Spend time with any smattering of young kids and you’ll find at least one with a strong preference for beige food. You know the kid; s/he will eat bread (in many forms). To that, add cereal or potatoes, applesauce, oatmeal, crackers… Vegetables? Not so much. Fruit? Depends upon the kid.
As it goes, my older kids’ palettes are pretty wide ranging (sushi, Chinese specialties, fruits, fiddleheads thanks to a kindergarten teacher’s spring offering years ago, pickles, pickles more pickles). The jury’s still out on the toddler’s eating habits. I’ve always found reading about farm or garden to school initiatives inspirational, especially since getting to see firsthand how influential something as simple as picking chives or cherry tomatoes or sugar snap peas is upon my kids’ receptivity to the specific food. That simple, physical act often forges a positive relationship to the food. Perhaps, that’s why it’s so satisfying to see how Michelle Obama is making the White House lawn’s vegetable garden a resource for schoolchildren. Her doing so in such a very public spotlight helps brighten the profile of the many Farm-to-School programs across the country (local to me, CISA, or Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, does work to support such efforts and connect up interested parties). The White House garden’s produce is being donated to Miriam’s Kitchen, a DC organization that provides “healthful meals to the homeless.” In a Washington Post article on how central children are to Michelle Obama’s policy efforts surrounding food, Jocelyn Frye, who heads up the policy team, says that emphasis on “affordable and accessible healthy food” is key. The East Wing’s idea, in a nutshell, is this: get kids engaged in eating more healthfully.
It’s such a basic—and very likely successful—plan. After reading the article, I started to think about how so many messages about food are being tossed in our directions every single day. As is true for many people, I often find myself overwhelmed by how to navigate the many considerations (cost, ease, what we’ll eat day in and day out) and the barrage of information and suggestions about food that come across the transom each day (through media, at stores, what my children want…). I’m hoping to steer my children on a steady course, avoiding clogged arteries or eating disorders, able to sort through both advertisements and the tenacious hold of giant corporations on our health, and generally be happy, sensible, comfortable eaters.
This past weekend was a good case in point of how much there is to integrate. Friday, my elder two sons enjoyed helping to pick up the farm share at Town Farm—where they were particularly excited about the first onions and the lemon cucumbers—then the next days, they saw the movie, Food, Inc. with their grandmother. Meantime, each of them has been reading Julie Powell’s, Julie and Julia, in anticipation of the film’s release next month. Finally, on Sunday evening, they watched the Next Food Network Star. Sunday, second son, Lucien, wanted corn from our favorite farm stand, Golunka’s in Whately—dubbed by the clan, “Our Lady of the Butter and Sugar”—so he and friend/babysitter, Ella, biked there (about a fifteen mile ride round-trip). At the very same time, the smaller kids and parents plus friends went to pick blueberries (these friends have many blueberry bushes behind their house in Easthampton, not ten minutes from our house). From corn and soy conspiracies to local bounty to enjoying mangoes and cherries purchased at the supermarket… One of our beige-food pals picked blueberries, trying just two (while his pals, Remy and Emily, along with toddler, Saskia, feasted on the ripe, purplish globes), but he did enjoy the banana-blueberry bread made by our hostess, Lindsay. On Lindsay and Mike’s deck, looking out at the blueberry bushes and the garden closer to the house—first peppers, squash, neat rows of radishes—food seemed so simple. It grows. Harvest and eat. But of course, there’s winter, just for starters. The older kids would tell you that there’s Monsanto buying all the farmers of soy and corn out. Earlier, getting (local) milk for Saskia at the market, Remy’s friend wanted a gumball and Remy wanted a little packet of Pez candy (colors not found in nature). I didn’t think twice about letting him have it, until I was gazing at the neon pink and baby aspirin orange in his outstretched hand. And even then, I gave the colors a passing nod. We have relatively little exposure to artificially colored food items: other than the occasional little candy purchase like Sunday’s, there are rainbow sprinkles at the ice cream parlor and maraschino cherries at the Japanese restaurant. Our freezer doesn’t have brightly colored popsicles, nor do we have brightly colored cereals or crackers.
The second child, whom, despite being number two out of four, is for all intents and purposes our middle child, Lucien, has claimed culinary arts as “his” thing. He now pores over cookbooks (and cookbooks now top his requested gift list; he also received a subscription for Saveur for his birthday); he has become a Food Network follower (and if you’re one, too, you know what that’s like, referring to the stars as if we all know them well), and he dreams up recipes, menus, restaurant names and themes, and pretty much wants to talk food or make food as often as possible. For the most part, the passion feels positive, in that passion is generally a good thing to have in one’s life. He is learning—some days more than others—that cleaning up is part of cooking. He’s also becoming a good cook. When his dishes are successful—macaroni and cheese, (delectable) quinoa salad, bean sprout salad, mashed potatoes—he helps us all out and he gets what the middle child so desperately desires, the positive attentions of everyone in the family.
We have a beloved board book, about a bunny family—Bunbun the Middle One—that describes our Lulu to a T: “Bunbun sings the loudest. Bunbun gets the dirtiest. He’s always the happiest, and he’s usually the hungriest!”
On the less smooth, agreeable and positive days, the cooking thing is kind of hard (for me, and I think I can say for the other adults around here, the dad, the babysitters). Learning anything, especially something that involves high temperatures, sharp knives, the family’s food, the kitchen’s cleanliness, the adults’ attentions is not simply like, go out and shoot baskets and eventually you’ll be able to get the ball through the hoop. There’s negotiation involved, constant negotiation. If you don’t have a middle child in your family (I didn’t, growing up), here’s the thing: they are strong-willed (some might say, stubborn; others might add, impossible). Yup and yup, they are passionate, strong-willed, stubborn—oh, and in Lucien’s case, really sensitive, really, deep down, eager to please—and so something like making dinner with a creative, gourmet-inspired, locavore-leaning eleven year-old can be a 46 Franklin Street network challenge (emphasis on challenge).
In our case, Lucien’s adventurous and generous hand with the spices is usually the culprit of a dish gone awry. Capers in the macaroni and cheese didn’t go over well with the masses (although some people adored it). We’ve had too much cumin in eggs, too much hot oil in salads, and too much cinnamon in just about anything baked. We’ve slowly been developing—through hard-won experience—ground rules: you help clean up if you cook; small batch for a new idea and a remake of something successful, do a larger batch the same way; agree with your parents upon all of the ingredients before you begin a project and listen to the adult in charge when you are cooking because the adult has the final word, not the eleven year-old. The rules are good in theory. Sometimes, they are hard to enact, and when Lucien feels pressed, his response is generally to lash out, so the kitchen adventures can become exceedingly miserable, more like being stuck on the tarmac than reaching the beach destination.
I am so wary of control issues around food (having grown up mired in them, myself, and around me) that I have to applaud Lucien for finding a perfect way to push so many of my buttons at once (bravo). As conscientiously as possible, we’ve worked not to make food a reward or a punishment (never had rules like finish dinner or no dessert, for example). We try—Hosea, my husband’s more successful at this than I am—to avoid any good/bad labels as far as food is concerned (harder, quite obviously, when issues of organic and local and big farm-a are added to the conversations). Layer this complicated set of concerns about food with the ongoing public health crisis about obesity, my chunky (strong, fairly physically active) boy and I am a moment from tizzy fairly regularly. I don’t want to consign him to struggles with weight because I’ve made him feel badly about himself. I don’t want to ignore his weight and have (let?) a health crisis occur. Katie Allison Granju wrote a terrific piece on her Home/Work blog at Babble about daughters and eating disorder worries, and I add as echo, I don’t think it’s only daughters some of us parents worry about. Meantime, I believe that he’s a healthy eater (the nurse at our old doctor’s office would say, “He’s just a solid kid, no worries about that.”), and that, like so many things, my worries (see, handwriting, in the book of my life with Lucien for quick reference; see, years of wanting to play with friends and then not wanting to play with friends) are potentially a bigger problem than somehow giving over to my (believe-it-or-not authentic) belief in him.
Maybe my take-home lesson (and I have some studying to do here) with my Bun-Bun is that it’s okay to trust a person despite fashion or the “norm.” At the same time, my instinct with him is to set limits at times more insistently than with the others (and, can you guess, I worry about that, too). Without limits, he seems to go through the roof. He is Bun-Bun, in which hungriest often translates to grabbiest (no surprise, this pushes my buttons, too!). With reasonable confidence, I can imagine the beige eaters—not all of them, but plenty—broaden their palettes as they mature, not by anyone forcing the issue, but more like the lovable picture book badger, Frances, with her bread and jam; they get tired of the same-old, same-old. They pick the blueberries another time and like them more. They just, kind of, grow. I spend time, almost like meditation—in that I do this again and again, pretty much daily—reminding myself that he’s doing better and better and so are we with him. Last night, the bigger kids were outside playing with neighbors and Saskia was reading Bun-Bun to herself. At each page, she exclaimed, “Lulu!” Hosea and I laughed. When I tucked Lucien in and told him about her read of the book, he told me he’d taught her that Bunbun is Lulu (Benny’s Ezekiel, Bibi’s Remy and because there is no fourth bunny, Birdy’s Saskia). I’m going to study up, all right, ‘cause that Bunbun is a-okay.