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I'm Raising a Skinny Fat Kid

A waffle with peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, chocolate chips and honey. Sometimes washed down with chocolate milk. That’s what our youngest boy eats for breakfast. Every. Single. Day. On some mornings, he’ll delicately rake his fork across the waffle’s gooey topography to collect all the chocolate chips. He daintily eats his little pile, and ignores the rest. Of course, we don’t let him get away with that. He’ll miss all the vitamins and minerals in the marshmallow fluff, peanut butter and honey.

Last Sunday morning, I came downstairs to find the boy already awake. There he sits on the living room carpet chewing gum, a little bag of Technicolor gumballs from AJ’s Candy Castle on his lap. He sees me, and grins proudly. His gob opens and closes dramatically, like a hungry, hungry hippo, only hungrier.

His favorite thing in life is chocolate. M&M are his Valium, Hershey’s Kisses his Xanax. His favorite movie is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (I’m pretty sure he thinks it’s a documentary). The boy got a chocolate bunny in his Easter basket. He did not immediately consume it. Instead, he cherished it. For days, he carried it around in the crook of his arm, like a fashionista toting a Bottega Veneta clutch made from high fructose corn syrup.

In your head, I’m sure you’re picturing Augustus Gloop, the rotund youth drinking from Willy Wonka’s chocolate river. You're picturing every one of the 25 million obese and overweight children Michelle Obama is trying to save. Here’s the problem: He’s not fat. In fact, he’s in pretty darn good shape.

In our home, fighting childhood obesity is like punching fog. My wife and I often let things go because, well, look at him. He’s like one of those “I eat whatever I want” supermodels people love to hate. You know, the Victoria’s Secret lingerie model in US Weekly, the one pictured punishing a Venti Caramel Muffintopachino.

It's easy to turn a skinny fat kid into an overweight kid. That’s because most moms and dads don’t have a Big Picture, long-term strategy for their children’s diet. The truth is every parent battles childhood obesity one 7-11 checkout counter at a time. And more often than not, we often indulge their spontaneous wants, and then deal with the aftermath later.

He ate two bowls of Trix for breakfast, so I’ll make sure lunch is nutritious.

He ate pizza for lunch, so we’ll do a lot of veggies for dinner.

He had three brownies after dinner, so tomorrow we’re holding off on sweets.

The parents of overweight children and the parents of skinny fat children are quite similar. We’re both at the movie theater, holding a large popcorn (800 calories; three-day’s worth of saturated fat) and a soda  (300 calories). We’re both at Chili’s, ordering chips and salsa (510 calories; 605 milligrams of sodium) and chicken crispers (130 grams of fat, 200 percent of your recommended daily value).

But here’s the secret in our home: Our boy isn’t just a junk food junkie. He’s a foodie. At the grocery store, he pushes his own miniature toy cart, and fills it up with things he wants to try. Some days it’s Capri Sun and Cookie Crisp, but other days it’s plums, cantaloupe, and yellow apples. He loves to help with dinner preparation. Wielding a butter knife, he cuts up squash, mushrooms and tomatoes, nibbling as he moves along. When he’s involved in the process, he’s more invested in trying the fruits (and veggies) of his labor.

A month ago, I interviewed Janey Thorton, the deputy under-secretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services at the USDA. She told me about a relatively new but highly successful USDA pilot program that provides fruit and vegetable snacks to schools at no extra cost. (At last count, the program had served more than 180,000 students nationwide.) Here’s one benefit the USDA did not anticipate: Grocery stores near the participating schools regularly call the food service coordinators to find out what they’ll be serving that week. “Families are coming in on weekends buying up all the foods the kids ate at school,” Thorton says. "The students are coming home excited about the things they tried."

That’s how we’re raising our skinny fat kid. And if our boy gets more excited about chocolate and gumballs, that’s fine by me. How can I fight it? That’s the world our children live in. No one has ever put an apple in his birthday gift bag, and cartoon characters don’t go cuckoo for carrot sticks.