway from their birth) advise to start solid food with grøt (porridge) produced by industrial brands, with added artificial flavours as well as palm oil, and all kinds of other cheap oils. Sure, they add vitamins (artificially), but can’t they get those from vegetables? “Oh I would not risk that if I were you” is the answer of some health professionals in these health stations.

When health personnel you are in contact with as a new parent, and pedagogy professionals in kindergartens all converge towards the same message, it gets hard. A study from Høgskolen i Volda, in Norway, shows that although kindergartens do have vegetables and fruits available, as well as a variety of pålegg, most kids eat bread with the same “pålegg” every day, at every meal. Imagine your kid loves kaviar (the salty sweet mayonnaise with fish roe), he’ll be eating that on 4-5 slices of bread every day for the next years, until he is tired of it.

What are the reasons brought by Norwegians about this? Note that many Norwegian parents would love the food to get better but systems are hard to change and they don’t know better. Usually they were not raised with better food themselves.

Money: every other decent food costs too much (not true). Cooking unprocessed food can be cheap. Seasonal vegetables, cabbage, pumpkin etc. are some of the cheapest vegetables that can be found in a Norwegian grocery stores. Fresh fish is often on sale. Beans are also cheap, even organic ones. Also, in terms of costs one should think of the cost of having kids growing up with health problems. I cannot believe eating like this has no health impact. Several international studies, including one published now, show a link between high intake of processed food and dementia, cancer and death.

Practicality: it is easier for kindergarten staff to spread margarine on 25 slices of bread per meal than make an actually warm meal from scratch for everyone (true). They don’t have staff to dedicate one person to cook. Nor do they have the available funding and often not even the facilities (a proper kitchen) to do so.

Tradition: leverpostei, kaviar, brunost. All these pålegg are institutions in Norway. They are so anchored in the Norwegian food culture that any criticism is not welcome since eating brunost is as Norwegian as going skiing. I compare this with the French tradition of “le goûter” for kids. When they come home from school around 4.30pm French kids are given sweet bread and juice to get them to wait until the proper dinner, coming when their parents come home from work. If you try to tell a French family that this is an unhealthy habit, they will think you are crazy. We have always done it like this! And we are doing okay!.

My issue here is that leverpostei for example isn’t one thing, it’s 21 things, from sugar to sodium nitrite. Kaviar’s third ingredient is sugar, and contains more salt than a small child should eat. But that is hard to talk about with Norwegian institutions. They will always say things like “there is omega 3, it is important”. Sure. But that is found in other sources which don’t have all the other stuff present in processed food.

I’m not one of those perfect mums who makes lunch boxes that look like art for her kids. I work, so does my husband, and we do the best we can like everyone else.

When I think of the food any small child should eat, I think simplicity is our best friend. Pålegg just means something you spread on bread, so that could be hummus or avocado. Bread does not have to be low quality airy bread from supermarkets. Soup does not have to be from a powder from a bag. I can make a soup with 3 ingredients (pumpkin, coconut milk and onions) for 25 kids in less than an hour. I believe it is possible to change how Norwegian institutions think about food for kids, but it will take work and convincing. And maybe it will take a declining health in the coming years for them to invest in this. I won’t even talk about the high sugar intake with the loads of “saturday candy”, ice cream and Toro chocolate cake in a bag given to kids even before the age of 1 in Norway.

I will give the last word to a Norwegian lady who has been a kindergarten employee for 25 years. She told me that when she started they had a cook in the kindergarten. Now, she said, we must prepare bread slices for 20 children at the same time, feed them, and make them sleep so that we get a small break. We have neither the time nor the capacity to become food experts. Most of us have learned very little in school about nutrition anyway. There are other priorities at the municipality level.

Where does the money go to ensure the health of Norwegian children?

I hope that municipalities and the state will do their bit to provide the best of Norwegian food
to all children. Throw the tubes away and get some farmers in the kindergartens. Kids need real food not sweet liquid shrimp paste.

Read more about this topic in an article I wrote in Norwegian VG, and an interview on NRK Ukeslutt (starts at minute 08:00 on the podcast). 

22 thoughts on “Bread, candy and shrimp cheese in a tube. Why do kids in Norway get such bad food?

  1. Totally support your opinion, let’s fight against this unhealthy food tradition! When I saw my kid with an ice cream I his hand at the age of 1 in kindergarten, I freaked out and wanted to go tell them this is unhealthy and that they should have asked before, as I only wanted to give sugar to my kid at the age of 3 or 4! Hopeless! Sugar equals cancer and unhealthy population with cancer and bad teeth! Why don’t you treat your children better, when you are one of the richest country in Europe?
    I am also a working mom and I can make really quick and healthy food for my kid in no time. But the tragedy is that the kindergartners have already corrupted the health and taste of our children – when we give them broccoli or sweet potatoes at home, they throw it on the floor and only ask for pølser, pizza and kake! Because that is what they get in Barnehage! So sad!!! This unfortunately reflects an uneducated population.
    There is still hope though, we can help if you would like to have healthier children.

    1. Let us first take a look at the norwegian bread culture. This is a field in which I guess I am an expert, as a french-norwegian sourdough baker for the past 10 years (Baker Rigal). I was also an engineer in the environmental agro-industrial field and worked with environmental bio-technologies. My nb 1 hobby has always been nutrition & natural medicine. So allow me to be a bit direct on the norwegian bread habits. First of all we norwegians really trust the official guidelines. So when these say “eat whole bread” we do. Now, I grew up in France, and the french mostly eat baguette. But who has more gluten issues? Norway. Why? Because gluten issues stem from yeast baked whole bread. Why? Because humans are unable to digest yeast-baked cereal fibers. The only way to make these at least 90% digestible is sourdough baking. Sadly enough most sourdough bread in norway has not fermented nearly long enough (at least 10 hours room temp). So bake it yourself or come to our bakery. As far as kindergarten diet is concerned, apart from the bread, my main concerns would be bad fats, glutamate (msg) and sugar. What I call bad fats are all highly processed oils, all the modern oils. The good ones are all the officially bad ones, the old ones, such as real butter (not margarine), coconut oil, animal fats plus olive oil.
      Rapeseed oil, massively used by the industry, is twice bad. One for its free radicals, two for being massively sprayed with glyphosates, one of the worst agrochemicals ever. Experts will tell you glyphosates are not soluble in oil, but oils can contain up to 5% water, which still will be full of it. By the way, the second most sprayed culture in norway is oat, so make sure your havregryn is ecological. And the foods containing most glyphosates are…. children’s breakfast cereals. For glutamates, msg, also called taste enhancers, look for ingredients such as “aroma” as in liver patés for kids. Last but not least, sugar, the most addictive toxin and the most widely consumed. As far as norwegian kindergardens are concerned: Toro chocolate cake has 35% sugar. Compare to 17% in ice cream. Brunost for kids: 37% sugar. Kaviar has more sugar than coca-cola. Of course sugar-free stuff is even more addictive and dangerous. And did you know that aspartame us not even sweet? That is why it has to be mixed with acesulfam K, which is the real sweetener.

  2. You speak from my soul. (Except the world’s best cheese? Which one is that?) I’ve noticed that most Norwegians have no clue how much sugar they’re eating. Everything contains much more sugar than it would in my home country. When I mention how much sugar there is in kaviar, surkål, sylteagurk, etc, I’m met with disbelieving stares. Even cakes are much sweeter than what I’m used to. I think being oblivious of what is in the food they’re eating is a big part of the problem.

  3. I think the same… Unbelievable with all the processed food and bread. All sugar and artificial food. We under that they don’t have a good culture like Italy, France or Turkey. But this is not about a culture trying to be another culture, this is serious health problems we are talking about…

    And also not relevant but can not help to add here as well. I am seriously thinking what poor people or students do when they need to go to dentist. And why it’s not covered by the health system? In Turkey you can go to a university hospital for free to get dentist from the whole family, and in Norway you have to pay extremely expensive prices. People avoid going to dentist for the prices and there is no public responsibility education regarding the importance of the dental issues.

  4. That was my impression too, sadly, when I got my kids into kindergarten, as another foreigner. I think the ‘institution’ aspect is true for the Norwegian culture in general. The sad part is that they could raise the healthiest kids in the world, with just a slight change in approach – the government has the money, intent and the laws. Well written.

  5. You’re absolutely right. The nurseries would love to give the kids proper food, but it’s just not prioritised in the budgets anymore. When I went to public nursery (in Norway) we had a cook that would cook chicken frikassée, fish and other real meals several times a week. We also had bread for breakfast when we arrived, and a packed lunch. When I worked in nurseries later in life there was no proper food like that, even in private nurseries. It was things like small pizzas, soup, macaroni, all easy, processed and cheap meals – because we had to cook it while taking care of the children. There wasn’t one person who had responsibility for food preparation, so we had to prepare whatever the simple hot meal was that day during nap time.
    If they could manage it 20 years ago, what’s changed so much?

  6. I cannot agree more… I was quite shocked when I got this little note from the kindergarten in my daughter’s «matboks» couple of months after she started kindergarten: «Please Mummy and Daddy, can I get leverpostei or salami for my breakfast?»… I have been raised in the French countryside with plates mainly filled up with a lot of season vegetables, a little piece of proteins and a tiny piece of baguette… Liver pate (as well as any other «charcuterie») was given on kind of spesial occasions… it has never occured me to give it at every breakfast (I precise that my children are having a savory breakfast and not the French suggar bomb breakfast). When I took it up with the kdg teacher I realised that we were from 2 different planets since she did not understand why I said there were healthier things than liver pate (I got to know later on that liver pate had been recommended to Norwegians a while ago to assure good iron rates). Today my children are going to another kgd since we moved to another district. There, they get warm food 3 to 4 times a week since there is a cook working there… I got shocked once again when I got to know what they were getting… pouder/suggary tomato soup, pølse with pita bread and mais… I would say that they get 80% bread / proteins / processed food. I am not sure they eat vegetables everyday in kdg but they get fruits… so I guess I should be happy. I think my children got their first sweets (chocolate for advent Calendar or waffles on Fridays) in kgd… Of course we try our best to diverse their food during diners but I have to admit that we are frustrated… in rare occasions I have tried to take it up during parent’s meetings but did not feel I had many allies… Feeling more that I am the French weirdo complaining again (I did mention once that I did not enjoy that my 1 year old was put in front of the IPad every morning… many other parents were on the contrary really pleased to know that their crowling children were getting trained for better IT-skills to well start primary school… but this is another debate). I am not trying to say it is better in France, because there is also a lot to be said there as well… but I really do not think that the Norwegian system is giving any good healthy habits to our children (Even though children from primary schools are apparently getting classes about healthy food). So far I have not found better than keeping it as diverse as possible at home and explaining why/what is healthy to my children…

  7. This is an issue we have been concerned about ever since our first child started kindergarten, we couldn’t believe they were giving this food to our daughters. Unfortunately when talking about this topic with other Norwegian parents they don’t seem to have a problem with it, as you said, it is soooo rooted already in the culture. And the problem continues for many years, same crap food when they start school, so imagine 10-15 years of your childhood eating like this 😥

  8. Could not agree more. It’s sad to discuss with my kids who now are 8 and 11 and determined to convince me that pølse is healthy. This is what they eat half of the time they visit a friend and in 100% the time they attend a birthday, and they somehow were taught this is health and good for them. Shame on Norway who do not impress in eating education, and brainwash kids to eat what the domestic industry want to produce and sell. Sad fact.

    1. When they attend a birthday????? You’re kidding, right? What do you expect at a birthday party, vegetables?

  9. I have a newborn and am dreading the time when kindergarten starts, as I know all my fresh and unprocessed food goals for my son will be undermined every day of the week! The reality that he will get highly processed foods and loads of sugar and salt once he starts barnehage is aweful.

    This topic is so so important and I want to support any effort to bring about this discussion with the Norwegian role players.

    1. Perhaps you should shop around for the barnehagen that serves decent food. Or just say your kid is allergic or has healthissues triggered by sugar/salt. Food allergies are a craze in Norway, they are bound to listen.

      Teudi Lepond

  10. Let’s face it, the “pølse” is a Nordic delight. From Denmark to Iceland the pølse means fun, food satisfaction and easy-going nutriment. At birthdays, sport tournaments, school gatherings, national day parties,…you name it, the pølse med alt (ketchup, sweet mustard, fried unions) eller uten in dedicated small white bread or lompe (potato pancake) is king.
    Children and grown-up alike don’t know better. Wait a sec., a slice of pizza (more expensive than the pølse) can be quite tempting as well.
    Personally, I have tried fruit salads with vanilla ice-cream at parties. The ice-cream disappears quickly, not so much for the salads. Strawberries and cream are an exception. Tradition again.
    Our societies, in the North and elsewhere (where there is plenty of food) have evolved towards cheap, fast food as we do not have time to cook (time is money) and we allocated a small portion of our budget to food (on average).
    Now, how can WE change that because the political system and the commercial world are not really prepared to do anything about it?
    You may remember that since WW2 there were two different tax levels for chocolate, one for powder, one for molded. And some on sweets at large. Since last year: “Avgift på sjokolade- og sukkervarer er avviklet fra 1. januar 2021“. That shows that well established rules can change but one need to be as strong as the industry lobbies.
    So for kindergartens, only political actions via associations and parties may shift the status-quo. Key is more personnel. More money.
    In the meantime, some very enthusiastic mothers may try the “dugnad” of cooking for the children, but they will face the resistance of the personnel who does not want to force the children to eat stuff they do not like.

  11. I exactly feel you and I have brought up this to many Norwegian colleagues, the way they have reacted to my opinion was like i have questioned the existence of gravity or physics laws 😄. But I don’t care I keep telling them what is given to kids in the barnehage or at schools is not good and healthy food. Even what they also eat daily is mostly processed food.

  12. Norway’s food system is clearly in crisis, and the education system reflects that. Even in summer when for a time, seasonal vegetables and fruits are available, there is no ‘joy or appreciation’ of these ingredients. The quality is poor overall given that government subsidies are only for meat and dairy producers. Nothing wrong with that, but there must be a balance with other local products as well to sustain a healthy population.

    At the height of summer, I once found New Zealand onions in Rema 1000. I tweeted them and suggested that Norwegian farmers were being thrown under the bus. They responded by saying that customers expect to have the same products all the time, and that when certain products were unavailable locally, they had to source them elsewhere. What a load of bulls***. Such a sad gastronomic existence when there is no seasonality in the food choices, or diversity available.

    Especially teaching children from such a young age that food comes from one of 4 supermarkets, this means food is purely functional, not something to enjoy.

  13. Bravo!! I would give anything to rock the boat on the Norwegian idea of ‘healthy’. They add extra gluten to their bread and still use DDT in regular farming. Try bringing it up and it’s like talking to a rich caveman who thinks your a bit dumb and a fanatic. At least Norway has many foreigners who open markets and organic is starting to gain a little traction but it’s an uphill battle. I have three kids who luckily got a base in good food before we came. We need a grass roots petition backed by science. I bet every foreigner would sign!

    1. Source for your claim about DDT in farming? There was a ban since 1970, with some exceptions that were completely banned in 1989.

  14. Your article and the comments are interesting. I’m Norwegian, but I don’t have kids, so I only have to look after my own nutritional needs. They don’t include much grillpølse. Homemade leverpostei, though… yumm.

    I’ve seen the topic of Norway and children’s diets come up in different contexts online, for example when Americans show off their school lunches for people to gag at the sight, and people from multiple European countries jump in with “we get VEGGIES and FISH haha” and the Norwegians are like “you guys get food at school?”

    Maybe our food culture is born from long winters. We needed food that would last. Salt and sugar are preservatives. Cows can eat dried grass and provide milk. (You didn’t cover the milk propaganda at all, but for those of you who didn’t know, your bones and teeth will crumble to dust if you don’t drink a few litres every day.)

    I love me some tasty bread, but at the same time I was fed up with the stuff after a childhood with daily “kneipp”, so I don’t eat it on a daily basis any more. Although I’ve largely replaced it with crispbread (knekkebrød), no idea if that’s any better.

  15. Great post. The kindergarten people not only have no clue as to what constitutes a healthy diet for children, it’s also a bit of “you not doing the same as everyone else does”, by not sending bread with your child every day. They don’t want to think that there’s a better alternative.

    That being said, you’re too hung up on “preservatives being bad” for the reason that they’re called “preservatives”, which is largely nonsense.

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