Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Broccoli and Morality

I made broccoli for dinner Friday tonight. This is sort of funny, because I'm pretty sure that the only person in the family who actually likes broccoli is my husband. It is one of the vegetables that taste extremely bitter to me, so I smothered my serving with copious amounts of cheese sauce, and I still wouldn't say that I liked it. Petunia is currently in a "throw any new food off the tray" phase, so she took the broccoli we presented to her, dipped it in her cheese sauce, and then and tossed it on the floor. Pumpkin- well, Pumpkin has yet to meet a vegetable that she'll eat, or even try in its native form. Believe me, we've tried presenting broccoli as "little trees" or "dinosaur trees", and she has free reign to join me in smothering her serving with cheese sauce. She is allowed to spit out anything she tries and doesn't like. And she knows that she can have juice with dinner if (and only if) she tries something new- even if she then spits it out. But she wouldn't touch the broccoli.

And I not only wasn't surprised- I wasn't worried.

I'm completely done worrying about Pumpkin's refusal to try vegetables, or most new things, really. She isn't starving, and in fact seems to be thriving. We are slowly (very slowly) adding to her list of approved foods, although the only vegetable-like substance currently on that list is sweet potato fries. (We use the frozen kind, but bake them rather than frying them, and we eat them frequently because I like them, too.) I can't think of a technique that I'd be comfortable using that would make her try vegetables, so all I can do is wait for her to decide that she wants to eat them- and recognize that the time when she wants to try something green may be a long time coming. After all, I didn't really start eating vegetables other than corn until I was in college, and I have been slowly (very slowly) adding to the list of veggies I'll eat ever since. Broccoli, for instance, is relatively new. So I take a long view on eating habits, and worry more about setting a good example than enforcing any nutrition rules.

Do you know why it took me so long to figure out how I can eat broccoli? Because I thought that it was somehow bad to smother it in cheese sauce, or drown it in a nice stir fry sauce, and that people should just suck it up and eat broccoli the healthy way. Admit it- you probably do, too, deep down.  Somehow, in our culture, we've gotten awfully moralistic about food. It has morphed from something we eat to sustain ourselves to a test of moral character.

I see two main ways we put moral judgment on food: our obsession with "healthy" food and our closely related obsession with avoiding processed foods. I absolutely agree that my broccoli smothered with cheese sauce has more calories and fat than plain steamed broccoli. But so what? In the context of the rest of the meal (baked chicken breast and baked sweet potato fries), a little cheese sauce seems excusable.

The fact is, my blood pressure has never measured high, not even during my pregnancies. My cholesterol is excellent. My recent drop of five pounds puts my body mass index literally on the boundary between "healthy" and "overweight", but I carry my weight on the hips not the stomach, so even that is fairly low risk- which doesn't mean that I don't intend to try to get my BMI down. I do, but given the fact that I have turned into a complete couch potato who gets no regular exercise beyond frequently lifting and carrying a 23 lb baby and occasionally getting chased around the backyard by a preschooler, I think I'll try to add more exercise before I stress out about the cheese sauce.

So, by most objective measures, that cheese sauce is no big deal for me. Maybe for someone else, it is- but that doesn't make the cheese-sauce itself bad. And yet...  I get subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) clues that some people are judging me about my veggie-eating issues. It is as if the fact that they like broccoli makes them somehow superior to me.  And once the subject turns to getting kids to eat veggies- well, I've just learned not to read the comments on most articles and posts on that subject. According to the majority of the comments, I'm a selfish, lazy mother who just can't be bothered to put in the minimal effort it would take to get my child to eat her vegetables.

As annoying as I find the healthy food moralism, I think the anti-processed food moralism bothers me more. Processed food has become to blue states what pornography is to red states- something that is consumed in great quantities but is universally agreed to be a great sin. If the only problem was a little hypocrisy, I wouldn't care. I've written before about how I think we've misplaced our focus with processed food- it isn't the processing that we need to worry about, it is the fat, salt, and sugar that usually go along with the processing. There are some processed foods out there that aren't loaded with these things, and maybe there would be more if we put pressure on the food companies to produce that sort of thing, instead of pressuring them to switch to cane sugar from high fructose corn syrup and/or sanctimoniously lecturing everyone about the fact that they shouldn't eat any processed food whatsoever.

I think we're missing a chance to convince food companies to make more healthy convenient foods, but that isn't the worst of it. In my view, the real shame in all of this is the way that it heaps extra unmeetable expectations on working mothers. No longer is it enough to spend time with your kids, playing with them and reading to them. Now you aren't a good mother unless you also make all of their food from scratch. This just isn't possible for the majority of dual career families- I think my husband and I do a pretty good job of getting reasonably healthy home cooked meals on the table most nights,  but we make use of plenty of convenience foods to do so. And why not? I stopped feeling guilty about using jarred spaghetti sauce when I read the label and noticed that its ingredients were exactly what I'd use if I were making it from scratch- except the jarred kind didn't have any sugar, and my recipe does.

But if you hang out in left-leaning places, you'd never know that there are healthy processed foods out there, and that you can find convenience foods with ingredients lists that don't read like the inventory of a chemistry lab. So most of my working mom friends have added guilt about their family's dinners to the guilt about using day care (also unfounded, if you ask me) and guilt about either our messy homes or the injustice we're doing to the housecleaners we've hired to help us clean them. (If you've never come across the idea that you're exploiting your household help, this post from Zuska, and the earlier ones in that series will get your oriented. Read the comments for the full effect.) We're getting hit from both sides- people on the right think that the very act of going to work is causing our kids grievous harm, while people on the left are fine with us working, but object to anything we might do to make it easier to run the household when both parents work.

I know the solution to all of this nonsense- just ignore it. But I don't think that goes far enough. When these sorts of assumptions go unchallenged, they enter our cultural psyche, and end up becoming so accepted that they serve to reinforce the outdated gender assumptions that probably created them in the first place. Just look at what has happened to the idea that the reason more women aren't in demanding careers (like science) is that these careers are incompatible with motherhood.

So- working parents of the world- embrace your convenience foods! Your kids don't care if the spaghetti sauce comes from a jar or hours of labor. If they're like my kids, they won't eat it, anyway.


  1. Clare6:37 AM

    I love this post! I am one of those mothers who makes everything from scratch, but in my case it's an issue of economic/over-packaging concerns, food allergies, and enjoyment -- I love to cook and bake. But sometimes I look longingly at the prepackaged snacks ...

    I am not convinced that blue staters think all processed food is bad, though. If it has the right label (ie, "organic") on it, it's OK. I think many people think that since organic is better in lots of cases (produce, meat), that it must be healthy in ALL cases. Ergo, organic Newman-o's must be better (for you) than Oreos. Now, the organic cookies are made with higher quality ingredients, but they're still junk food. "It's organic" =/= "it's healthy." I admit, though, when I do buy cookies and crackers, I get the organic stuff at Trader Joe's. I feel so virtuous that way :)

  2. Have you read "the Queen of Fats"? Do you worry about the flipped ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 fats? Omega 6 fats are more shelf stable and end up in processed foods in much larger quantities than omega 3s.

    As a sufferer of auto-immune inflammation, I did find relief by switching to eat more fresh and less processed foods. It takes more time, but I have fewer flareups.

  3. I agree with badmomgoodmom, there is some evidence that seems to lead toward the over consumption of omega 6 oils over omega 3 leading to a lot more inflammation, and highly processed foods have contributed to that.

    I guess I follow my grandma's rule, everything in moderation. We cant be perfect all the time and we shouldnt be made to feel guilty for it.

    Its not necessarily evil if you eat pre-packaged foods, but I think the fact that they are often so calorically dense, and that they dont always offer the best nutrition has contributed to the rising obesity in the west.

  4. The more I read your blog, the more I love it. I want to be more crunchy and make everything from scratch from local ingredients that were sourced ethically (ie. expensively). I also want to spend as much of these early years at home with my kids. There's no way to win, but I settle for knowing the conversation exists and making small moves in both directions when appropriate for our family.

  5. I figured I'd get some good comments on this one! Thanks for weighing in, everyone.

    I don't really disagree with any of you- I guess my emphasis is different, though. As I said in my post, my view is that it is not the processing that is causing the problems, it is the fact that we've let the food companies get away with using fat, sugar, and salt as shortcuts to make their processed foods taste good. Not all processed foods do that, so I try to find the ones that don't. Although I will admit that I worry less about salt than fat and sugar, because for me (and Hubby), high blood pressure is not much of a risk. I know people are using "processed foods" as a shortcut for "high fat, calorie dense foods", but I think that it is a bad shortcut, because how we talk gets picked up by the food companies and they start marketing to our buzzwords. Look at all the things you're seeing now that say "HFCS free!" but are loaded with sugar.

    On the Omega 6 vs Omega 3 issue- I haven't thought much about that, to be honest. I take fish oil to get more omega 3s in me. Fish is another food I struggle to eat. (I don't like the taste, so I have to mask it, and let me tell you, a fishy taste is hard to hide!) I'd like to eat more grass fed beef, because I've read that it is higher in omega3s (and in fact, higher than some farm-raised salmon, which raises a whole bunch of new issues). But our entire food system is working against me on that one- To get grass fed meats, I either need to shop at Whole Foods (the nearest one is about 20 minutes away) or ordering from a local ranch (and as far as I can tell, there is exactly one choice for that).

    But I haven't really thought much about the fat balance in processed foods. If it is a shelf-life issue, then I suppose this is more of an issue in baked goods? I enjoy baking, so we don't actually use that many processed baked goods, but most of my recipes use butter... so that probably isn't doing much for our omega3s. Anyway, something to think about. I'll probably have to write another post!

  6. I agree with everything you wrote, so my comment will probably be boring. I really feel that Americans anymore are usually all about these opposing tendencies of fetishization and scape-goating in general, and with regard to food choices (to the extent few of us actually have a "choice," if you really think about it), these tendencies are on steroids!

    Good for you for being able to silence the external cacophony to work out your own balance. I love that you take the long view of eating habits, and can see the silly arguments out there for what they are really worth.

  7. I am reading 'the Omnivore's Dilemma'(having seen 'Food Inc', which BTW scared the bejeezus out of me) and think that your proposal about taking the food industry to task will be a long up hill battle. Of course, what would me little Aussie expat know about the American food industry. It does seem a daunting task though.

    Anyway, there is nothing wrong aobut having to hide the taste of vegies so you can eat them, or get someone to eat them. My much-hated vegy of choice is cauliflour. Honestly, it is probably the only vegetable that i do not like, but I have discovered that in soup ( yes, I know, I'm totally annoying pushing the soup issue)it is actully very nice. My kids call it 'beige flower soup' and have baptised it theri new favourite soup (for this week), but with the right combination of cover up ingredients ( carrrots, onions, garlic), honestly you wouldn't know you were eating the stuff.

  8. Andrea12:51 PM

    What about super tasters? Don't some people find brocoli bitter because they have more taste buds than others? And it seems like kids have more sensitive taste buds in general, which makes sense if you think about the paces we put our mouths through over the years, from spicey foods to burning our mouths with too hot foods. My favorite way to prepare brocoli is to chop, toss with a little olive oil and cloves of whole garlic and bake. I agree with the taste and spit out philosophy; it's been working well for us.

  9. Oooh, cheese sauce on broccoli. Now I want to go eat some. My husband doesn't like cheese so we always wind up eating it plain (or in stir-fry), but if he liked cheese...I'd be putting it on everything.

    On the topic of processed food...back when we were both working full time there was just no way I was going to manage to put a home cooked meal on the table every night. We were definitely resorting to take-out, and pasta with jar sauce. The place downstairs sells really delicious burritos and I used to make sure we had them at least once a week because...well...delicious. And they would leave me feeling full well into the next day. Somehow it was just so much easier to overeat with the prepared foods - bit of extra cheese, add some guacamole & sour cream to that, why not eat the chips too...I mean they're free! And next thing you know I'd have eaten what felt like an entire day's worth of calories in one sitting. With most homemade stuff I find that much harder to do. Maybe it just takes more chewing to get through a pile of vegetables. I'm not sure.

    BTW, I just finished reading "The Rational Optimist" by Matt Ridley. I suspect you'd enjoy it, and I'd be really curious to hear your opinion on what he's got to say - basically that the world isn't in nearly as bad shape as we keep thinking it is and things are really just getting better all the time. I felt worlds better after reading it, and then all suspicious that I shouldn't be feeling positive about the future...

  10. Hear, hear, Cloud.

    The sanctimonious food police have been getting on my nerves, too.

    And yes, the long view. I keep running into people who tell me they were picky children who would only eat one or two things as kids... and yet miraculously they've grown into adults who try all kinds of adventurous foods. So I figure there's hope for my kids...

  11. I love this post! I love to cook, and it's taken me a long time to realize that I really can't do it all. My husband and I both work full-time, and we do it at different hours, so when the kids and I come home for the day, we're on our own, and making anything that takes more than 20 minutes is impossible. They need my attention. The funny thing is, because I was trying to avoid processed foods and didn't have time to cook from scratch, we ended up all too many nights with even worse- fast food. I'm slowly realizing that some cooking, using some help from the freezer/can, is better than nothing. We rely on the slow cooker at least twice a week as well.

  12. @Calee- aw, thanks!

    @Paola- I love cream of X soup, too. It is by far my favorite way to eat veggies. Sadly, though, the only soup Pumpkin will eat yet is canned ABC soup. Maybe I'll have better luck with Petunia!

    @Andrea- I may well be a supertaster. And I definitely agree that kids probably taste things more strongly than adults.

    @Today Wendy- no cheese?!?!?! I wouldn't survive. Thanks for the book recommendation- I'll add it to my Kindle list.

    @the bean-mom- yep, I'm a slowly reforming picky eater. My diet as a child was shocking. I totally deserve all of my problems feeding Pumpkin!

    @Emily- I'm glad you like the post. I like your point about how trying to avoid processed foods can lead to something worse, because really, there is a limit to what we can do! I completely sympathize with the "20 minutes to make dinner" problem- when I'm working (I was laid off in November), I pick the kids up from day care, and by the time we get home, we have 20-30 minutes before dinner time. I put a show on the TV, and then cook like mad. I started a series of recipes on this blog called "Dinner during Dora"- they are some of my favorite quick dinners. Other people have joined in, too- I've been keeping a list of other people's Dinner during Dora posts on my first one.

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