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.