Zanthe Taylor M.F.A.

A Million Meals

Seeking a Balance in Feeding Children

When is a vegetable not a vegetable? And other trick questions.

Posted Sep 18, 2014

Is a sweet potato a vegetable? I recently had a heated discussion on this topic with a friend and fellow parent. The more I thought about it, the more I realized your answer to this seemingly innocuous question speaks volumes about your attitudes towards food. That the vegetable bona fides of the sweet potato can prompt a debate is also revealing about the food culture we inhabit today.

Eating decisions are more fraught than ever. The cornucopia of foods available to many of us is matched by the dizzying array of labels we apply to ourselves: Are you vegetarian? Vegan? Gluten free? Additive averse? Lactose intolerant? Avoiding refined sugars? Food preferences, for lack of a better name, have expanded exponentially. Once, the rules of eating derived largely from religious teaching. Kosher, Halal and Catholic statutes dictated what, how, and when foods could be prepared and consumed. Sects and communities may have adapted and interpreted those rules differently, but the basic dictates were a given, and the digressions from them were a matter of personal or familial choice.

As secularity and modern science gained traction, food rules became dictated as much or more by health concerns as by faith. Unlike religious rules, the quasi-science of nutrition is a quicksand of shifting studies and contradictory opinions. One day, a nutrient is In, and the next—to quote Project Runway—it’s Out. We can attempt to keep up with the rulings of the experts, but their authority is increasingly fragmented and multiple. To whom should we listen? Whom can we trust? Diverging from the mainstream on what’s considered “healthy” has begun to feel less like a matter of personal choice and more like a failure, while the mainstream simultaneously becomes harder to pin down.

Just like fashion, there are now entire industries predicated on these ever-fluctuating food and “health” trends; no sooner does one theory gain sway than there are business interests investing heavily in its staying power.

The ever-shifting winds of Food Fashion make feeding children especially complicated. As parents, we feel responsible for every aspect of our children’s lives; feeding, once purely a parental prerogative, now has us braving a maze of speculation, aspiration, and terror. If we feed our children the wrong things, they will be obese or malnourished. If we teach them bad eating habits, we’re kicking them down the path to illness and premature death. If they’re too thin as babies, we’ve failed. If they’re too fat at any other point of their lives, we’ve also failed. All these fears, nested in the poor state of Western food culture, have eroded parents’ competence at one of our most basic tasks: nourishing our children into healthy, happy adulthood.

The Sweet Potato Debate began with my friend’s bemoaning the lack of vegetables at a meal we were sharing. When I pointed out some roasted sweet potatoes, she said, “But a sweet potato isn’t a vegetable.” She clarified: to her, it is a starch rather than a vegetable, and as a parent she wanted some “real” vegetables for her kids. This friend is an excellent, compassionate mother, I hasten to add, and although I disagreed with her—I see a sweet potato both as a vegetable and a healthy food—the point is larger than our disagreement and more broadly applicable to parents, and ties into the confusion I see around me every day in parenting and food. How do we decide what foods and what meals are “healthy”?

While my friend and I both aim to feed our children a balanced diet, our interpretations of “balanced” differ. Her meals are carefully calibrated combinations of dishes that offer the building blocks of nutrition at every meal: proteins, starches, carbohydrates and fats in thoughtful and measured portions. She is far more likely than I to incorporate avocado into her brownies, or black-bean pasta into her mac-and-cheese. Her kids get choices of what starches or proteins they’d like, and she invests an admirable amount of time and care into thinking how best to serve their needs nutritionally.

My approach is much looser. I measure balance more on a weekly than a daily basis, and I don’t bother cooking the “healthy” foods my kids have roundly rejected (and I don’t like myself), like whole-wheat pasta. It’s likely a legacy of my older daughter’s pickiness as a baby that my main goal at any given meal is for my children to eat enough (preferably home-cooked, preferably whole) food to feel sated. That’s not to say I don’t have my own food biases: I’m definitely more excited when they try exotic flavors and global foods than I am by the health value of their meals. This is partly a selfish response—we can go out for ramen or sushi rather than just burgers or grilled cheese—but also reflects how I hope they think of food, now and as adults: as a cultural treasure trove and an opportunity for communal pleasure more than as a vehicle for either health or illness. As Laurie Colwin wrote in Home Cooking about a food craving she'd indulged, “My body may have been 
crying out for vitamins, but my spirit wanted red peppers.” 

Honestly, I can’t say whether my approach or my friend’s is superior. In truth, the two of us are more similar than not: we both consider the health consequences of what we feed our children, both favor whole foods, both have time and energy to ponder these finer points rather than having to worry whether our kids will go hungry. In many ways, ours are certainly “white people problems,” as one of my online commenters helpfully remarked. But the granularity of my friend’s nutritional thinking is quite different from my broad-brush method, and the contrast can be instructive: how do we teach thinking about food? Our children are young enough yet that we don’t know what kind of eaters they’ll be as adults, or how we will ultimately influence their choices. But if you’re wondering what kind of parent you are—or want to be—when it comes to feeding your children, I suggest you start by considering whether or not, to you, a sweet potato is a vegetable.

What I cooked this week and last: