diet for a small caterpillar

Eric Carle and his Caterpillar by Eric Carle

What reading materials are on my bedside table? I am honored you asked. Right now, I have the catalog for the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle–the story of one caterpillar’s journey to butterflyhood. Though they both relate to personal development, their shared placement is causing me a moral dilemma. You see, I am rereading The Very Hungry Caterpillar because 17,000 copies have been distributed to pediatricians across the country. This is a joint campaign of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Penguin Young Readers Group and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

The cynic in me is ready to rant on this initiative, but with a photo of Thich Nhat Hanh looking at me from the back cover of the catalog, and Omega’s plethora of courses with titles like Embodying Conscious Femininity, Gravity, and Grace and Freeing Ourselves from Negative Patterns oozing out from the inside pages, I am trying to temper my response.

My higher self is saying if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, offer only constructive criticism, and asking, are you a compassionate, empowering new-tritionist or just a curmudgeonly old one? Well, I will try to open myself up and see what emerges.

Positively, let me say I love children’s literature and its illustration. Not too long ago I spent a wonderful day at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. To see the originals of Mr. Carle’s tissue paper art was wonderful. The colors and intricacies of his pictures are even more amazing than they appear in his books. I am grateful that he has created a space to exhibit the collections of the many incredible artists in this genre.

Also, I respect the myriad efforts of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. A collaboration between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, its mission is to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity and to empower kids to make healthy lifestyle choices. Their projects, which include the Healthy Schools Program, are far-reaching, community-based, and creative and colorful in their own way. I use their great materials in my work.

So, what’s my issue with this sweet little book-sharing promotion which is intended to encourage pediatricians to talk with their patients to help families learn about healthy eating habits? To be frank, I am on my thirty-fourth reading of this fourteen-page cardboard book and I am not convinced of its purpose or efficacy for teaching healthy eating.

For those of you who may not know the story, briefly, a caterpillar hatches out of an egg. It is hungry, and through its first five days of life, it eats a hole through increasing amounts of different fruits (one on Monday, two on Tuesday, etc.) but is still not satiated. Then, ignoring the numerical sequence, on its sixth day, it eats a hole through a slice of watermelon–along with eight human-produced high-fat, high-sodium, and high-sugar foodstuffs including salami, sausage, a lollipop, chocolate cake and cherry pie. And, it gets a stomach ache. On the seventh day, a Sunday, it eats through one nice green leaf and feels better. On my most recent reading, I suddenly see this as a religious allegory about sin, redemption, and resurrection, because right after that, all fattened up, he builds a cocoon, stays there for two weeks and emerges as a beautiful butterfly.

Regarding caterpillar growth and nutrition, here is what I know. The caterpillar increases its body mass several thousand times in a matter of weeks and each species has mainly one, and on occasion a few, host plants from which it must eat to survive. Predominantly, they eat only leaves–like from the milkweed family, but a few species can eat flowers and aphids. Analyzing the very hungry caterpillar’s eating behaviors, it has responded to his hunger and high growth needs in a manner similar to that of many teenage boys; problematically, it has partaken in eating foods not optimum for its own species and a lot of them. The messaging here between fruits and junk food along with hunger, satiety and body size is a bit confusing.

The promotional materials for this campaign instruct the parent to teach their child that the fruits are fruits; talk about how fruits are good for the body; discuss how overeating causes stomachaches; expound upon the concept of “sometimes” foods; instruct how green leaves are good for the body, and reinforce that it is important to eat healthy foods so that one can grow up healthy and active like a butterfly. My, that is a heavy load for one little book–let alone one small child.

Maybe I have forgotten a bit about early childhood development, but I think I read this book to my kids when they were about eighteen months old. Certainly, prior to the stage where we were discussing abstract concepts like hunger and health. Even prior to the stage where they might imaginatively embrace the idea that they would grow up and turn into a butterfly. There are many wonderful age-appropriate stories about food, gardening, nature, eating, etc. for young children, and though I am fine with metaphor, I don’t think this is what Mr. Carle had in mind. Now I must worry about children going out and plucking hemlock leaves for a little nibble.

I am glad to report that kids seem to know about and do eat their fruits, though vegetable education still needs a little more work–even for adults. I hope that we do not need to be spoon-feeding parents on such basic concepts; and, additionally, that pediatricians are opening to engaging parents on more specialized and sophisticated aspects of feeding our young than these simplistic measures. They are in a strong position to influence policy, to really support breastfeeding measures, to evaluate infant and early childhood feeding practices and to instruct on the principles of childhood nutrition and appropriate activity.

Might I respectfully suggest providing parents with a copy of Ellyn Satter’s Parent and Child Division of Feeding Responsibilitiesa clear and concise document that addresses the foundations of family eating. And, symbolically, a retreat at the Omega Institute. Their Omega Food Works Dining Hall consciously serves 300,000 vegetarian meals a year using local and organic ingredients. One delicious, nutritious meal like the ones offered there, can speak louder than a thousand words.

Thank you for listening, sharing, following and supporting my writing. Please subscribe in the sidebar to receive notice of new posts. Comments and greetings always welcome.

In health, Elyn

Update May 2021: Acknowledging the passing this week of Eric Carle. In this Eric Carle Commemorative Video, the artist discusses his own thoughts on the meaning of the story and why it captivates the attention of young children. Thank you, Mr. Carle, for opening children’s eyes to the beautiful world of color, art, nature and storytelling. 

Also, for reflections and support for parents regarding children’s health, weight concerns, and the impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic, please look at the offerings of JoAnn Stevelos at her blog, Children at the Table, and her transformative program, Worthy!: Helping Your Child Be Their Healthiest Weight focused on a foundation of children and parents feeling loved, hopeful and safe. 


3 thoughts on “diet for a small caterpillar

  1. Eating healthy is not a complicated issue. It would be hard to find anyone today that doesn’t understand understand at least in the simplist form that a good diet is based on vegetables, lean protein, fruits, grains and legumes with as little processing as possible.

    Unfortunately, today it is increasingly difficult to easily aquire such foods even for people with the freedom of choice and the financial capability to purchase such foods. Children in schools, even those from families who can easily afford to purchase wholesome foods, are limited to the normal crap supplied by school systems that are typically financially constraineed and controlled by food supply companies more focused on providing cheap, easily prepared foods that can provide sufficient profits. Penetrating this enviroment is a daunting task for even the most dedicated nutritionists and parents. Once out of school the available food choices to most are comprised of fast foods or process foods that can easily be consumed out of the box or bag or nuked in the microwave.
    Even adults that want to eat healthy find it increasingly difficult to eat that way during the day. As a professional who traveled a lot, I can attest that most healthy food easily acquired on the run is limited to tasteless, non-nutritious iceberg lettuce based salads, sushi, or a few new chicken based restaurants. Finding real healthy food restaurants requires prodicious advanced research but even then is almost impossible in all but our biggest cities.
    It is an interesting phenomenon that healthy meals are really only available to the wealthiest who can afford to dine in gourmet restaurants that feature foods prepared from fresh, local, organic ingredients or those few families that actually remember how to prepare well balanced, tasty meals from said fresh ingredients. Today, with both parents working, there is little time available to shop for fresh ingredients, cook well balanced meals and to wash dishes. As such more an more rely on easy to prepare, out of the box foods. Let’s face it, as a nation we have abdicated our personal nutritional responsibilities, we let children dictate what they want to eat, and we rely on the food industry that is laser focused on generating profits as that is why they exist.
    Sadly, I do not hold out much hope that we will cure these issues as a nation as I seen no resources being dedicated to our nutritional well-being. Further, only an extremely small fraction of the population gives nutrition even a fleeting thought. The bill for our national abdication of personal responsibilty will undoubtedly be poor health, increased healthcare costs and interestingly decreased national productivity.
    So, take care of yourself and eat as fresh as you and your family can.


  2. Hi Elyn – I love this post, and it brought to mind another of Eric Carle’s books about a snake with who eats everything in sight, throws it all back up again and ends up eating himself. Could be more of a social commentary than I realized as I was reading it to my young children!

    As a newly appointed chief cook and bottle washer, in addition to working full time, I appreciate what Rich had to say as well. I am SO aware of how much of my time and money in a week goes to shopping for good foods and preparing them (not a packaged food person myself). I’m sure I’ve told you about my experience moving to this coast and feeling like there was no food to purchase in the grocery store! It is much easier to just buy what’s readily available and there are definitely days when I would love to be able to buy pre-packaged food in the interest of time and energy! I’m sure it is only my strong background in “healthy foods” (thanks mom!) and many years of living with a cook (thanks Steve) that encourage my many hours in the kitchen today. The food is out there – it’s interesting to me that it requires us to make connections with one another to find it (the social aspect of food is also so important), through local farms, community farmer’s markets, etc. – you’re not gonna find the quality you want in a chain grocery store!

    I agree that we will not solve this problem on a national level. As with so many areas of life, I think this is one we can only change for ourselves and lead by example. That being said – I’m glad someone is out there trying!


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