My sister and I grew up eating Pop-Tarts and soft-boiled eggs for breakfast. Perhaps this standard menu embodied my mother’s mixed feelings about nutrition. On the one hand, the kids need some healthy food. Start the day with a stiff shot of protein. On the other hand, they whine so about those eggs. Placate them with a Pop-Tart.
Now that my sister and I both have kids, we seem to have remarkably different approaches to feeding them. I am the toaster pastry side of the equation. She is definitely the egg.
At a recent family get-together, I couldn’t help but observe her twin boys’ healthy eating habits at close range. My 2-year-old nephews politely gobbled each broccoli stalk they were offered, each small clump of beans, each section of bagel with avocado schmeer and each wedge of juicy pear.
My 5- and 7-year-old daughters willingly eat pear, perhaps because its color resembles that of their other favorite food groups: pizza, macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese. But broccoli? My 5-year-old cries at the mere smell. Under dessert pressure, my 7-year-old will eat a microscopic sprig enveloped in a large roll. It has never occurred to me to serve them a lump of warm beans. In honor of National Nutrition Month, I’ve devised these tips to help myself and others cope with feelings of parental food failure.
1 Spread the blame. I married a man who seemed fairly health conscious, but not overly so. He cooked me stir-fry with rice and vegetables. He wooed my sweet tooth by proffering bowls of ice cream in bed. My sister married a man with a vast knowledge of exotic fruits and vegetables and a demonstrated enthusiasm for cooking. No wonder her kids eat mangos.
Beyond husbands, there are many other possible sources of blame for my kids’ eating habits. Nutritionally deficient parents have no doubt hosted my kids for play dates, brought unhealthy snacks to school and plied my children with cake at birthday parties. It’s not (completely) my fault.
2 Find compatible friends. One health-conscious friend recently raised the specter of parents who send their children to school with Teddy Grahams for a snack. Two other moms and I admitted to occasionally doing so. My old college roommate explained, “...but I serve healthy things along with them, like a bagel and cream cheese and a cheese stick.”
As my health-conscious friend tried to digest that a balanced meal could be Teddy Grahams, a cream cheese bagel and a cheese stick, I decided to spend less time with her and more with my old college roommate.
3 Try new strategies. Like buying attractive boxes for scattered toys or making ambitious New Year’s resolutions, it feels good to launch new healthy eating initiatives. The trick is to avoid the feelings of failure that come from sticking with any one strategy.
Simply flip-flopping between dessert stances provides plenty of opportunities for innovation, i.e., a bite of everything is required before dessert. Well, maybe at least everything but the broccoli. Well, maybe just four bites of the chicken.
4 Celebrate small victories. A friend with similarly finicky kids recently informed me that her 5-year-old son now eats pizza. (His prior pickiness had eliminated even this kid staple.) The next time I saw my friend, her husband announced the same, marvelous news. “He eats pizza now!”
I smiled in congratulations. It didn’t seem appropriate to brag about my own children’s many years of pizza-eating.
5 Relax during the holidays. Occasions such as Christmas, Halloween and Easter offer parents the excuse to overindulge their children. If relatives stare in amazement as you acquiesce to yet another request for “one more” treat, all you have to do is say, “It is [insert holiday name here], after all.” More rolls with butter? It is Casimir Pulaski Day, after all.
6 Cede control on other occasions. After a particularly unrewarding dinner, I declared a one-night cooking strike. It was satisfying to watch my kids forage for their own food, particularly when I threw in the caveat that all the (real) food groups had to be represented. They didn’t break nutritional ground, but they did follow the rules. I went out to dinner.
7 Profit from healthy influences. My 7-year-old’s teacher treated her class to clementines early in the holiday season. My daughter became obsessed with them, so much so that she insisted I buy an $8 box during an out-of-town vacation. She offered up her allowance, eight weeks into the future. Clementines became as good as gold for both my girls, and I didn’t spend a cent.
8 Enjoy subtle corruption. One of my nephews seems to take particular interest in his cousin’s eating habits. After a mere 24 hours of close contact, he called for “bagel?” well before snack time. (My girls get theirs with regular cream cheese.) He even requested pizza as he was being buckled in for breakfast. (He didn’t learn that one from us.)
9 Buy vitamins. Fred Flintstone has been making parents feel good about essential minerals since my own childhood. One of my girls is partial to Betty Rubble, the other to Wilma Flintstone. One a day.
10 Remember—you survived. Beyond Pop-Tarts, I ate my share of Hostess Twinkies, Ho Hos and Ding Dongs as a child. Many people were raised on bologna and Wonder Bread. And guess what? My kids eat whole wheat.
Linda Downing Miller is a writer living in Oak Park.
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