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Mad About Food

Leave the guilt, take the cannoli

Marjorie Ingall
September 08, 2009
(Hill Street Farm CSA Week 7 Share by Wally Hartshorn; some rights reserved.)
(Hill Street Farm CSA Week 7 Share by Wally Hartshorn; some rights reserved.)

Like many parents, I am driven up a tree by my children’s food preferences. I want to be that self-satisfied Mom who airily says, “Oh, Maxine simply adores dal! Josie loves nothing more than a steaming bowl of tom ka gai!” But no: I’m the patsy who still dishes up pasta with butter, the loser whose entitled spawn still recoil from “flecks” (aka “things,” aka “pieces”) in sauces and who scream like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween if faced with beef stew. To make matters worse, my husband Jonathan and I are foodies, and it kills me that I’m not serving the same delicious dinner to my entire fam, to be eaten joyfully together while bathed in beautiful golden light. I just saw Julie and Julia, dammit.

I know I cater too much to my kids’ noshing mishegas. I’ve tried the tricks: Keep offering tastes of new foods, demand they take one bite, cook with kids so they feel a sense of participation and ownership. I KNOW, PEOPLE. We’ve had some successes: they love edamame, they eat lots of fruit, and Maxine is a fiend for spicy tomatillo salsa, which she eats with a spoon. But we need to try harder.

And just to make things even more complicated, I want my kids not to have any neuroses about food and eating. At least I know I’m not alone in worrying about my kids’ diets. Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni (who outed himself as a childhood bulimic in his new memoir Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, recently wrote about the challenges of urging kids to eat healthily without making them into neurotic little freaks. The Wall Street Journal weighed in with a story revisiting a famous 1986 study that found that 80% of fourth grade girls were on diets. It pointing out that in the years since then, the incidence of bulimia has tripled and anorexia rates have also risen.

Our feelings about kids and food are as tangled as a pile of spaghetti marinara. We’re anxious when our wee ones don’t eat (which is why parents like me keep resorting to sure-fire kid-pleasers), but we freak out when they eat too much. We live in a culture that equates fat with laziness, dirtiness, grossness, and kids get that message loud and clear.

This week, I have a book coming out about a fashion model who nearly died of anorexia and suffered from exercise bulimia before remaking her career as a healthy plus-size model, and I’ve been vigilant about conveying to my kids that beauty and strength come in all sizes. But Josie, age 7, still said last week, “I know you say it’s OK for bodies to look all kinds of ways, but if I were in high school I would be happy to be thin because boys like girls who are thin.” I wanted to cry. But she’s right. One 2006 study by Harris Interactive for Girls Inc. found that 60% of third to twelfth grade girls felt they had to be thin to be popular, up from 48% in 2000.

We have such screwed-up feelings about our bodies, eating and health. My book’s not even out yet, but I’ve been fascinated by how divergent people’s responses to it are. If I show people a photo of the model in question, Crystal Renn, some sputter, “You call that plus-size?? She’s gorgeous!” (Indeed she is. And yes, according to the CDC, she’s overweight.) Other people say, “How can you write a book glorifying obesity? Don’t you know it kills?”

Really? People who fall into the “overweight” category on the BMI charts actually live longer than normal weight people and frequently do better after heart attacks. The health risks of yo-yo dieting are well-documented, and most people who lose a lot of weight tend to gain it back. (Hi, Kirstie Alley!) Yes, being very fat is correlated with ill health. But shaming people – especially children – is unlikely to make them healthier or make them lose weight. What is clear is that exercise and eating good food are vital. That’s true for people at every size. But still we glorify thinness at the expense of all else, and we shun the pudgy.

This is a battle I’m obviously going to have to keep fighting. We all need to realize that while it’s important to make good food choices, being zaftig is not the worst thing in the world. (Though the cruelty and cluelessness with which we treat fat people, though … that’s pretty sucky.) And it’s only one of the battles I’ll continue to engage in as my girls grow up. Another is selling the notion of eating lots of different kinds of foods, at a nice sit-down family dinner. Doing so has to be better for the kids—and for this poor beleaguered short-order cook!—than having to dish out bland and sauceless kiddie meals in addition to semi-schmancy grown-up food.

Later this month we hope to take a field trip upstate to see where food comes from. My hope is that seeing veggies in their natural habitat, and eating them right off the vine and out of the ground, will make the girls more predisposed to eat them at home. The farm in question is owned by a family who sell their produce at the Tompkins Square farmer’s market, and who recently helped start a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) group at my kids’ school. These same farmers appear in a new film called What’s On Your Plate? about how eating healthily, locally and sustainably can be tasty as well as good for the planet. The film’s two narrators are older schoolmates of Josie and Maxie—perhaps they can serve as role models. (The girls and I are going to a screening later this month at the Solar-Powered Film Festival on the East River, and can I just say this column makes me sound like so much of a hippie I cannot even recognize myself? I am throwing up in my own mouth a little, and not in a bulimic way.)

In the coming new year, I pledge to do better in having family dinners in which we all eat the same thing. (A friend recommends making just one meal, but offering kids the option of cereal or yogurt—and that’s it—if they don’t like what’s on the table. Maybe I’ll try that. Email or Facebook me if you have other ideas or family-friendly recipes.) I’ve got to expand my girls’ culinary horizons. And as Josie in particular gets closer to her tween years, I want her to see food as a source of pleasure, not terror.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.