Food Follies...becoming an All-Star Mom

“Don’t use food to wield power or bribe your children.” Printed in big black letters inside a block of lime green, the words seemed to leap off the page at me. I was reading one of those parent magazines they leave in the waiting room of pediatricians’ offices to make you feel inadequate and guilty. You know the ones. They keep you motivated during the day and awake at night. “What did they mean?” I wondered innocently. That couldn’t refer to me. I would never...

How did it all begin? Before their births, it seemed I was already engrossed in my children’s nutrition, religiously mixing up a daily little concoction of brewer’s yeast, eggs, yogurt, molasses and orange juice. Then there was the calve’s liver orgy one afternoon, reminiscent of that scene from “Rosemary’s Baby,” (though I did finish cooking mine). What devil obsessed me then? Some article on prenatal nutrition or a doctor’s warning about anemia? Being an aging pregnant yuppie, I was determined to make this work right from the start. I didn’t know that my determination could get out of hand.

Then baby Numero Uno arrived, a strapping, smiling, vigorous girl child named Katherine Claire, “Casey,” no doubt the product of superior prenatal nutrition. And what does a gourmet caterer feed her firstborn as soon as she’s ready for solid food? Baby Blocks—that’s what I would call them. It was a postpartum inspiration for my next new food venture: fresh pureed veggies frozen in the shape of those old-fashioned alphabet blocks with the letter on the side. I’d make green ones with an S for spinach, orange ones with a C for carrots, etc. You get the idea. I’d just pop them out of the freezer tray and into the microwave and zap—a beautiful, nutritionally balanced menu, chock full of vitamins. You could mix and match daily, no need to waste a half a jar of over-processed baby food. Bon appetit, baby.

The prototypes were made in ice cube trays, and the kids loved them, until they got older, say two or three, and got real taste buds and stopped eating all that stuff simply because I wanted them to. The power struggle had begun.

So I went underground. I hid the “healthy stuff” in whatever handy culinary vehicle could foil the flavors of the stowaway foods: tofu in the oatmeal, egg whites in the milk shakes, pureed carrots or peas in the meatloaf or spaghetti sauce. Clearly by the age of six or eight, they learned not to trust me and eyed any new dish that I placed before them with suspicion and expectations of the worst sort. And I ended up sharpening their taste buds so I couldn’t fool them anymore if I tried.

Next, there was what we in family lore refer to as the “rabbit sausage incident”. Ten-year-old Katherine (aka Casey), who owned a darling lop-eared bunny named Brownie, discovered a  rabbit sausage in our freezer one day (complete with bunny illustrations). “How could you?” she asked, horrified. Somehow I had the grace not to fight it. I knew what would happen next. I still asked the crucial question: “What’s the difference between rabbit sausage, lamb sausage, and pork sausage?” “You’re right,” she replied, “I won’t eat any of them.” So okay. So all right. So she didn’t eat meat or seafood for four years, and it didn’t stunt her growth.

My son Max, whose first word was “cookie,” presented his own set of culinary requirements, not because he’s vegetarian but basically the opposite. He seemed to thrive on meat, potatoes, sugar, and as much pre-packaged fast food as he could possibly manipulate me into buying. And thrive he did. He was exceptionally big for his age (growth hormones??) and rarely got sick. What he didn’t like were surprises, and nifty styro-packs of burgers, nuggets, and fries always fit the bill. No wonder he would crawl under the table at Chinese restaurants when faced with a half a dozen odd-looking dishes crowding the table in front of him.

Sometimes now, looking back I feel like I failed, got too caught up in the morning edition of “Nutrition News”, used my brain too much, and forgot how to cook, forgot what it was that I loved about food, the taste, the satisfaction, the sharing. It’s not that I didn’t feed them well. They got more nutrition than they ever needed. It’s just that I may not have shared my passion for food at full bloom. I was always pruning back a little to serve the greater nutritional good, cutting back the fat, taking out the sugar. And the guidelines seemed to change every day. If my food was confused and my meals uninspired, so was I.

So I’ve come to appreciate how complicated this food thing really can get. It’s not just the nutrition that counts when we take on the care and feeding of a child. Food is one of the ways we let them know we love them and measure ourselves as good moms, right? It’s our daily test of our selves against the Betty Crocker Scale of Motherly Competence, a relentless feedback so to speak, three meals a day for maybe 18 years. That’s 19,710 meals. Even an all-star batter doesn’t get a hit more than 30% of the time and hardly ever hits a home run. And look what they get paid.

So what’s a mother to do? I’m talking from experience now. Cook them something that tastes good, something you love, something they will come to love, though maybe not right away. Give them some choices, mostly fresh, but not too many. Show them how to cook it themselves. Tell jokes at dinner and stories about when you were young. Tickle them when they spill their milk. Let them sit under the table at restaurants, but don’t let them eat off the floor. They will eat when they are really hungry. Their brains will remember that mealtimes were fun, their bodies will grow, and their hearts will know that they were loved. And don’t worry, they won’t starve. If you get it right only once a day, you’re an All-Star.


See recipe for Hidden Treasure Meatloaf


























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