A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Independence in Tweens' Eating Habits

Or, How a vending machine taught me to let go.

I have for years believed parents should aim for a moderate level of control over what their children eat. Between bans and restrictions on the one hand, and complete permissiveness on the other, I’ve favored an approach that seeks equilibrium: balancing the dangers of unhealthy eating with the equal perils of over-regulating food; balancing treats with wholesome food; balancing parental attitudes between panic and neglect. There’s a happy medium to be sought, if not always found: we need to protect our children’s physical health but also safeguard their mental well-being. We can also learn how the attitudes we teach about food can be as powerful as the perceived benefits or harms of the food they actually eat. As a parent, I get tested every day on how well I can implement this strategy, and I’m happy to report that for ten years it has worked well for us.

And then my daughter entered middle school.

Middle school brought an exciting/daunting transition to a bigger campus, a long bus ride to a new neighborhood, and a world populated by both middle- and high-school students. The football players in the halls weigh as much as two or three fifth graders together—quite a change from the lower school, where fourth graders look like giants. On the whole, the move has been a positive one: my daughter is well taken care of by a caring and compassionate group of teachers, and has been growing in confidence as the year goes by. I’m incredibly proud of the way she’s handled all these changes, from a stricter dress code to the increased homework load. She has moments of feeling overwhelmed, like many of her classmates, yet truly seems to enjoy the freedoms and newfound responsibilities that came along with the move.

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But what she loves most of all is the vending machine.

I live in a neighborhood where parents joke about how their children have no idea what a Twinkie is, let alone what it tastes like. The sugary, preservative-laden snacks of our youth have been replaced by organic fruit pops and artisanal s’mores—and those are what the permissive parents are buying. The rest get apple slices out of a Ziploc, or a handful of nuts if they’re lucky (and not allergic). Vending machines, other than the one at their dance school, which is stocked mostly with flavored seltzer, have never featured heavily in my children’s lives. Until now.

My daughter doesn’t yet get an allowance, so a few weeks into school she began asking for a couple of dollars for the vending machine to which she has access once a week, when she stays late for an afterschool activity. In my usual measured and balanced manner, I told her absolutely not. “I don’t think anything you can buy from a vending machine counts as real food,” I told her, and besides, I’d be happy to pack her some homemade popcorn or an extra Kashi granola bar that day (with chocolate!). Cut to a few weeks later, when I discovered she’d been “borrowing” a few dollars every week to buy chips or candy. Obviously this was an equally unsatisfactory solution, as she had no way to pay them back, and was becoming that most dreaded of friends in the process: a moocher.

Thus the snack situation has led to two developments in our family, one concrete and the other philosophical, respectively: the implementation of a small weekly allowance and a détente with my nemesis, the vending machine. I couldn’t beat it: the siren call of Cheetos and Snickers is too strong for mere mothers to shout down. My refusal to allow said items in my own home merely accomplished what I always knew it would: made them extra-enticing, forbidden, delicious. Freaking out about them now would only add even more luster to their allure. And withholding the cash wasn’t going to work either.

So for now, I am making my peace with unsupervised snacking—a few dollars’ worth, anyway—and trying to view it as a baby step in the long and crucial process of learning to make decisions about food for onself. I’ve certainly been vocal about my opinions on junk food (and I’m as hypocritical as anyone on this front: Terra Chips are OK, Doritos not), but I’ve also refrained from making a big song and dance when she buys a snack I disapprove of. After all, I don’t want to be making food decisions for my children forever, so perhaps the vending machine is not the enemy I initially imagined, but an unlikely ally in this terrifying and exhilarating new stage of burgeoning independence.

What I cooked:

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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