Raising a Foodie, Part 2

Yesterday I blogged about how I’m trying to train my kids’ palates to enjoy real, good food. But I have to admit: I live in a place of tension about this. I simply can’t be perfect in what I feed them, and it is only going to get worse.

At first, we tried very hard to only feed the children exclusively organic food. Then that kept getting messed up – sometimes accidentally, sometimes because we couldn’t afford otherwise. Plus you go to grandma’s and all your good intentions go out the window; or you eat out, and God only knows what they’ve been doing to the food (the one thing you can count on, according to Anthony Bourdain, is that your food is swimming in butter).

So I do my best: they mostly get organic produce and meat, but I’ve had to compromise on most grains. I try to only buy conventional of the safer produce, and with dairy, if I can’t get organic I at least get it without rBST and other hormones. Of course, when we were on the government WIC program, we couldn’t get any organic dairy (though we could get organic produce, and even shop at the farmer’s market).

One thing I tell groups when I speak is that the most important change you can make in your family’s diet is to switch to organic dairy. This is the consensus based on the hormones and what-have-you added to cow’s diets, not to mention the treatment of the animals. And the fact that dairy makes up a huge portion of most kids’ diets. So if you only can do one thing, switch your milk, cheese, butter, and ice cream to organic.

It’s a constant struggle, a constant compromise. I did what I could when we were poor: I found a store that took WIC and only sells cage-free eggs: voila! I even used food stamps at Whole Foods…did you know you can do that?

I used to work at – and get food from – a pantry that had a lot of organic. I’ve researched the dairies providing our stuff and found the ones whose methods I can live with. And nowadays I try to get our meat only from either a local ranch or the farmer’s market, or occasionally Whole Foods (because at least they have some standards).

Yeah, it’s a hell of a lot of work, and I wish I didn’t have to do it, but I’m not going to trust the government – or the industrial food complex – to provide the highest level of nutrition as well as protection for animals, farmworkers, and the environment. That just ain’t gonna happen: it’s a business, first and foremost. A business, I might add, whose co-opting of the words “natural” and “organic” is driving me insane!

But anyway, back to feeding our kids.

Beyond the issues of organic vs. non and all that trendy green stuff, I live with tension about nutrition. Of course I would love for the kids to only have a taste for vegetables and whole wheat bread, and only want to drink water (and eventually, wine). I would be so relieved if they didn’t have to struggle with extra weight. I would be proud if they ate for maximum nutritional value.

But you know, there’s a lot to be said for taste as well. And I don’t care how you dress it up, tofu or seitan are never going to be remotely like a steak swimming in butter and blue cheese. Whole wheat pasta is hard and chewy. There are times in life that call for ice cream and cake. Would life be worth living without french fries and potato chips? (I don’t mean the fake kind, I mean fresh and homemade)

Plus, I’m a big old hypocrite if I don’t let them eat some treats now & then. Lord knows only my Haagen-Dazs has gotten me through several dark periods. I sometimes get a craving for fast food (that I can usually quell) or a snack cake (which I try to feed with real cake instead). But I have my major weaknesses, and there’s just no way I can explain away the fact that I love that horrible hydrogenated grocery store bakery white cake, with extra frosting. I have been known to eat it for breakfast on my birthday, and every day thereafter until it is gone.

I live in Texas, where Chick-Fil-A is ubiquitous, and my kids love their nuggets (at least I always get a fruit cup, and the nuggets are actual meat). I love salt and vinegar Kettle Chips. I love cheese fries (but not queso aka Velveeta!). I love things that taste good and aren’t good for you. Sure, lots of delicious things are good for you too…but that’s not all there is.

And really, how can I give my child fruit-sweetened cake with no topping? What about the time-honored tradition of the child smearing the frosting all over himself? How would we have the appropriate first birthday photos? This isn’t just fun in my family of origin: it’s a bona fide rite of passage. It’s tradition.

The fact is, Halloween candy is part of life nowadays; so, unfortunately, is Valentine’s and Easter candy. I’m surprised there’s no Fourth of July candy, although I suppose we’re all to busy stuffing our faces with hot dogs and potato salad that day.

Anyway, I’m just not going to be one of those parents who denies their kid sugar. They’re not getting it often or in large quantities, but I agree that there’s no better way to set up bingeing than to deny. I know this from personal experience.

So it’s a balance, and it’s moderation. That’s how I see it. And I also believe strongly that I simply can’t live my life one way and not allow my kids some measure of it. Not that they get to eat exactly as I do, since I hope for better for them.

But birthday cake in our house will always be real cake (they get homemade) with lots of frosting, you can bet on that!

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Raising a Foodie, Part 1

I’m a relatively new mom – I have two children, ages 1 and 3 (3 1/2, she would correct me) – and one of my primary goals for their physical and spiritual well-being is to raise good eaters – by “good”, I mean responsible omnivores who love all kinds of food. Unfortunately, at their current ages, I am failing at the non-picky part. But I try.

I actually started feeding my kids a varied diet before they were even born, and during their exclusively-breastfed months. I ate a wide variety of foods, particularly focusing on spicy foods and vegetables. I’ve read that babies whose mothers ate lots of broccoli while they were in utero come out liking it, so I loaded up on broccoli and spinach and whatever else seemed especially nutritious.

I read a lovely story in Nigella‘s fabulous How to Eat about when she was pregnant and had the chance to chat up an OB at a party. He told her that breastmilk changes not only in nutritional content as the baby grows and her needs change, but also it varies in flavor depending on what Mom’s been eating. So, Nigella concluded, breastfeeding is really the best way to begin introducing variety in eating to a child!

Isn’t that the coolest thing? As a species, our most natural way of beginning life has been designed to include variety, to begin priming the palate for future adventure. What a wonderful concept. But we probably shouldn’t make too big a deal of it, or we’ll wind up with flavored formula from scientists trying to replicate the goodies.

Most of the world’s babies aren’t treated with the kid gloves we use when it comes to  spices (though they are exclusively breastfed longer), and so I have held back on super hot but certainly not flavorful ingredients. The kids get lots of curry, garlic, onions, peppers, ginger, and so forth. I try not to give them bland foods – while maintaining the natural taste, of course. Can’t mask the flavor, or they’ll never truly love the food itself.

Which brings me to one of my biggest gripes: children’s menus at restaurants. Ugh! The same crappy, flavorless six or so items on rotation: chicken nuggets, hamburger, mac and cheese, hot dog. All designed to appeal to the least common denominator while teaching our kids nothing about food and offering them nothing in the way of nutrition. Yuck!

I once went off on a poor waiter who brought my kid neon orange macaroni and cheese. The adult menu listed a four cheese mac and so we assumed the kid version would be a smaller portion of the good stuff. So when it came out Kraft, I said, “What is this?” And he said it was the “kid’s” mac and cheese. I said, “What do you mean? Do you think my kid doesn’t like good food? That she wants something that tastes like plastic and cardboard instead of having flavor?” And on and on about the sorry state of children’s palates today, and how of course they only want that stuff because that’s all we offer to them – we never challenge their palates so they have no idea what food tastes like!

Poor guy didn’t know what hit him. He did replace the orange stuff.

Before my eldest was even a year old, some of her favorite dinners included beets with goat cheese, coconut curry, sweet potato gnocchi with rustic pine nut sauce, and potato-green garlic soup. She loves broccoli (only raw) and tofu. Recently we had a seafood paella and she was not that interested in the rice, but begging for, “More squid! More octopus!!”

Her brother will eat anything as long as it’s in mac and cheese. So I throw kale in there, bacon ends, tomatoes, asparagus, etc. He also loves pasta with tomato sauce, which is easy to puree greens into, or he’ll shovel in mushrooms, onions and sausage as long as there’s pasta with it.

Both my kids love plain yogurt to death, and of course fruits. They think a frozen puree of watermelon or cantaloupe (in a cute shape, of course, thanks to IKEA ice cube trays) is a treat. And for each, their first solid food was guacamole – not avocado, which they can kind of take or leave, but GUAC!

Of course, now the three year old in particular now often turns up her nose at most of the strongly flavored things we offer. When this happens, the “Party in my Tummy” song from Yo Gabba Gabba helps a lot. I once told her that her tummy was sad and waiting for its party, because only vegetables get the party started – and it worked! Now often when she eats a fruit or veg, she’ll say, “Mommy, the strawberry/broccoli/apple/etc. got the party started in my tummy!”

And yes, I do bribe with dessert. Often. But if it’s good dessert – and one me and Daddy are planning to eat anyway – I don’t see much harm in it.

The fact is, introducing a child to the wonders of food in all its variety, color, flavor, and creative potential is just about the funnest thing I’ve ever done. And I really look forward to the days when the kids will be big enough to help in the vegetable garden and the kitchen (they do try the latter, but it’s kind of more trouble than help right now). They love going to the farmer’s market, and spend many hours watching my husband and I cook.

Most importantly, they know that food doesn’t come from the grocery store. They’ve been to farms, they’ve met cows, they’ve picked strawberries and gathered eggs.

Because really that is the most basic lesson that we all must keep in mind: that food comes from hard work and a generous God. And for this we must be grateful.