Kids Eat The Darndest Things... (Whether We Like It Or Not)

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Who Really Decides What Your Kids Eat?

The most arduous experience of parenting for me has been weathering the unrelenting stream of shots fired by the seemingly tireless dilemma cannon. With every metaphorical cannonball coming at me at hurtling speed, there is a choice to be made between at least two courses of action...or inaction.  Do I go with the flow and allow the outcome of this moment to be organic? 

Do I seize this opportunity to shape the result by my intervention?  Remind my child to go to the bathroom before we leave the house  and I risk over-managing his bladder and his body to the detriment of his self-awareness.  Let him decide and I have - besides a mounting laundry issue - a possible boundary problem on my hands. Either direction could ultimately entrench lasting bad habits, senseless paranoia or... an independent well-adjusted, imaginative child. 

Whew! It could really go either way and there is no way to know in advance. Nowhere do I feel the terra incognita of child-rearing more than in the arena of food.  I spent what amounted to years (in stress and anxiety currency as well as time) making carefully selected, varied, organic baby food to load up the nutrients and coax his taste-buds in the right direction.  Yet despite this and being breastfed well into toddlerhood, never having had any formula or dairy outside his species, my son (now three) will not ingest green food and inhales chocolate milk daily.  So much for best laid plans. 

What is more, along this road of mothering or fathering are ideologies that may collide with the practical stuff.  The most abhorrent of these inclinations is the agenda many parents have that our children are to be created in our own image.  According to this, we should raise our children to eat and like to eat what we eat and like to eat. I am certain parents would quickly agree that our primary job is to ensure our children's safety and protecting their health is certainly included. 

However, should we limit their experience of food based on our own beliefs or preferences?  In Food and Evolution: Biocultural Aspects of Food Choice, George Armelagos writes of a long accepted scientific paradigm that much of food preferences are learned through culture and other sociological structures but that most of it is biologically determined by our anthropological ancestry.1  I'll extrapolate on this in a future post but now simply knowing that most of our preferences are biological (not necessarily hereditary) is salient. 

Giving our children a full experience is also a mandate if we subscribe to the idea that their journeys are exploratory and our roles are as guides and not teachers. Our own experiences that lead to our adulthood shaped us.  Why would it be any different for our children?

I was a vegetarian for more than fifteen years until I was pregnant with my son. When I entered aversion-nausea-smell sensitivity territory, rather predictably I also began to crave meat.  "Don't feel bad about your sudden yearning for flesh, Tania"  said supportive friends.  "Succumb. The baby needs it. It's temporary.  After he's born, you'll surely go back to a pure and supernal life of vegetarianism", they assured me.  Instead I went to culinary school where my eyes were suddenly opened to the limitations of my food experience until then.

Through that realization, the complexity of the issues in support of which I had made my choices became clear also.  So, I moved forward, fork boldly poised at the sea of sirloin I was now allowing myself to sample.  What if I had insisted on my son being raised a vegetarian?  It turned out to be merely a random trend in my life that - by comparison to my current omnivorous approach - did not serve my physical or cultural health, particularly.  So, it might not have served his.  My own journey brought me here through there and was not abetted by any well-meaning parent chasing after me with a juicer.  Mine then, is an argument in favor of going with the food flow.

Allan and Christine from London tried a democratic approach.  They had been living as vegetarians for five years.  They decided, however, that their three children should experience all manner of food and make their own decisions.  They ran into trouble when their eldest began asking "How come you and mommy don't eat the stuff you are making us eat?"  Now they regularly enjoy rib night... altogether... as a family. 

To meat or not to meat is certainly not the only question.  Royce and Sandy, a San Francisco couple, agreed immediately that their son, Jak's lips would never experience the bubbly sensation of soda pop dancing across them.  A great parenting call if I ever heard one, right?  Sugar is, after all, extremely toxic causing inflammation in the body and metabolic syndrome among a host of other avoidable predicaments.  There is the urgent danger of type II diabetes not to mention the overloading of phosphorous that comes from these carbonated drinks that insipidly wears away at our bones.2

Our bodies have no use for refined sugar.  Its occurrence in nature was - anthropologically speaking - to attract us to vitamin-bearing fruits.3  What we did later on when we started to process sugar cane into the white poison that infiltrates even the most innocuous looking savory packaged foods was not consistent with its original intended role. So, why would one ever want one's child to experience it? In fact, Royce and Sandy's approach of preventing even the taste pre-cognition for sugar to form seems wise.   On a not particularly memorable day, however, amidst fairly ordinary circumstances, in his seventh year, Jak ended up at a birthday party (or an amusement park or summer camp or school or a playdate) staring down the barrel of a glass of Sprite.  On this otherwise unremarkable occasion, Jak downed his Sprite and never looked back. 

After seven years of his parents' dedication to carbonation evasion, Jak now requests Sprite at every meal, every outing, every party.  So, the message here is that the palate wants what it wants.  It is as visceral a sensation as there exists.  Besides, Jak was likely associating drinking Sprite with some kind of fun or social experience.  That can be neither taught, unlearned or explained. So the well-meaning strategizing of his parents was for naught as it often ends up being (remember my blood, sweat, and food grinder homemade baby food tribulations).

At this point you may say that I, Royce, Sandy, Allan and Christine simply did not try hard enough.  We should have been more committed: we should have sanitized our pantries and refrigerators; sat our children in dark corners at parties so that poor sightlines protected them from spying the bowl of gold-fish crackers.  We should have vetted playgroup guest lists and cut off communication with any friend or acquaintance who had so much as glanced in the direction of the cereal aisle.  This might have worked.  But it didn't work for Marlon's parents.

Adam and Roseanne raised Marlon in utterly disinfected environs.  He brought his lunch to school every day as well as his own snacks to parties.  He was instructed to bring his piece of birthday cake home so that his parents could sample it, approve it and then let him have one bite.  Driving routes were altered so that fast food signage and logos remained unfamiliar to Marlon well into his adolescence.  Already it's seeming obsessive to you isn't it, dear reader? It would have to. Maybe obsessive is OK, though. 

There is probably nothing more worth our compulsion than our children's well-being.  If it works, that is.  Years later, friends visiting Marlon were aghast when they entered the house he shared in college with his six roommates.  There were obvious signs of his making up for lost snacks.  The penchant for fast food, take out and candy was evident in the heaps of wrappers and take out containers strewn about and in Marlon's ever enlarging middle.  In this stage of life, regard for neatness is typically temporarily lifted highlighting further the excess of pizza boxes stacked high and doubling as furniture at the time. 

Whenever anyone commented, Marlon would confirm their suspicions of his rebellion of spirit by saying something like, "I just felt that finally being on my own, I could make my own choices and experience things I was never allowed to experience when I was living with my parents". Marlon is the living counter-argument to going against the grain (whether that grain be enriched or whole!)

Unfortunately, the exhaustive dilemma cannon never seems to slow down long enough for us to make a deliberate choice even if that choice is doing nothing and letting the chocolate chips fall where they may.  The speed with which those weighty balls pummel at me leaves me breathless and anxious.  I sit in defeat, desperate and thirsty for a tall ice-cold glass of Sprite.

The Recipe Section

In this series, I offer recipes that you can name yourself.  Amend them to suit your dietary predilections and enjoy.  I do urge you to preserve the essence of the recipe, however, and promise that doing so will augment the deliciousness... a lot.

Cure for the common cannonball

This twist on brittle/trail mix is called brickle.  It is sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, meat-free, vegan and virtually raw.  It is inoffensive to all dietary camps, potentially intriguing for children, decent party food and really quite nutritionally dense. Put as many handfuls of the following as look appetizing: pumpkin seed, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds into a bowl and toss in tamari (wheat-free naturally brewed soy sauce).  Spread on a baking sheet and 'bake' at 115 (if you are raw) or 250 (if you are cooked!) for about 30 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  In the meantime, prepare a combination of your favorites of the following ensuring that you are not allergic to any of the chosen ingredients :) dried cherries, goji berries, raisins, dried blueberries, sultanas, cocoa nibs... you get the idea.  Mix the cooled seeds in with the dried fruit.  It's ready.

1. Harris, M. & Ross, Eric B. ed.; Food and Evolution: Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits; Temple University Press; Philadelphia, PA; 1987


3. Ulijaszek, S.J. & Strickland, S.S. (1993). Nutritional Anthropology. Prospects and Perspectives. London: Smith-Gordon.


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