"Mommy, do you love us anymore?" my 9-year-old asked.
"Well, you used to be very careful about not letting us eat too many treats but we've been eating Christmas cookies and candy every day now," she explained. "Does that mean you don't care about us anymore?"
Here's what you should know. I'm a family food writer who's married to a food apathetic. My husband chooses chips, Pop-Tarts, jerky and take-out hoagies over just about any fresh meal I've ever prepared. He's naturally thin and doesn't exercise either, but don't get too annoyed yet.
He's one of those "fat thin" people. Technically skinny but without any of the health benefits typically implied by a trim silhouette. None of this is meant to shame him, but rather explain who's been buying all the cookies and candies, and passing them out like Santa's tallest elf who needs a shave.
I'm not the one giving the kids all the treats. He is.
Now for the real twist: Guess who isn't upset? Me. Surprisingly, it's me!
That's new though.
We have four kids, ages six, eight, nine and 11. As a late-in-life mom with a previously full career and Type A personality to go with it, I used to really fixate on all the problems that could happen around food for our kids.
What if they got too much of it, or the wrong kind? What would non-organic, GMO, store-bought, preservative-filled, junk food on repeat do to them? There was so much riding on getting healthy meals into our kids.
Here's a short list of my fears for my kids around food:
- Not gaining enough weight as babies
- Gaining too much weight as kids
- Picky eating ruining family meals
- Food allergies
- Too much energy
- Too little energy
- Judgment from other people
- Today's bad habits leading to tomorrow's heart disease
And the biggest one, whose fault would it be? This is America in 2020, so, mine. Any problem would be something I should have fixed and didn't.
It was exhausting. Trying to make everything precious and perfect and organic. To hold babies in one hand, while whipping up new and nutritious meals with the other. Then cajoling everyone to JUST TRY IT. The whining, whimpering, and not all of it from the kids.
Worrying about food was also starting to cause resentment in my marriage. That 6-foot elf I mentioned really liked making our kids happy with treats here and there. Every time I bristled, it created tension. So I finally just made peace with it and explained the same to my daughter.
I love making fresh meals for us, food that nourishes our bodies but also tastes amazing. Because food is one of life's pleasures. It can be a treat, a prize, a memory in the making. I trust that all the good meals I've given these kids are the groundwork for eating habits that will serve them well going forward.
If I serve fresh eggs in the morning for breakfast, what's an afternoon of hot chocolate? When a morning snack is crunchy carrots and garlicky hummus, a handful of candy sounds good after dinner. We go on a big bike ride almost every day. There are dogs to walk, a trampoline to bounce, tag to play and parties to dance our socks off. These bodies are moving so much that extra calories aren't affecting anyone.
Part of my fear was my own experience as a kid. I was so much pickier as a child than mine are. I wouldn't eat fish, peppers, mushrooms, onions or half the stuff my mom cooked. Not willingly. Not even salmon. Not a glistening fish my grandfather plucked from the Puget Sound that morning to grill outside on a cedar board that night. No, sir. This one had a hot dog instead. Preferably with some Doritos.
Like most kids of the '70s and '80s, I ran a little wild. I was also a little chubby. Something my other grandpa never let me forget. My weight wasn't necessarily a topic of conversation but an observation. Sometimes in a greeting. "You're looking pretty fat today, Charity."
I hated all of that and wanted different, better, for my kids.
And we're getting there.
I bake dozens of good-for-you muffins, soups with hidden vegetables and offer fresh fruit for every snack. We've tried curry, Thai, sushi and kebabs. The kids still have their treats but they're on board. Sometimes more than I know.
The other day I was rushing to run errands and offered to pick up lunch while I was out. "I'll grab Wendy's," I promised on my way to the van. But guess who asked for something healthier? The kids. So I picked up a family-sized bag of salad plus a rotisserie chicken and ta da! Lunch was served just as easily but with more nutrition. I actually saved time without driving somewhere else, not to mention money.
We're getting there.
I don't do guilt trips.
I don't ration treats.
I do set guardrails so everyone can make good decisions.
There's one dinner every night and everyone is expected to eat it. But I also stack the deck in my favor: adding a loaf of crusty bread with butter or a bowl of sliced fruit never hurts.
I also give the kids a very small portion of everything to start with. I'm talking two bites. They can choose to have more of whatever they liked, and usually do. But the pressure is off. They eat what's on their plates as a sampler, then dive in again as they like.
We try not to talk a lot about who likes dinner, who doesn't or who just slithered down in their chair. Instead we hash out what we're excited to do on the weekend. Who said something funny earlier and which Disney movie to watch next. It's so much better than debating how many bites each tiny person has to eat.
Sometimes I ask my knee-high critics for feedback. Years ago we started with a Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, Thumbs Middle system. Everyone shared their opinion without saying anything even close to "yuck." Now, thanks to vocab picked up after hours in front of "The Great British Baking Show," they give more nuanced advice. Flavor suggestions, notes on texture. Requests to help next time.
We're getting there.
I used to be so focused on everyone trying everything. It was stressful. But I'm so glad to have kids who eat (almost) all the things now. Am I less stressed because they're a little older now and simply better at cooperating? Because they've got skills to try new foods with confidence? Because I am better at not taking anyone's dinner rejection as a personal affront?
It's still not perfect. Believe me, these people still freak out about meals. But it's easier now. Trusting that the time I put in up front will keep leading to more peace, more pleasure, that's the real hook. To know that even if this meal is a bomb, there's another one coming. Now more than ever, as a pandemic ravages across the world, I'm so grateful to have plenty of fresh food that I can't panic about whether my kids savor it or not. We're just too lucky to think of it any other way.
The truth is, we may never really get there. But we're close enough.
Today for lunch, our kids ate homemade tomato soup stocked with pureed beans for creamy texture and added protein. Then they polished off a fist full of cookies—even my little guy who only ate a couple bites and washed it down with a bonus banana. Now they're outside shooting hoops. Sounds like a stress-free way to spend the day. For all of us.