"Mom, what's healthier, broccoli or spinach?"
I have no idea how to answer this question, and it has become a regular thing at the dinner table. My kid is constantly worried whether whatever he happens to be eating at the time is healthy, comparing the relative benefits of grapes to lettuce, green beans to apples. Did I mention he's seven?
In my house, we eat a lot of vegetables, and there are no special “kiddie” meals here. Read: no chicken nuggets or fish sticks. Oliver eats what we eat, whether it’s Indian food or sauteed Swiss chard or beans and brown rice. He’s really good about it, but still, he is a kid and every time we go to the store he asks for some kind sugary, chemical-filled treat that strikes terror in my clean, whole-food lovin’ heart.
I’ve always been acutely aware of what kind of food goes into Oliver’s body. When he was a baby, I breastfed exclusively until he was about five months old and started to show an interest in the food we were eating. I bought a crazy baby food cookbook that was about 500 pages long -- and then of course, I realized that to make baby food, all I had to do was roast a squash and mash it up for him; I chucked the book.
When I did buy premade baby food, it was always organic. Every week, I produced homemade bread and big batches of soft pancakes that I could freeze for later and thaw for Oliver to have some healthy finger food. I fed him oatmeal with plain organic yogurt and applesauce, scrambled eggs with spinach, soft cooked vegetables and little bites of carrot muffins sweetened with apple juice.
The kid ate better than most adults, in part because I was fortunate enough to be able to stay home with him until he was about nine months old (a financially difficult but spiritually rewarding length of time achieved through a combination of state disability/maternity leave benefits, our meager savings, Seth taking on extra freelance work, and help from family members). Being at home all day meant I could control all of the food that went into his little growing body.
When Oliver did go to daycare, I discovered that what most daycare centers feed children is not exactly...healthy. We provided his lunches, but daycare provided the snacks. Sometimes the snacks were OK (organic low-sugar graham crackers, apple slices) and sometimes not (pudding sweetened with aspartame, frozen toaster waffles loaded with preservatives). I still had control over his food for the most part, and I made sure I did what I could to give him only nutritious foods at home.
As he got older, I denied every request for bubble gum, cookies, potato chips, candy. Juice boxes? Are you kidding me?No sugar bombs for you, kid, sorry.
And then there are the grandparents. They are nice, well-meaning people and all, but one time when my mom was here for a visit and using my car for the day, she came to pick me up from work and I opened the door to find Oliver strapped in the backseat, covered in neon orange Cheetos residue and clutching a can of Squirt in one hand and a package of bubblegum in the other. He was so fucking wired, it was awesome getting him to eat his dinner and go to bed that night.
And this was sort of a turning point for me. I was so angry that my mom had fed him this garbage when I had made known my policies re: my child and food. But then I had to unclench and accept that when Oliver is not with me, I really have no idea what he eats. For all I know, he throws his sack lunch in the garbage every day at school and eats his friends’ cookies instead.
Speaking of my mother feeding my son a bunch of crap, that same woman never allowed me to have junk food as a kid. I desperately wanted bologna sandwiches on soft white bread, chocolate pudding, and fruit roll-ups in my lunch, just like the other kids at school had. My lunch, instead, often consisted of peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches (yes, you read that right, and also, WTF, MOM?!) on whole wheat bread and carrot sticks.
Looking back now, of course, I appreciate that my mom cared so much about my health, but at the time, I wanted nothing more than to taste the forbidden fruits of the grocery store candy aisle.*
Look, kids will eventually rebel against any rules imposed on them. I mean, you've seen "Footloose." You take away the dancing, and all those damn kids want to do is dance. I know this because I lived it: Every chance I got to stuff my face full of whatever thing I wasn't "supposed to" have, I took it.
Grandma and Grandpa's house? Two words: pudding pops. My grandpa had an enormous sweet tooth so there was never any shortage of ice cream in the freezer, or little stashes of candy in the cupboards. At slumber parties I was all over whatever nasty chips or candy my friends’ parents set out for us. I mean, I didn't have any of that at home. At home we had Grape Nuts.
I remember the thrill of Halloween, of coming home exhausted and freezing and unloading my bounty on the kitchen table. The excitement of picking out my favorite candies that I would eat first, and yes, too, that sick feeling of gleefully eating waaay too much candy (experience is a cruel mistress, my friends).
So, do I really care if my mom (who fed me pb and lettuce sandwiches, did I mention that?!) wants to buy my kid a bag of artificially dyed and flavored whatever, even if I wouldn’t touch the stuff myself? Oliver likes vegetables and healthy snacks, so why would I deny him the occasional pleasures of a chewy candy bar, salty potato chips or neon orange powdered cheesestuff? I have to admit that stuff is good, even if it's really, really bad for you.
These are the kind of simple junk-food experiences I want Oliver to have while he is still young enough to enjoy them. So I’m learning to relax. I’ve spent so much time emphasizing the importance of eating healthy food and restricting junk food that I now have a seven-year-old who asks me if water is the healthiest thing “in the whole entire universe.”
Plus, I don’t want him to become a food obsessed cheese whore like his mama. He should not be worried about whether the pizza he’s about to consume is really bad for him or not. That’s my job, not his.
*Oddly, she did let me have candy cigarettes on occasion. (Remember those? Again, WTF, Mom, and every other parent in the 70s/80s.)