Thursday, February 7, 2008

On War and Peas

I am an enabler of criminal proportions.
I live with a challenged eater.
I knew early on that my son was headed down a dark, mal-nutritious path but I thought simply by sharing my love of good food, it would all be okay.
And so, for years I negotiated with him (and myself) believing that he would outgrow his distaste for healthful foods and we would all live happily ever after, without the threat of expanding waistlines and high cholesterol.
We are fortunate that currently, he does not have a weight issue. He is physically active and regularly meets and exceeds the demands of organized sports. These two simple facts provided me with a false sense of security and I allowed myself to be consumed by what I believed was only a temporary battle between healthful foods and conveniently packaged crap (pardon my French).
But I was wrong.
And I hate when I’m wrong.

At the tender age of four, I had him believing that yogurt, like ice cream, was a special dessert rewarded by mommies, to be savored by well-behaved little boys.
By age seven, he wanted to trade his yogurt for Doritos and refused to eat anything green (unless it appeared pre-packaged and labeled as “Gushers”).
By age nine, I developed my “eye for an eye” policy and for every snack he requested, he was required to eat something (remotely) healthy. My plan backfired as I so foolishly exhausted his appreciation for yogurt, bananas, broccoli and the occasional
glass of orange juice.
When he expressed distaste for apples (who doesn’t like apples?),
I sprinkled them with cinnamon and sugar. When he sat tight-lipped at the dinner table, refusing to eat the family meal, I forced him to eat it, received most of it back and consequently, prepared him a different meal all together; one I knew wasn’t as nutritionally sound but nonetheless a meal I was sure he would eat.
For years I have prepared daily dinners with a knot in my gut and a backup plan in my brain. More often than not, I am forced to call upon the consolation recipe for the sake of restoring order in the kitchen.
What was once my own dirty little secret has now become my very public battle against weak-minded parents (me) and commercially packaged (albeit tasty) goods that manufacturers are somehow privileged to call convenience foods. These include (but are not limited to) fast food, frozen meals, school cafeteria food, and even the occasional lower-calorie “healthy option” convenience meal from your local supermarket.
And the aforementioned doesn’t even include the snack aisle.

While I am finally ready to face my own demons, and the loveable
yet nutritionally deprived monster I have created, I proceed with caution.
Because now, at the complicated age of thirteen, my tall, brooding, belligerent boy is too strong for me to wrestle, and too clever for me to hide peas in his pot-pie (and for that matter, he would never eat pot-pie—even if I stuffed it with Doritos).
But I am tired of the daily battle.
And I am even more fearful of the long-term, ill-effects his current eating habits may have on his health. I am ashamed to have allowed it to go on for so long, but foolishly, I find myself intimidated by a junk food warship that on most days, seems unsinkable.

Despite what you may be thinking, my son is not my first or my
only child.
I have a daughter (five years his senior) who, like me, loves to eat everything; the good, the bad and the ugly.
As a preschooler, she would have been just as excited had I proclaimed Fridays as falafel Fridays, as she was about
mac-and-cheese Mondays. By age six she had turned her nose up at the idea of a kid’s menu because she couldn’t find crudités or bisque among entrees of child-friendly fare. She is my greatest contender when sushi or shellfish enter my home and her detailed reviews of my freshly concocted recipes hit the mark every time.
During a not-so-long-ago summertime gathering, I was a proud mama when she returned a huge, empty platter devoid of its snap-peas and low-fat buttermilk dip, hankering for seconds. The chip basket was still full and the well-meaning hostess gift of boxed donuts remained unopened (needless to say, dear son didn’t arrive home until much later, at which point both the donuts and chips met their fate). Now a young woman, my daughter continues to make healthy food choices and lives adventurously as I do, when choosing gastronomical fare.
So, imagine my surprise on that feted day in late July, when my baby bundle of all-boy arrived and immediately protested his provisions. It has been a thirteen year, uphill climb to convince him to eat anything that isn’t fried or frosted. And if you think I haven’t tried the hide-the-vegetables method of mealtime deception, think again. I took one tiny step forward and two huge steps back when I subscribed to the just-hide-some-spinach-puree-in-the-brownies-and-he’ll-never-know method of baking. Not only did he know,
he no longer trusted the flavor or appearance of any foods—even the unadulterated ones he was accustomed to eating, for fear that spinach would deceptively lurk beneath a familiar exterior.

In good conscience, it would be unfair for me to place blame on anyone but myself. Yet as I look back and review my long list of mistakes, I am painfully aware of the evil forces that aided and abetted my poor decision making for the sake of convenience.
I would guess that I am not alone in this mess.
Admittedly, I am comforted by the company who shares my misery.

Some time ago, while my son attended elementary school, I was employed as a first grade teacher assistant. My contract required that I fulfill one hour of “lunch duty” each day. I was expected to monitor an overcrowded cafeteria as I meandered through a maze of tables, making sure that lunches were eaten, tables were cleared and mealtime mishaps were kept to a minimum.
Having been no stranger to a crowded dinner table and the occasional antics of bored children, I managed my position efficiently and with little external conflict.
Internally however, I was deeply conflicted. I challenged a school district that offered one “jumbo pretzel” as the main course of a hot school lunch (and no, it wasn’t stuffed with meat, cheese, or fruit. And let me add that the first child I witnessed carrying this entree on her lunch tray, also selected sides of packaged saltines and a slice of white bread. I would guess that she was one of the students who notoriously fell asleep in class after recess, thanks to a
carb-induced crash
). Yet I continued to fill my own son’s
lunchbox with the good, the bad and the ugly. I subscribed to the don’t ask, don’t tell method of lunch review and conveniently, never had to know which items he ate and which ones were traded
(or more likely, tossed).
And for those of you, who believe that your children might balance their own meals by eating the fresh fruit first and the snacks last, let me enlighten you. The school cafeteria is like Vegas. What happens there stays there, and even the most honorable, God-fearing children have been known to toss the grapes and eat the Gushers
(and then lie about it).
I have often thought that if our local school district would finally replace their foam lunch trays with a biodegradable version, the entire contents of the cafeteria waste pail could be wheeled directly to the compost heap. Quite frankly, the only things hidden in those standard-issue paper napkins are the fruits, vegetables and bread crusts we all want to believe our children are actually eating.
I learned from spying on my own son that if I provide him with any snacks, inevitably they will be eaten first, leaving little appetite or appreciation for the more sensible contents of his lunch box.
And I use the term “sensible” very loosely. Surely by now you are aware that most kid-friendly products have been compromised to appeal to a young audience—and I’m not only referring to packaging but to the contents as well. If you don’t believe me, take a gander at the nutritional information on those colorful dairy products we so mindlessly reach for each time we shop. Nutritionally, they pale in comparison to the less kid-friendly varieties. The no-trans-fats trend in labeling has momentarily taken the pressure and spotlight off
co-offenders like high fructose corn syrup and that lengthy list of additives most of us can neither pronounce nor define. Alarmingly, these regularly invade the ingredients list of convenience foods and are cause for great concern.
Chances are, if you can’t pronounce it or identify it; your kids probably shouldn’t be eating it.
And as for the supermarket variety of convenience lunch foods, I find it quite amusing that the companies who market these items flaunt the fact that their packaging is recycled, biodegradable and environment-friendly.
I commend their efforts, but I question whether or not our kids would be better served to eat the packaging rather than its chemically processed contents?

So where does that leave parents who have neither the time
nor the inclination to prepare homemade sandwiches crafted from lean, grass-fed, organic proteins, nestled between artisan whole grain breads and accompanied by pro-biotic beverage and pesticide-free fruit?
I would argue that the answer is not one-size-fits-all.
For starters, some of us would have to sell a kidney to afford an
all-organic lifestyle.
It’s sad really, because my elder relatives (and probably yours) were farming organic produce long before it was in vogue. And I’m not talking about Farmer Fred and his hundred acres, I’m talking about Grandpa Pete’s potted vegetable plants on the back deck, into which he threw the likes of coffee grinds, egg shells and carrot peels (and where pesticides were concerned, he and others relied on the use of cheap, natural remedies like vinegar or pantry spices to ward of pesky insects). It’s been a while since I’ve tasted tomatoes as sweet or as flavorful as those of my summertime youth (and I may never again, given the high price of environmentally conscious produce).
And even if cost wasn’t an obstacle, I’m inclined to believe that like my son, most kids would prefer the happier meal over the healthier one.

I believe my son’s obsession with processed provisions is not only fueled by media madness but is also supported by a culture of indifference at work and at play.
My battle had only just begun when I rid my own pantry of its most offensive contents. Had my son not been able to satisfy his crispy/crunchy cravings in his high-school cafeteria, he likely would have found solace in a mall food court or dare I suggest a friend’s kitchen.
I should know, because for the past decade, he has been that friend, and that has been my kitchen.

So where does that leave us?
It would be foolish of me (and completely unfair) to expect my son to live a life without snacks or the occasional grab-n-go meal.
In a culture of chaos we depend heavily on the ease and availability of faster food.
Simply stated, bad food tastes good (add to that the evils of availability and youth-appeal and ironically, we might as well be talking about street drugs).
But I would argue that our current food choices need an extensive evaluation. I have to believe that Betty Crocker herself fashioned a few delightful treats without chemicals, additives or preservatives. Perhaps it is time for manufacturers and parents alike to consider
the body over the bottom dollar.
In my opinion, shelf-stability and profit margin, while both shrewd factors in business, leave the door open for a great many liability issues.
I recall a time when no one believed you could sue a tobacco company and actually win.
As a nation, we are too smart for all of this.
We are fortunate to live in the greatest country on earth but sadly, greatest is now a term equated with the size and girth of our citizens.
Our fight should not be limited to banning trans-fats
(or the culprit-du-jour), but should focus on the reinstitution of
real food in our homes and across our highways.
I would suggest that this is one war actually worth fighting.

As parents, the responsibility falls heavily upon our shoulders
to live by example.
For me, as a food-enthusiast and avid baker, I know the road ahead will be a bumpy one. And for the first time since I started this blog,
I find myself conclusionless.
I wish I could tie this one up in a neat little bow of word play
but I am afraid there is no happy ending to report or predict.

I can only offer my support to those of you who fight the same battle.
And as I experiment with newer, more healthful recipes and I make the effort to engage in positive dialogue with my son about the benefits of proper nutrition, I can only hope that the tide
will turn in my favor, both at home and abroad.
Perhaps it is a pipe dream to wish that a well balanced,
nutritionally packed meal should be as accessible and as affordable as a double-decker heart-wrecker from establishments that should consider spending more time thinking about what’s inside the body, than what’s outside the bun.
But regardless, it is my responsibility to make changes at home.
And so, the battle rages on.
Here on the front lines, I stand armed with cookbooks and
kitchen gadgetry.
As I ration whole grains, lean proteins, and chemical-free produce and distribute them to opposing forces, I long for the day when a white napkin is raised and we might reach an agreement to
end the war and share the peas.

And until then,
Make Life Delicious
Share Your Healthy Food


I’m happy to share with you my recommendations for a variety of health-conscious cookbooks. I’ve spent a great deal of time testing recipes and thus far, these are my favorite resources for nutritionally sound recipes.

The King Arthur Whole Grain Baking Book from King Arthur Flour

The Earth Bound Farm Organic Cook Book by Myra Goodman

The Food You Crave by Ellie Krieger

The All New Complete Cooking Light Cookbook
from Cooking Light Magazine

If you’re in the mood for a good read
(and you’re ready for a wake-up call), check out
Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle.

For an all-around great food resource book, check out
Jonny Bowden’s The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth
(you will be amazed and inspired).


Madalon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Madalon said...

Another good source for healthier recipes is "The Best Light Recipe" from America's Test Kitchen (the people at "Cooks' Illustrated"). They've taken a lot of unhealthy favorites and tested a gazillion different lower-fat, lower-calorie methods for making them, to arrive at one foolproof (even I can make them), delicious recipe for each. I especially appreciate the reviews of the various oddball substitute ingredients often called for in lighter recipes. The testers have determined which actually yield good results and which just give rise to questionable taste and texture. I haven't made my way through all the recipes yet, but so far the cinnamon rolls and fruit cobbler are favorites.