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”.
“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.
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.