A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Who's in Charge? Food and Control in Parenting

Why are we obsessed with controlling what our children eat?

I'm in control, never gonna stop
Control, to get what I want
Control, I got to have a lot
Control, now I'm all grown up...
--Janet Jackson, "Control"

Have people always been so worried about control? It's a constant theme and buzzword in modern society: we're worried about who controls us, whom we control, and whether, actually, we really have any control at all. In some ways this preoccupation seems a luxury of the modern and well-to-do: the average serf surely didn't spend his days pondering how much control he had. And today, we in the U.S. aren't generally so worried about control in an institutional sense (though the assumption that merely being in possession of a democracy means We the People are firmly in charge is clearly worth a second look), but whether we have control on a more micro level. Do we have control over our emotions? Do we have control over our bodies? Do we have control over our lives? And while this obsession with control may be a luxury, it's also making life unbearable for many.

Becoming a parent brings a radical expansion of these concerns: in some ways the whole process of raising children is all about gaining, fighting for and, ultimately, losing control. Starting in pregnancy, many women try to assert control over the mysterious and confounding changes they experience by mapping out their future birth experience with a "birth plan." While I certainly understand that this document may be necessary to an anxious mother-to-be's mental state as well as to inject some parental input into a process that can easily be hijacked by the medical establishment, I also wonder whether the birth plan offers a false sense of control to parents? After all, most women who've given birth can testify that labor and delivery are a pretty powerful--and even, dare I say, liberating?--loss of control. Or to look at it another way, the body takes control while the mind, for once, simply has to go along for the ride. Of course, there are always women like the German mother I met shortly after my first (unplanned) Caesarean section who asserted that she had achieved a vaginal birth through her greater will power.... But for most mothers, there's a pretty strong sense of letting go that happens in the moments surrounding birth.

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Of course, that loss of control is fleeting, as we bring our tiny babies out into the world and are immediately bombarded with lists of shoulds and shouldn'ts, made to feel ultimately responsible not just for the babies' survival (which we are) but for what kind of people they'll become as adults. When the nourishment they receive, breast milk or formula, is revealed to have a profound impact on their brain development, their future body type, their very IQ, how can we not instantly seek to exert and exercise control over them? There used to be (and still is, in many parts of the world) a sense of accomplishment in simply getting a baby to survive infancy; but when that's more or less a given, parental responsibility casts about for other means to exert control. When that starts with a baby's first food, it's no surprise that as a child grows, many parents feel trapped in an eternal struggle with their children over eating.

Food is a control battlefield for parents and children, as well as their various proxies-doctors, lactation advocates, formula makers, agribusiness, government. Who decides what a baby eats? Who decides for a two-year-old? And what about a teenager? From anti-obesity initiatives to eating disorders to the latest diet bestseller, forces around us are locked in a struggle over food as never before. Now that we (generally) have enough and, in some cases, far too much food, the concerns shift to who has control over the food we eat--and the food we give our children. On a micro level, that translates into a battle between parent and child.

More on this from a personal perspective in my next post.

What I cooked this week:

  • Olive Oil Granola (Melissa Clark's In the Kitchen with Good Appetite)
  • Chicken Tagine with Sweet Potatoes and Prunes (Dorie Greenspan's Around my French Table)
  • Visitandine Cake (Dorie Greenspan again)
  • Butternut Squash and Chestnut Lasagne
  • Fennel, Feta and Pomegranate Salad (Ottolenghi: The Cookbook)
  • Farro and Cauliflower "Risotto" (Gourmet Today)
  • Orange-Soy Ribs (Gourmet Today)--I used to love these but they've been too greasy and not sweet enough the last few times I've made them...
  • White Bean and WInter Vegetable Stew with Red Wine Sauce (Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone): tasty but a little murky looking because of the red wine

 

 

 

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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