At my weekly CSA pickup, my preschooler dutifully counts out the number of vegetables to pick from each bin and drops them into my bag. All, that is, except one, which he magnanimously gives his younger brother to deposit. I’m beaming at this display of sibling harmony when my younger son emits an ear-piercing shriek. The “1 bag salad,” bin doesn’t provide enough to share. The rest of the pick-up is tense as I try to maneuver tight spaces with warring children and a bunch of food in my arms.
Feeding kids is hard—from buying food to cooking it and expecting kids to eat it—especially as parents try to source high-quality food, prepare healthy meals, and teach their children good eating habits.
For Reena, a single mother who works long hours as a legal secretary, this challenge intensified when her son was diagnosed as “insulin-resistant” at age 8. The toughest thing, Reena says, is helping her son cope with the feeling that “he’s been cheated because he can’t eat whatever he wants like other kids.” A close second is serving home-cooked meals to her two teenagers. This often means getting home after dark and preparing a meal when she’s tired and while the kids are doing homework or bathing. Reena admits there are nights “when I have a store bought lasagna ready to go for dinner, along with an organic salad and some fruit, because it’s late and I just don’t have the time and energy to cook.”
Overlaying time constraints is tension regarding the cost of high-quality food. Reena buys most of her food, which is about 5 percent organic, at Walmart where she can do “ad-matches,” as Walmart honors other grocery store’s sales prices. “I know I should go all natural because I think food is healthier without chemicals and I would love to shop at a farmers’ market with organic food and buy meat from local grass-fed operations, but I think the prices would be too high,” Reena explains. She also expressed interest in grocery stores that carry larger quantities of organic food but says, “I haven’t walked into them because they’re not in my area and they’re expensive.”
On the other end of the spectrum is KC, who emphatically declares that food “is my whole life!” The at-home mother of two young children spends large swaths of time sourcing, preparing, and preserving food. She buys all her food, which is 100 percent organic and 70 percent local, at Whole Foods or the farmers’ market. She describes the latter as her favorite venue: “We make a whole morning out of going to the Sunday farmers’ market. It’s a fun, low-stress way for the kids to see where food comes from and the people who grow it.”
KC’s focus on food is fueled by her desire to “put only good food into her family’s bodies”—a journey she embarked on after reading Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But it’s not just about health for KC; it’s also about taste. “When I realized how animals at concentrated animal feeding operations are treated, I decided to try some local meat. The first time I tasted local steak I was like, ‘whoa.’ The meat tasted phenomenal! I couldn’t go back.”
Shelley falls somewhere in between KC and Reena. If Reena’s primary concerns are time and cost and KC’s is high-quality food, Shelley’s is the energy required and stress generated to shop or prepare meals with her kids. The mother of three, including one newborn, laments, “I used to really enjoy buying food. I grew up in a place with lots of agriculture and when I was a kid, it wasn’t unusual for me to take care of my neighbors’ cows and goats and gather chicken eggs when they were out of town. I want my children to have this experience but it’s just too stressful to take them to the farmers’ market. Shopping is never fun now.”
Shelley now buys most of her food from a conventional grocery store because “I can get most of what I need there, including both organic items as well as partially processed or prepared foods,” she says. For Shelley, a typical trip to the store might include fruit, both organic and conventional, organic frozen broccoli, organic bread, and chicken. Of all these items, Shelley feels most conflicted about the last one. “I buy boneless, skinless chicken breast because it’s so easy and generally cheap when I buy it on sale. But I know that usually the conditions chicken live under are not very humane. I don’t want to economically support an inhumane system, but this is purely an issue of time and energy for me.”
At dinnertime, Shelley works quickly in the kitchen while the baby dozes, at least momentarily, in the carrier on her chest and the older children play on the floor a few feet away. Mayhem might erupt at any time, and Shelley knows it. She heats up the frozen broccoli, applies cream cheese to a few slices of toasted organic bread, and reheats the chicken breast that her husband barbecued the night before. Placing small portions on two kid-size plates, she gets food in front of her 5- and 3-year-olds before hunger sets in—cause for celebration.
Sushma’s concerns around food are a combination of those evoked by Reena, KC, and Shelley. Like KC, Sushma became hooked on a largely organic and local diet after reading Michael Pollan, but to get the foods she needs she shops at a variety of places both for reasons of cost and manageability when it comes to bringing three kids along. Sushma remarks that while both Trader Joe’s and the farmers’ market are challenging, the former is easier “because the kids can be occupied ‘driving’ the kid carts and with stickers sometimes handed out by employees.”
Sushma says, “I can easily spend a lot of money at the farmers’ market and not have a lot of food but the trade-off is money versus higher-quality food. I’m looking at it as an investment in my family’s health.”
Cory, the father of a two-year old, feels differently. He says “cost is my family’s biggest challenge right now because I’m a student.” Nonetheless, about 80 percent of the food they buy is organic and at least 50 percent of their produce is local. He guesses that “compared to the average American, we spend more money on food for a couple of people who don’t have a lot of money. [We spend it on food] rather than on things like cars, bikes, toys.”
June, a professional dietician and mother of a 10-month old, similarly states that “I don’t have a lot of disposable income, but I have a willingness to take a large percentage of it and invest in food for my family.” She says that “as a nation, we have an unwillingness to spend more on food” and traces this attitude to the period after World War II “when we had true issues with food scarcity and hunger. As a result, we made food very accessible under very low cost and we were raised under this mentality that food should be cheap.” Now, June says, “We’ve learned that cheap, convenient food causes higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.” She says, “For me, a great way to optimize health is to invest in and spend money on food.”
Whether parents are able to put more spending dollars toward food or not, all parents face the challenge of picky eaters. It’s difficult to stomach spending substantial sums on high-quality food that children won’t eat.
Erin, who runs a house-cleaning business and has three children, says that she doesn’t buy much organic or local food. She says she “tries to buy healthy food but her children won’t always eat it and that’s spending money on food that’s not even eaten.”
Sushma has experienced this too. On any given day, dinnertime at her house could look something like this: “The baby throwing food, my oldest daughter getting up and running around during the meal, and the middle one gagging on whatever I’ve made and then shrieking about how she can’t finish it.” Sushma says that despite the cost of high-quality food, “in the end it doesn’t matter a whole lot if they don’t like it. I’m preparing foods that are good for them. Period. Eventually they get it and they eat it.”
One way to encourage healthy eating, Violeta says, is to “respect kids’ tastes.” Meals in Violeta’s home are simple affairs and on the rare occasion she makes an elaborate dish, she says, “The general rule is the kids must try it because you can’t say you don’t like it when you don’t know what it tastes like. If my children don’t like something once they’ve tried it, I don’t force them to eat it and thank them for trying. This works remarkably well and sometimes the girls end up eating and liking things they initially rejected.”
And, Violeta adds, “Some days we have pizza and that’s ok too. When I was young sometimes my father announced: ‘Today we are going to eat junk!’ This helped me understand there are different types of food. Hopefully we eat mostly healthy food but every once in awhile we eat junk and that’s ok . . . it’s manufactured to taste good.”
Violeta says, “I can’t control what my kids do all the time . . . teaching them how to think about food is almost more important than feeding them perfectly all the time.”
KC’s method for teaching her kids about healthy eating is to include them in all aspects of food including growing, shopping, and preparing. KC says that “at home, a great way to get them to eat vegetables is gardening because kids will eat anything off the vine, even if it has dirt on it.”
Like all kids, though, KC admits that hers don’t always like the food she prepares. Her rule is: “I only serve what I’m serving; I won’t make a separate meal for the kids.” When she made quinoa with pork sausages simmered in tomatoes, at first, the girls rejected it, complaining it was “spicy.” KC responded, “You can eat just the quinoa if you don’t want the sausages.” A hint of amusement creeps into KC’s voice as she finishes the story: “They kept trying it because they were hungry—I don’t allow snacking before dinner—and finally ended up eating the whole thing!”
Overcoming the specter of perfection is one of the most daunting challenges in feeding kids. June says that well-intentioned documentaries on the evils of processed food make people think “that the only two options are organic foods or eating at Burger King but there’s lots in between.” Like Reena’s frozen lasagna with organic salad, or Shelley’s dinner of boneless, skinless chicken breast with frozen broccoli. June thinks that parents might be less discouraged if they “feel comfortable to live in that gray area, which is neither A++ nor disastrous.”
Violeta inhabits that gray space when she says, “the whole point at the end is to have an appreciation for food; sometimes that involves organic, sometimes local, and sometimes just something that tastes good. It involves a balance of all those things.” ✜
Shefali Milczarek-Desai, an Arizonan since age 3, is a writer who’s taken scenic detours into lawyering and mothering.
Recipe by KC Pagano, modified from The New Book of Middle Easten Food. Follow her at kathrynpagano.com.