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Susan Weissman, M.Ed.

Susan Weissman M.Ed.

Children! Our Organic, Free-range, Clean, Local, Grass-fed Dinner Is Ready!

When parents know too much about food could it ruin everyone’s appetite?

I know a lot about food. I had to learn fast when my son Eden was diagnosed with multiple anaphylactic food allergies. For example, I know why soy lecithin is in most baked goods and I know that Honey Nut Cheerios are made on a separate factory belt than regular Cheerios. I've learned the practices of some restaurant kitchens—like sometimes meat and seafood gets bathed in milk for extra moisture—and I've memorized the derivatives of major food groups in order to understand what is in preservatives like calcium lactate. Oh, and I can explain the varying bioavailability of many non-dairy calcium sources.

I'm learning from the best. Lately, food authorities like Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver are calling out food facts and explaining to the public, and to parents in particular, why our food industry has lead Americans' diets astray. There has been an outpouring of nutritional information coming from mass media and public figures. So much so that I'm beginning to feel overburdened every time I step into my kitchen. I don't think I'm alone. I'm guessing that many parents are troubled by nutritional contradictions and concerns: Some parents vie for organic food yet some economic experts claim that the emphasis on organic food is unrealistic for many and so better for all of us to strive for "fresh" unprocessed foods. Other parents fear genetically modified food yet identifying GM foods is tricky since the FDA doesn't require such labeling.

And then there is the term "clean food." What does that even mean? Taken literally it might promise a dirt-free meal. In that case, I might score an A-Plus. I spray produce with produce cleaner. I rinse my leafy greens twice in warm water and thrice in cold. Same with canned beans. I might wash the outside of cucumber with soap before peeling it, like a Prep Chef with O.C.D. Less literal—the director of the Trends Research Institute described the clean-food diet as "a new standard for health and reliability." According to Mr. Celente, clean foods are "foods free of artificial preservatives, coloring, irradiation, synthetic pesticides, fungicides, ripening agents, fumigants, drug residues and growth hormones" and those that are "processed, packaged, transported and stored to retain maximum nutritional value."

Since 1996 definitions of clean food have varied from - "As close to the earth as possible" to "If it wasn't available to a caveman." Some clean eaters reject sugar, salt and processing and others eschew entire food groups, like dairy. And in September 2009 a book entitled "Clean" by Terry Walters was published as "An encouraging, easy-to-understand guide to eating closer to the source and benefiting from the nutritional profile of the freshest, in-season, locally grown ingredients."

Okey-Dokey. It seems as if the notion of clean food can encompass all food virtues: fresh, local and if not organic than so fresh and local that it obviously wouldn't be genetically modified. But in order for families to eat this way they would have to either live on a farm or within food-carrying distance of an awesome green market or food co-op and we would have to toss out those organic fiber-fortified frozen waffles we rely on for hectic school mornings. That would be quite a burden.

And speaking of those waffles, my son loves them slathered in maple syrup and olive oil. But last year he came home from school waving a worksheet with a food pyramid that he had colored and announced that he "...should eat less fat and sugar because it can make you get a disease!" In other words, it's starting to feel like the more we know about our food, the more aware we become of standards that can't always be met. And yet we all must eat, despite the virtues of our food. When considering a meal, parents must also consider time, budget, special dietary needs (like food allergies) and the pleasure that meal will bring.

Maybe one goal of our national food education should be to help parents and their children feel positive about the process of making food choices. Eating isn't something we commit to completion with a specific end-goal in sight. We make and eat food everyday. And I'm going to try to step back more often and remind myself that my family eats for two reasons: to nourish our bodies and to enjoy our food together as a family. If once in a while we can simply address the pleasure factor that alone will lead us back to the table.