Monday, July 18, 2011

A Much Delayed Post about "Eating for Beginners"

I have had Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid, by Melanie Rehak, sitting on my desk for months now. A friend of mine recommended it to me when I was in my food book phase. Then she recommended it again when I was laughing at one of Pumpkin's (many) picky eating episodes. Finally, she just brought it to me and lent it to me. And I read it, and enjoyed it.

It is the story of a woman who responds to the potentially overwhelming food-related concerns that have taken root amongst the upper middle class- Should I prioritize local or organic? Is it OK to eat meat if it is ethically raised? What does that even mean? Etc., etc.- by taking a hands on approach to learning more about where her food comes from. She goes and works in the kitchen of a "local food" restaurant, and also works for a day on several farms that supply that restaurant. Along the way, she deals with her angst as a food-loving grown up who has given birth to a picky eating toddler.

Spoiler alert: by the end of the book, her kid isn't such a picky eater. Of course- because no one ever writes about the picky eating kid who stays that way. Given Pumpkin's genetic inheritance, I suspect that will be the narrative in our house. Maybe I should write a book about it....

Also not surprisingly, by the end of the book, Rehak no longer feels overwhelmed by her food choices, and has settled into a preference for local food, organic if possible, where she feels she can trust the food producers' methods and intentions. Because, again, no one ever writes a book where they set out to figure out the confusing mess of choices that confront us when we go to find something to eat, and then comes away from all of the research still confused and unsure about the "right" thing to eat.

Hmm, I think I could write that book, too.

I suspect that it sounds like I didn't like the book, which isn't true at all. I really enjoyed reading the book. I liked following Rehak's transformation into a knowing local foodie. But the book suffers a bit from the same problem I had with the (far preachier) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life , by Barbara Kingsolver: the solution that she seems to be proposing isn't really generalizable. Rehak's "meet the farmers" approach works really well for people with the flexibility to go spend time finding and visiting local farms. I can't take her approach and fit it into my life. So, while I enjoyed watching her progress as she became more sure of her food choices, the book ultimately didn't help me with the food choices and problems I face.

But perhaps it is unfair of me to criticize the book for that- it never promised to tell me what I should eat, only to give me an example of one woman who solved the problem for herself. It is not her fault that my neighborhood in San Diego lacks a farmer's market, and that we haven't figured out how to make a car trip to a farmer's market a regular part of our weekend plans. My own food solution will have to take place in the supermarket aisles, and accommodate a picky eater who is unlikely to reform. Anyone know a good book for that?


  1. Well you've probably read it but Marion Nestle's "What to Eat" is pretty good.

    I do a delivered-to-my-door CSA most of the time (skipping it this summer) and that improved my range of veggies, and I have my foodie tendencies, but honestly? Food is not morality any more than sex was. I think we have entered a strange age that way - where we police our thoughts and desires around food to be wholesome. I'm all for thoughtful buying of food, etc. etc. but the pressure is enormous.

  2. Anonymous4:11 AM

    Hungry Monkey.

    It also summarizes all the research on picky eating. And it's hilarious. And has good recipes in it.

    I think if you go in thinking your child will always be picky, that will be self-fulfilling. There's reasons kids are picky. If your kid is a super-taster, that means one thing (foods like broccoli will not become edible for years, and greens will never taste good), or has sensory issues (which you can get physical therapy for) but other picky eating (after age 4 or 5-- picky eating from age 2-4 is 100% normal) is cultural. If you make 4 different dinners every night, you are more likely to end up with picky eaters.

    Some of the really interesting research on picky eating is how it relates to how children are able to group things in sets. At some point children are able to break away from the idea that all green foods are bad (which is protective, since many are bitter) to realizing that pesto and pears are actually pretty good, even if turnip greens are nasty. That gets harder and self-fulfilling when the child overhears, "oh, he doesn't eat anything that's green," because it reinforces the idea that green is the appropriate set. They also grow out of wanting to eat things separated and start being able to eat things mixed together.

    We even explained that concept to DC and it has helped. Little kids often don't like these kinds of foods, I didn't like X when I was your age, but when I got older I liked it. Auntie didn't like Y, but she likes Y now. DC would say, "I'm not old enough to like X."

    We've been a full week without picky eating. It's like a switch was flipped. He just grew into being willing to try new things and having no problem with vegetables he's used to.

    Now, I don't know if he's willing to eat supertaster foods yet because we don't have many around the house. (He will eat DH's salt and vinegar chips though.)

  3. I don't consider Tate to be picky but I also don't think it's a problem that he only what he wants (out of the things I provide for him). I only eat what I want. I think that's perfectly normal. Even adventurous eaters, if they try something and don't like it, don't make it a regular part of their diet. Food choice just isn't one of my major hang-ups.

    Anyway, a nearby local community garden is opening in a week and we are going to get a plot either ourselves or with some friends. He really has no understanding of the food he eats as plants that grow no matter how many times we talk about it. And we talk about it a lot - dinosaurs being carnivores, omnivores or herbivores you know. :)

  4. @nicoleandmaggie, we never tell Pumpkin she's a picky eater. We say "well, maybe you'll like that when you're older" or something like that. And we try not to make a big deal about her pickiness. But I know that other people tell her she's picky, and well meaning guests in our house will sometimes try to cajole her into eating. (That drives me nuts, because I know from my own experience it will almost certainly not work, and in fact has the opposite effect. But I struggle to find a polite way to tell people to shut the f up about it.)

    We also don't generally cook special meals for her. If I'm making pasta, though, I will leave some aside before I add the sauce, because she likes plain pasta with cheese, but generally won't touch it with sauce. Also, since the only meat she'll currently eat is chicken nuggets, we occasionally make her a couple to go along with whatever we're eating. I totally get the argument about not being a short order chef but I've got a preschooler who needs some protein in her diet, and I don't really want to start eating chicken nuggets for my own dinner. But for the most part, I just try to make sure that there is something she might eat in every meal and let her eat that- which means she eats a lot of bread. And plain pasta.

    I've written a lot here about her picky eating, so I won't rehash it all. I think that in her case it is a combination of actual taste issues ("supertaster" or just her own unique combination of taste buds) and a really pronounced neophobia, which I suspect is also largely genetic, because I struggle with that, too. Both will get better with age, but judging from myself, I don't think either will go away. I suspect she'll always be what the rest of the world would call a picky eater.

    But I'd be thrilled to discover that I'm wrong about that!

    (Petunia, for what it is worth, seems to be following a more normal toddler path- she'll try things, including pesto!- but tends to spit out strong flavors- like pesto.)

    I've had Hungry Monkey recommended to me, too. I've resisted because I didn't think I could stand another book by a foodie telling me what a bad eater I am and my kid is. But maybe I should give it a try.

  5. I like what @Shandra said: "Food is not morality any more than sex was. I think we have entered a strange age that way - where we police our thoughts and desires around food to be wholesome. I'm all for thoughtful buying of food, etc. etc. but the pressure is enormous." WORD!

  6. Anonymous8:04 AM

    Hungry monkey made me worry less, not more. And think about controlling eating less, not more. I stopped worrying about if he was eating a meat and veg at every meal (he, of course, always eats the carbs), just if I was offering a wide array of foods.

    I don't think they actually *do* need us to figure out how much protein etc. they should eat. I think 2-4 year olds need less vitamin-based nutrition than we think they do (and the research backs this up-- even picky eaters get what they need no matter what their parents do). Vegetarian kids eat dark greens because they need the nutrients they're not getting in meat. Meat-eating kids won't. As long as they have a range of healthy options to choose from, they will make the right decisions for their level of needs. Unless something seems amiss physically (like the kid has scurvy) there's no reason to over think it.

    If DC doesn't want to eat what's for dinner, he can choose something boring but healthy instead. Our go-to is a banana (or carrot sticks, but that never goes over well). But not anything he really likes like pretzels or chicken nuggets. Those are treats, not a replacement for what everyone else is eating.

  7. For a look at the grocery store, I'll second Shandra: What to Eat, by Marion Nestle. It was quite eye-opening and interesting.

    I would love to just shop at Whole Foods, since I feel they do a lot of research and put a lot of thought into what they offer there (local and organic and care about the environment and all of that). But it's just too expensive for use to buy everything there. We do what we can.

    @nicoleandmaggie - "They also grow out of wanting to eat things separated and start being able to eat things mixed together." That is of course true to a degree, but some of us prefer to have our food separate our entire lives. Like me. I can't stand fruit salad, for example, because the flavors get all mixed together!

  8. Do you have any local ethnic markets- preferably Middle Eastern? We found the "differentness" of the small shop with new veggies, special breads and very friendly staff was a comparable experience to the farmers' market- but with a much lower price tag. We were much better about encouraging a wide variety of foods with Kid #1. #2 seems to be much more picky and his sister is getting more so. I'm not sure if that's a result in a change in cooking patterns, developing habits, or just plain genetics. But I love what Shandra said. Since when did food become a moral issue?

  9. I gave hungry monkey to my sister in law. Its not preachy and he is just so hilarious, I laughed all the way through. Its also an interesting take on the role reversal of having a stay at home dad, because he doesnt get the mommy guilt. I love to read his blog too, him and his little girl, iris, get up to all kinds of shenanigans, really fun.

    I can lend you what to eat, but I think you've already read one of her other books.

    As for eating more seasonal and local, there is actually a new farmers market in PB on a saturday morning, my awesome farmers who I get my eggs from are there, and I'm not sure if UTC is convenient, but there is a market there on a thursday evening.

    CSA wouldnt work for you as I think you'd have trouble accommodating the variety since you have specific tastes...

    As for barbara kingsolver, I curse her for making me feel guilty every time I buy or eat a banana!

  10. The food-as-morality issue has become yet another thing that upper-middle class mothers choose to make themselves feel guilty about. Or feel superior about, if they happen to wind up with a child who likes organic, locally grown kale. But it's kind of the luck of the draw, maybe dependent on your genes and how those determine temperament. I really enjoy when parents feel superior because their first child eats kale, and then their second one won't touch something as innocuous as blueberry yogurt and the parents are beside themselves trying to figure out what happened. Nothing happened. Kids are different. The first was not to your credit and the second was not your fault. We have a lot less control over many things than we think.

  11. I assume you've read Pollan's In Defense of Food. I'd also suggest Nina Planck's Real Food: What to Eat and Why.

    My take-away from both of these is: eat real food, local/organic if you can, but if not, "real" food is better than highly processed. Planck talks specifically about how all those suggestions about eating fruits and vegetables are based on supermarket foods!

    FWIW, I'm a borderline supertaster, pickier than I'd like to admit, and after this most recent baby my physiology has changed in ways I'm still discovering.

  12. OK, OK, I'll read Hungry Monkey! Or, more accurately, I'll put it on my list of things to read.

    I'm not actually all that stressed out by Pumpkin's picky eating, though- I post about it mostly because I get so annoyed at the "blame the parents" tone of most of what I read online about picky eating. I don't think it is my Mom's fault that I don't like peas! (And even if it was, so what? There are worse fates than being a pea-hater.)

    We have our plan for dealing feeding our kids, its working OK for us, so why change? (@Nicoleandmaggie, I think our approach is probably quite similar to yours. She can't request chicken nuggets any night she wants them. They appear as part of the meal when I decide that they should. I don't worry about her getting meat every day. More like once or twice a month.)

    And I'm totally with you guys on the food/morality thing. I even wrote an entire rant about it once:

  13. Re on the food/morality thing

    This society is all about praising control. Sex and food are indulgences, and as such controlling their consumption or better yet removing joy from their consumption are highly regarded.

    Skinny = healthy, but much more skinny = in control of their eating = good, moral

    Fat = unhealthy, but much more importantly fat = not in control, and thus morally repugnant

    Everything else such as how vegetables are to be eaten, how kids have to be made to have the habits of healthnut adults, and a whole host of related issues boils down to: can you or can you not completely control your food consumption and that of your kids? If yes, morally OK. If not, fail.

  14. the milliner10:57 AM

    I second (third?) the Hungry Monkey recommendation. Hilarious read. It's been a while since I've read it but I don't at all remember it being preachy.

    In regards to farmers markets, we are lucky in that there are at least 3 farmers' markets in the city. We frequent 2 of them most weekends as it's our favorite place to grocery shop, prices are much better, quality is fantastic (and obv. local when in season), ambiance is great (street performers, lunch food stalls etc.) and we're outside. However, if we need dry/boxed/canned goods, it usually means we also have to do a trip to the grocery store. Both, in one weekend, is a lot with a kid who still takes an afternoon nap. Sometimes we feel like all we're doing is grocery shopping. DS loves to go to the market (as do we), but sometimes I feel bad that we're not doing enough of a variety of things on the weekend.

    I agree with @Shandra and @LauraV that the obsession is definitely an upper-middle-class issue. I've had many a debate with friends on FB about the concept of eating organic and local, and that the fact that while it may be a good goal, I think you can't look at the issue without looking at socio-economics as well. When you're working longer and harder, and yet have less $$ to put towards putting food on the table, I think your priorities are a bit different than weather it's better to buy organic or local.

    I got sick of the confusing mess* regarding the research about what is the 'right' thing to eat, and instead we chose a few guidelines to apply when choosing what we eat. Sure, we stray once in a while. And I'm not going to feel guilty about the rest that we didn't choose to do. Our budget, time and family likes/dislikes all have limits and we have to work within that.

    *The one thing I do have a beef about still is labeling. It needs to be much more transparent.

    DH has a habit of saying that DS doesn't like veggies when we're talking about it with friends (and DS is around). I keep harassing him not to say that (actually I usually correct him so DS can hear me) as I do believe DS hearing that narrative repeatedly will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And honestly, I don't think it's actually true (even if he doesn't eat a lot right now).

    @Cloud: "... well meaning guests in our house will sometimes try to cajole her into eating. (That drives me nuts, because I know from my own experience it will almost certainly not work, and in fact has the opposite effect. But I struggle to find a polite way to tell people to shut the f up about it.)"

    AMEN to that. My mother is especially guilty. Argh.

  15. I worry more about food source than food selection and I fully realize that is my own first world, not living on a small food budget worry. I haven't read a single book on children and food and if I add guilt about bananas - well, then we really might starve around here.

    @caramama - I have plastic plates with the divided sections because no one likes the food to touch around here. :)

  16. Anonymous12:03 PM

    OMG. Blogger just ate my HUGE comment. I hate blogger.

  17. I'm sorry, @nicoleandmaggie! I'm sort of over blogger, too, but not yet up for the migration project that I envision. Because of course I don't want to just do something simple like move to wordpress.

  18. Anonymous3:45 PM

    It was a life-changing comment too. Perfectly worded in every respect.

  19. @nicoleandmaggie- obviously!


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