Why What Your Kids Eat Matters (and Why It Doesn't)
Facing imperfect realities in the effort to raise healthy eaters.
Posted Nov 05, 2014
Because I write about food and parenting, people sometimes assume I’m some kind of Food Super Mom. Well, the people who don’t really know me sometimes assume that. Because I advocate for moderation both in the food rules we follow (especially as parents feeding children) and the attitudes we teach about body image and weight, they think I’ve got it all figured out. That I have never struggled with weight and body image issues, or that I don’t make grievous mistakes when it comes to food and my own children. This, of course, is balderdash.
When I began writing this blog in 2008, I wanted to be very clear that I’m neither a nutrition expert nor a specialist in eating disorders. I’m not a professional cook and I hold no degree in child development. What I am is a mother living in a specific place and time, when issues surrounding food, body image and parenting have come together in a kind of perfect storm. I’m a normal person, trying to make the best decisions about the legacy I pass onto my daughters, and hoping to share that effort with others. An important part of that is owning up to my own mistakes and regrets. There's no utility in self-righteousness here, an unfortunate attitude that's all too present in some parenting advice. Hopefully, by accepting our own imperfections as parents, we can work harder and more honestly towards our goals.
Food today is having a moment: thanks in part to social media and in part to the state of the nation’s health, obsession with food has reached a fever pitch. From orgasmic rhapsodizing about the latest designer pastry or underground taqueria to the equally fervent demonization of gluten or dairy, food has never been more loaded with meaning, and you can triple that when it comes to feeding kids. The meal your family eats for dinner (not to mention how, where, and with whom you eat it) has never felt more significant.
Children’s eating has always been a hot topic within families; kids can push all kinds of parental buttons with their food-related behaviors. But increased sharing between parents, along with a greater awareness of weight-related childhood illnesses, has brought the topic into the limelight like never before. Between public health messages and the pressure to align with different food factions, I don’t believe parents have ever felt more pressure to feed their kids well. The problem with that pressure—aside from its being yet another burden on busy, overtired families—is that it’s also never been less clear what the “right way” to feed kids is. Wanting to do the right thing and knowing how have never felt further apart.
Yet as much as I’d love to set myself up as an examplar of the correct path, let me be the first to own up to my errors. For starters, I'm far from a perfect eater myself. As I sit here right now, I’ve somehow managed to finish an entire bottleful of jellybeans. I’ve been known to consume an entire bag of potato chips in one sitting, especially if I make the mistake of grocery shopping before lunch. I sometimes don’t eat enough during the day, with the result that I get that low blood sugar fainty feeling and need to eat a candy bar, stat. I have a fondness for french fries that borders on the obscene, and given the opportunity would eat them every day—twice daily, if I could manage it. Oh, and milkshakes.
And what about the mistakes I’ve made with my children? There was the time I told my preteen that she couldn’t order her favorite diner lunch—grilled cheese with bacon—and she looked at me with such hurt in her eyes that I immediately relented. The time I encouraged my younger daughter in her observations about how my butt compared to that of the woman walking ahead of us. All the times I’ve been furious about my kids’ refusal to eat what I’ve cooked (some family dinners may have ended in tears...). And I’m sure I could throw a stone and hit twenty people who’d be appalled by the amount of Halloween candy I let my children keep (all of it).
For someone who regularly rails against our rule-obsessed food environment, I have plenty of unspoken rules, both for myself and for my children. I don’t eat breakfast, and I won’t let myself break into dinner leftovers for lunch. I can drink diet soda but my kids can’t have soda of any kind. We will never darken the doorstep of a fast-food franchise and every family meal must include at least one fruit or vegetable. You can eat buttered toast every day for breakfast if you like, but that bread can’t contain high fructose corn syrup. For unknown reasons, Mallomars are an exception to my general ban on highly processed foods.
I suffer from anxiety and uncertainty about my choices too, and have moments when I’m sure I’ve totally screwed everything up. Especially with two daughters teetering on adolescence, the stakes feel higher than ever, but it’s equally clear that their diets and attitudes are beginning to slip beyond my direct control or supervision. While in many cases I’m all too happy to let go—school lunchbox, don’t let the door hit you on the way out—it’s also scary to have to rely increasingly on hope that the lessons I’ve tried to teach will be enough. Enough to help them make good decisions about what they eat. Enough to insulate them from others’ comments about their appearance. Enough to keep them off the precipice of disordered eating over which so many young women topple and fall.
To be sure, there are moments that give me great joy and satisfaction. The daughter who was so picky she wouldn’t tolerate a single mouthful of baby food now squeals with delight when I bring roasted brussels sprouts or sautéed kale to the table. The other can match me bite for bite at the sushi bar. They both still find themselves beautiful, and take a childish, uncomplicated pleasure in their appearances. The other day one child said to me, “Mommy, I’m so proud of all the healthy and delicious meals you make us.” I’m not sure it gets any better than that.
Yet I’m fully aware of my—our—imperfections; I know the battle is not over. I have to keep cooking, keep biting my tongue, keep encouraging my daughters to form their own identities around something that is Not Food. However you go about it, after all, that is the ultimate goal for a parent in this area: to raise children who know they are loved, and love themselves, for reasons that have nothing to do with what they eat or how much they weigh. It’s amazing these days how hard that can be.
What I cooked:
- Lamb Meatballs with Barberries, Yoghurt and Herbs (Yotam Ottolenghi, Jerusalem)
- Yogurt Flatbreads with Mushroom and Barley (Yotam Ottolenghi, Plenty)
- Pork Schnitzel (New York Times)
- Laurie Colwin's Boiled Beef (More Home Cooking)
- Best-Ever Turkey Chili (Food 52)
- Pasta with Lentils and Kale: must use the bread crumb topping!
- Cream Scones (Dorie Greenspan, Baking)
- Karen's Peanut Butter Pie (Melissa Clark, Cooking with A Good Appetite)
- Baked Penne with Cauliflower (New York Times)
- Pasta with Squash and Sage (Gourmet)
- Banana Bread (Ok, I made it twice. With chocolate chips.)
- Leeks with Rice, or Prassorizo (Madhur Jaffrey, World Vegetarian)
- Boiled Rice with Mozzarella, Parmesan and Basil (Marcella Hazan, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking)
- Pan-Browned Brussels Sprouts (The Gourmet Cookbook)
- Broiled Flounder (The Essential New York Times Cookbook): surprisingly delicious