A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

"Too Much Sugar"

How do we help our children make food choices ?

I am not a food expert, nor a parenting one. What I am is a mother who loves to cook, with two daughters who have radically different approaches to food. One loves to try new things and adores fruits and vegetables, but eats slowly and distractedly, and as a result is often terribly hungry. The other is a much steadier and more focused eater, but tends to favor carbs and plainer food. Since becoming a mother seven years ago, I've found myself caught up in and fascinated by the battles, struggles and occasional triumphs in what seemed like it was going to be a much simpler job: feeding my children. Starting with those first spoonfuls of baby food, I've become an unwitting participant in the Great Childhood Food Experiment. It's also such a clearly pivotal moment in this process, as we get bombarded from all sides with messages on how and what we should be feeding our kids. In my posts, I hope to write about some of the things that happen to all of us who are just regular mothers, trying to get some good food into our kids. And I'll include some snapshots of what I cook in a given week, with the definite caveat that my kids do NOT necessarily eat all of these dishes! I like to cook too much to give up making the meals that are mostly for me and my husband--on those nights the kids can have something that's just for them. So here we go...

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I recently had a surprising disagreement with a fellow mother, someone funny and nice and whose views on parenting I'd expect to fall pretty much within the same parameters as my own. All the more surprising then, how passionately we argued. I'm still trying to figure out why each of us staked out our territory so defiantly, but I do know it had to do with our (un)certainties over how to teach our children about food choices. I don't want to put words in her mouth, but I know that I felt so strongly because of my firm belief in moderation and variety, and my deep wish to avoid demonizing or forbidding specific foods. Too many mothers, with the best of intentions, lay out rules and opinions I fear won't ultimately help those children negotiate the world of food when the time comes for them to do so independently.

In one of the inevitable conversational digressions during my book group, another mother commented that her third-grade son was surprised how "unhealthy" the snacks were that some of his classmates were bringing to school. I commented that even our young children have begun to internalize our own judgments about food, at which point another mother, whom I'll call Sporty Mom, interjected, "He wasn't being judgmental. He was just telling the truth." I said it wasn't meant pejoratively (calling someone "judgmental" seems to be quite an insult these days), but that I did see him making a judgment about his classmates'--or really, their parents'--snack choices. It was just like the time my daughter leaned over to another mom on a field trip and said, in a lovely conversational tone, "You put too much junky stuff in Cassidy's lunchbox!" I was mortified in the moment--it obviously wasn't her place to tell the other mother that--and afterwards I laughed my head off, because she was right.

"But it's true that carrots are healthy and Twinkies aren't," Sporty Mom continued. "So he wasn't making a judgment." Pretty soon the other people in our group got bored with our argument, so we ended it, but I felt frustrated. I hadn't been able to make her see that even labeling one thing "healthy" and another "unhealthy" is a judgment call, however much it's based on fact. After all, eating too many carrots can ultimately be unhealthy, too--just ask the girl I knew in high school who tried that route, only to have her hands and feet turn bright orange! It seems both false and harmful to oversimplify foods into categories like "healthy" and "unhealthy" without accepting our own position in--and power over--that ranking system. But I couldn't find a way to make her see that.

Some time later, I was in the playground when the ices cart made its fateful way down the hill, ringing its tinny bell to be certain no hapless children would miss its approach. Everyone flocked to it, parents scrambling for dollars their children could hand over in exchange for suspiciously day-glo ices and large cones of definitely subpremium ice cream. All the kids in the group got something--it was one of the first warm days of spring, so our collective resistance hadn't firmed up enough yet to fight the "No Ice Cream Before Dinner" battle--when Sporty Mom's son, there with his babysitter, sidled up to the kids devouring their sugary treats. He leaned in, looking very upset. "Too much sugaw," he said. "Too much sugaw for kids." And then he added for emphasis: "Too. Much. Sugaw." Poor little guy. I wonder whether his mother would have been sad or proud? I actually suspect the latter. And would she think he was being judgmental or speaking the truth? But ultimately, that wasn't the point, was it? Here were a bunch of little children enjoying an ice-cream on a hot day at the playground--one of the great pleasures of childhood, if not life in general--and he couldn't enjoy it, either for himself or on their behalf. And what did he get out of it? A sense that he was different, left out of that experience. Did he want an ice cream? I'd hazard that he did, though I didn't ask him. Because that would just have been mean.

But I finally knew why I'd been so fierce during our argument: his sad face and lonely treat-less state just wasn't worth the perceived benefit of avoiding "sugaw." Also, ice cream is out there, along with cake and candy and chocolate--is he going to avoid these all his life? Will he remain blissfully sugarfree while my children will suffer from diabetes and obesity from their afternoon ice-cream or nightly dessert? I don't believe so. I fear he might become either unhealthily rigid about food choices, or will overindulge in the foods he was forbidden to eat as a child. It's one thing to make a choice like that for yourself, as a (supposedly) rational adult; it's quite another to make them for our small children. And while I still like and respect his mother, I am going to stick ever more firmly to my guns about understanding the food judgments we make and trying to be flexible about them.

This week I cooked:
Handmade Orrechiette with Pancetta and Broccoli
Risotto with Asparagus
Shepherd's Pie
Tiny Chocolate Chip Cookies

 

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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