Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On Food

I have finally figured out why Pumpkin's potty regression is bothering me so much, and no, it is not because I'm cleaning up a lot of poop (although I wouldn't say that I enjoy that aspect of it). It is because it is taking me back to the way I felt when Pumpkin was a baby and just would not sleep through the night. It is making me feel like I must be doing it all wrong. Surely something as simple as going potty (or sleeping) shouldn't be this hard?

Rationally, I know that yes, indeed, sleeping and pottying can be this hard for some kids. Just because something seems easy to us as adults (and actually, sleep, at least isn't that easy for some adults), that doesn't mean it will be easy for a kid. The amount of brain development that is going to occur between now and when Pumpkin is an adult is staggering, so why should I expect her to be rational about the potty? But on an emotional level, my gut wrenches a bit every time some one asks me how the potty training is going, because admitting the truth feels like admitting that I've screwed up.

So it is killing me to suddenly be reading all of this guilt and angst from people about feeding their kids. I'm not going to link to the blog posts that I've read, because the last thing I'd want to do is make anyone feel even worse about this by somehow implying that they shouldn't feel what they do. Eating is another thing that seems so simple, until you try to feed your kid. And just like some kids are easier sleepers than others, some are easier to feed than others.

The proximal cause of all of this angst is Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution TV show. I've never seen the show- TV is so low on my priority list right now that I might as well replace our television set with a potted plant- so I only know what I've read about it. Therefore, I have no feeling for whether Jamie Oliver would be pleased that he's making people feel guilty or horrified. (If you have been living in an even deeper cave than I have, you can read Marion Nestle's write up about the show to get an idea of what it is about.) I, for one, think that making people feel guilty is never a good way to bring about lasting change, so it saddens me to read guilt-ridden blog posts about food from women whose good motherhood practically oozes from the computer screen.

It doesn't surprise me, though- just read the comments on Marion Nestle's follow up story about an evaluation of the results of Jamie Oliver's show to see why parents might feel guilty. If our kids won't eat their vegetables it is clearly all our fault and all we need to do is sit them down with a plate of spinach for dinner and tell them that is all they are getting and/or that they aren't leaving the table until they eat their greens.

I call bullshit on this idea. I think that these strict, inflexible approaches to vegetable eating probably do work for some kids. Heck, they may even work for most kids, I don't know. But I know for a fact that they didn't work on me as a kid, and I'm grateful that my parents recognized that pretty quickly and switched tactics. I am still a picky eater, but I now eat a variety of vegetables, and I'm a fairly healthy adult. I don't seem to have suffered any lasting harm from my "white food years", and we can all look back and laugh at how I once stopped eating pizza because my parents told me that the spaghetti sauce I wouldn't eat was the same as the sauce on pizza. (Yes, this is a true story.)

I suspect that temperament and other genetic factors play a role in eating, just like they do in sleep. For instance, a supertaster is unlikely to ever eat unadorned green vegetables, because they taste very bitter to her. Perhaps the strict approaches work well for your average everyday toddler food defiance, but I don't think they are likely to work well on a really picky eater. The cry it out sleep training methods don't work on some kids (as anyone who has had a child cry until she throws up can attest), so why should we expect strict "eat it or starve" approaches to feeding to work on everyone?

None of this should be taken to mean that I think our food system is all hunky-dory. I think there are some serious problems with how we approach food. Long time readers might remember that I went on a little food reading kick when I was pregnant with Petunia, and came away wanting some changes in both my own approach to food and my country's approach to food. I may even agree with Jamie Oliver's goals- since I didn't watch the show, I don't know. But I also think we are prone to looking for silver bullet solutions to our problems with obesity and the like. We vilify certain foods- high-fructose corn syrup and "processed" foods are the current targets- but don't stop to think about what the real problems are (too much added sugar of any sort and too much salt and fat, respectfully, in my opinion).

We seem to have a hard time thinking about food issues sensibly. I have yet to see any evidence that convinces me that my body can tell the difference between the glucose and fructose in HFCS and the glucose and fructose in sucrose. But the evidence that my body doesn't need all that extra refined sugar is pretty strong. So I won't scour the grocery store looking for cookies made with "real" sugar to give to Pumpkin- I'll limit her intake of cookies.

I also don't think the vitamins in the food I serve my children can tell whether the food was made with love or for profit. Food is not inherently bad for us just because someone else made it, even if that someone else is workers 2054 through 2078 in some giant company. I think we should judge our food on its ingredients and not on how it was made. Take the sweet potatoes that are currently Petunia's favorite food. I could make these from scratch. I could cook up some sweet potatoes and puree them with water. But I can also buy "processed" sweet potato baby food. The ingredients in this are sweet potatoes and water. Does it really matter who does the pureeing? Similarly, I rely heavily on preshredded cheese to make it easier for me to get dinner ready in the limited time I have after we get home from day care. The ingredients in that are cheese, some starch (to keep the cheese from lumping together in the bag), and natamycin (to inhibit mold growth). I'm not too concerned about either of these "extra" ingredients, so why should I feel bad that I'm not the one who shredded the cheese?

Am I thrilled that Pumpkin will only eat chicken if it is formed into a nugget and breaded? No. Do I wish I could get her to eat a vegetable other than sweet potato fries? Of course. Am I going to feel guilty about her eating habits because of what somebody who has never met me or my (extremely stubborn but really quite wonderful) little girl says? No way.


  1. paola4:40 AM

    I feel as though I know Jamie Oliver well, althouh I have only seen snippets of his shows. The one I'm most familiar with is the one about Italian eating habits where he goes to an Italian kindergarten and talks to kids about the foods they eat. He gets them to name 'strange' vegies like artichoke and fennel, implying that these kids must also eat them. Well, my kids don't(and judging from what I see on Noah's classmate's plates at the end of the meal, neither do other 5 year olds). My kids eat a total of 3 vegetables between them (meaning those vegies that sit on the side of your plate). They do also eat artichoke and fennel and countless other vegies in the form of soups though, unbeknowst to their taste buds. In fact I worry less about the vegetable aversion simply becasue I know I am getting vegies into them this way.

    I grew up on a farm where we grew everything, and everything was cooked from scratch. We were self-sufficient producing everything from wine to free range eggs. We had cattle for milk, cheese and meat and pigs for salami and ham. We had vegetables and fruit trees. We made our own bread and cakes. As a result, it is second nature for me to prepare everything from scratch, especially seeing I am a SAHM, I have one kid away all day. I have the time. If I didn't I would have no qualms about simplifying my life and preparing oven fries either.

  2. @paola- soups are a great way to get ME to eat my veggies. I've tried them a bit with Pumpkin, but not had a lot of luck. I need to try again now that she has better spoon control.

  3. mary d8:44 AM

    Thank you for the thing about the baby food. I think you are the only person I've ever seen/heard admit that there is pretty much no difference between prepared baby food and "homemade". I read the label, it says "___ and water" where ____ is whatever's on the label. I don't see where that's worse than me buying a sweet potato and going through the crap of making baby food. I just don't have the time. I've been feeling guilted into making my own food for this upcoming baby but I think it's just not going to happen and I'm going to let go of the guilt.

  4. @mary d- the only possible difference I can think of is that some vitamins might degrade with shelf time. But some vitamins degrade with different cooking techniques, so I don't worry too much about that.

    Making your own is definitely cheaper, and I think that is how it got started. I made some veggie purees for Pumpkin, and I could make a month's worth of sweet potatoes for the price of a couple of the store-bought tubs. But I don't think the store bought tubs are that expensive, and I'll gladly spend the money to buy back a little time to spend reading stories with Petunia or building things with Pumpkin. I don't know how an economic decision morphed into a "you only really love your kids if you do it this way" thing.

  5. Cooking takes so much effort. From the shopping to the prep to the actual cooking to the cleanup. When we were both working full time there was just no way to have homemade food on the table every day. Now that my husband is home full time, it is a necessity because it is just so much cheaper.

    I guess we've all got our own personal bits of guilt. I decided ahead of time that I wasn't going to stress out about the little one and food - and luckily things have been mostly ok (sure we wind up giving her ice cream before dinner - but she still eats the dinner, and she doesn't get any more afterwards, so who cares?). But I definitely have my own set of things that are making me crazy, that I think I'm coping badly with, and if there were fancy TV shows about how these particular things were problems...I'd feel pretty awful. Awful enough that I'm not even going to mention any of them here!

  6. What's funny is that when I read your first two paragraphs (without reading the title of the post), I thought "but she's not that guilt-ridden about her child's picky eating!" And then you go and make the whole post about that! HA!

    My concerns in the food department are that there are so many additives and preservatives and all sorts of other things in many of the foods--and those are usually there because it increases food company's profits. So many foods have so much salt and sugar in all forms added in. My concern is that we are straying away from the natural tastes that "real" food has.

    But my issues are mainly with the food companies/industry, because I don't have the time and/or energy to make all our meals from scratch, especially when my daughter is in a picky eating phase. I refuse to feel guilty about that, either!

  7. One of my dearest friends has a daughter who is a great sleeper, but a terrible eater. Many times I have wanted to trade children with her, for my son is a great eater, and a terrible sleeper. We joke that every child needs his or her little vice.

    Can I tell you a little secret? I think the pendulum is starting to swing too far towards these bizarre phobias and fetishes about food. No wonder we all feel some guilt about what our kids eat or don't eat. People are reading Pollan and are drinking the organic, locally-grown Kool-aid a little too much, know what I mean? Everything in moderation, certainly! But let's eat a freaking twinkie every now and again.

  8. I have a couple of great eaters/poor sleepers. I'm not sure I would trade for poor eaters/great sleepers ... maybe once a week. I agree that there's not much you can do about either case, at least for some kids.

    One of my boys is an absolutely fabulous eater, in that he eats anything and everything, and actually sits at the table for an extended period of time. The other guy is pretty good by preschooler standards, but sometimes whines about what's put before him, and often eats literally two bites before hoping down and saying he's done. He subsists on between meal snacks of cheese, eggs, fruit and carrots. Some days though he will eat more than I do of some random dish put before him. Amazingly they are exactly the same height and weight.

    I think as long as you offer nutritious food, there's nothing to feel guilty about. Forcing a child to eat veggies just seems like a recipe for disaster, not a recipe for healthy living.


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