The Dinner Blues

Let’s be up-front about this: I recently found myself saying to my husband (and not even in the heat of the moment), “I hate having to feed my children healthy food.” Sometimes it is tempting to throw my hands up in the air, and simply declare a moratorium on these family dinners that everybody says are essential to the well-being of my brood and let them eat cake. Now, I may have more hang-ups about food than average, having waded my way through piles of books on nutrition, food, and how to get your kids to eat healthfully… but if the existence of those piles of books is anything to go by, I’m not the only one at home thinking this.

The other day, though, I looked my husband in the eye, stared him down and asked, “Why do we care so much? What difference does it make whether they eat what we put in front of them or yogurt, fruit, and a peanut butter sandwich?” It’s an ongoing conversation in our household. At various times, we have instituted any or all of the following rules (You can guess which ones are for the adults and which are for the children.):

  1. Everybody has to try a bite of everything on offer. Which became:
  2. 1 a)Everybody has to try anything that we already know doesn’t make you gag.
    I unilaterally updated the original rule after it became obvious that squash and rice were never going to make it past my oldest son’s reflexes no matter how many times he forced it.

  3. No fighting at the table
  4. If you have somebody else’s fork in your hand, you are over-controlling their food (this one is for those of us who are tempted to get that ‘just one biiiiiiite’ into the toddler who has said, “I don’t wike it” to the food that they were eating with gusto last week)
  5. No badgering
  6. No lecturing
  7. No turning up your nose at and making faces about the food We Have So Lovingly Prepared!

I think this last one gets at the heart of a lot of why dinner stops being about food, and starts being an Issue and a power struggle. It’s not just about food; there’s culture, gratitude, frugality, obedience, morality, and Being A Good Parent all tied up in the ability to “make my children eat what I have so carefully put together!”

So, why do we care so much?

Well, after talking it through with my family members, I have realized that I can only answer for myself, but my conclusions might have some bearing on your own question. I have a lot of values that turn out to be entangled in food. Since I’m alive and intend to stay that way as long as possible, I’m concerned about the long-term health of my body and mind, and by extension, that of my children. This means that I’m inclined towards whole foods, vegetables, legumes, and eating the way that the Harvard School of Public Health suggests. I am also a dedicated environmentalist, and I’m deeply concerned about eliminating suffering on my behalf, so I’m averse to the industrial food system in all its guises, but particularly in the “production” of animals. I remain an ambivalent omnivore, but the consequences of CAFO operations are more than I’m willing to bear responsibility for. We have eaten very little meat over the last few years, increasingly as a matter of habit, but originally because we couldn’t afford the meat we were willing to eat – which brings me to the frugal motivation. Our weekly budget for food is $150 to feed three adults and three children under 10. On a week that we run out of flour and rice at the same time, this can cut things a little tight. We have another $50 to play with that usually is used for such things as shampoo, cleaning products, and toilet paper, but can be diverted on a good week to a couple of extra special ingredients. (Oh, just for fun, imagine my struggle in having to choose between old-growth forest and an itchy bum.) To add one more factor to the mix, we live on an island on the east coast of Canada, in a dark, cold, wet land that is covered with rocks and trees, and that therefore has almost no farming. Our 100-mile diet would consist of cabbages, carrots, beets and potatoes for much of the “winter” (October through May).

That being said, we still need to eat. And, in case this all sounds a little joyless, I happen to be a food lover from way back, and cooking is a favored hobby in our house. We get as much as we can from Fair Trade, small scale, local, organic, sustainably-harvested and ethically-raised sources as possible, and pay the premium for each adjective. We have started raising and preserving a fair amount of our own food, learning season extension techniques to broaden the scope of our gardening, raising bees and laying hens, and generally developing a slough of alternative homestead rural skills. But realistically, we don’t want to go back to a rural medieval peasant lifestyle. There are too many other things to do with our lives! Clearly trade-offs are necessary.

After my husband saw a documentary on banana plantations, he said, “That’s it. No more bananas, EVER. They’re a tropical fruit anyway, and we just shouldn’t be eating them.” At that point, bananas were the go-to food for the toddler. I finally persuaded him to compromise on organic bananas, because, I argued, at least the exploited plantation workers aren’t also being sprayed with toxins? Note the question mark. Most of my justifications sound like that. In fact, my thought processes were a lot more like this: “NOOOOOOO!!! What in the name of *$# are we going to feed him if you stop letting me buy bananas?!? Please, please don’t be right about this!”

It’s not just dinner; it’s a curriculum! Given the amount of thought that goes into it, it is hardly surprising that I get a little agitated when looking around the table at an array of nearly full plates, and the kids are each picking at a single food, and sighing. Michael Pollan finally offered me a kind help in his acknowledgments section, though, when he described his son as the ‘pickiest eater [he] knows’. And I thought to myself, “Oh, thank God.” Even my food guru has this problem. So, as I try to help children by helping myself, I have worked through some of the following issues, intellectually at least:

  1. Wasting food. This is only an issue if we put too much on their plates in the first place… we always eat the leftovers that are still in the pot; they are my preferred lunch, as a matter of fact.
  2. Frugal/cost. The one rule that we have stuck to consistently is that the kids are not allowed to have cereal for dinner. In fact, they aren’t allowed to eat any of the ‘single serve’ foods that we do purchase for occasional lunches. Their preferred substitutions for dinner are peanut butter, homemade whole grain bread, and a piece of fruit. I can’t reasonably fault them on this one.
  3. Disrespect for the effort involved in making the food. This is about something other than food entirely, and doesn’t seem a reasonable justification for making people ignore messages from their body about what belongs in it. I’m still going to insist that rolling of eyes and sighing are not appropriate responses. Also, comments that sound like, “Eeeeew” are right out.
  4. Health. We want them to eat well now so that they don’t get sick. This is entirely tied up in feeling like good parents, and this one I’m not willing to lose. However, it relies upon them eating a balanced diet, not necessarily upon them eating whatever weird vegan fair-trade organic produce we were keen on this week. We also want them to learn good eating habits so that they aren’t prone to pervasive and chronic illnesses as they get older. But I have to wonder, is this really an issue worth fighting over at the dinner table night after night?

Our current solution to the dinner problem involves holding hands and taking a deep breath together to acknowledge the transition to the dinner table. This one strategy made a significant difference in the number and degree of fights taking place. It is a chance to reconnect at the end of the day, and before the chaos of ‘getting ready for bed’. Since we all have to eat, we might as well eat together. We make something every night The house is full of healthful food, and there are all kinds of whole grains, nuts, legumes, raw veggies and fruit, (both dried and fresh) on offer at heights that they can reach. My kids almost never get sick, they are active and learning well, and, when pressed, I can name at least 20 – 30 athings that each of them will eat… although not the same 20 or 30 things. Oh, well. One thing at a time.

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