I knew I wasn’t doing a bang up job feeding my kid before she was even born. I’d been taking prenatal vitamins and drinking calcium fortified orange juice, but I also laughed in horror when I picked up a pregnancy guide that suggested whole wheat oatmeal cookies (ha!) as a once-a-month (ha! ha! HA!) treat. The turning point was when I took a sample class from a natural childbirth instructor, and she asked us all to write down everything we’d eaten that day. I didn’t get any extra credit for honesty when I handed in my sheet — I had cheerfully hoovered a slice of pepperoni pizza and hot fudge sundae minutes before the class commenced. The teacher looked at the page as if I’d confessed to washing down my crack with a forty of malt liquor. “You know,” she said, “everything that goes into you goes into your baby. But it’s okay,” she added brightly, “you can do better tomorrow.” I hung my cured meat and cheese-loving head in shame, and five years later, I’m still trying for that better tomorrow.
You start out with good intentions. You watch a baby open her rosebud mouth to you, and the delight and trust on her face are so pure it makes you want to cry. When I recently bought my second daughter her first solid food, I trotted to the natural food store and picked out a box of organic brown rice cereal. Then I gave the four year old a handful of M&Ms. I may not be some Jerry Springer-ready mom filling her infant’s bottles with Coke, but I’ve got a job, two kids, and three meals a day plus snacks to fall short on, and heaven knows I do.
I have a hard enough time trying to feed myself right, but now I have to be not just the chief house chef but a decent role model. It’s exhausting. I know I can’t expect my daughters to sit down and eat square meals at regular intervals if I’m grabbing a bag of Tostitos and calling it lunch. They won’t learn to read nutrition labels if I don’t drag them to the supermarket and have them watch me do the same. They won’t someday be able to feed themselves if I don’t invite them into the kitchen to cook. And they won’t believe that being a woman doesn’t automatically mean being forever on a diet unless they’re raised by one who isn’t herself. Yet here I sit, quietly craving a diet Snapple and wishing to god we’ll get takeout for dinner tonight.
I watch my older daughter on the playground, and I catch my breath a little every time a friend offers her some high fructose treat. Do I have her best interests at heart if I say she can’t have it, or is it better to let her, and assume it’s a valuable lesson in sharing? I can pull out any of my dozens of cookbooks and make fabulous homemade macaroni and cheese for dinner, knowing damn well it’ll be greeted with disappointment, or shrug as I rip open the blue box of Kraft. I struggle for an answer when she asks, “How many more carrots do I have to have before I can eat dessert?” And I kick myself when I let the baby have the sweetened applesauce when it’s the only thing at the store and we’re far from home.
I used to be able to control every morsel that went into my elder daughter’s mouth, as I do now with the baby. I nursed her, and then I fed her organic baby food and pureed her fresh fruits and vegetables. And I still managed to feel inadequate — was all that fruit creating an overdeveloped sweet tooth? Was I sending her down the road to white flour addiction by letting her teethe on a bagel? Cheerios? Loaded with salt! Yogurt? A sugar bonanza! Those playground staples, Goldfish and Teddy Grahams? Don’t even ask. Then one day, at another child’s first birthday party, she snatched a fistful of chocolate cake off the table and shoved it greedily into her little mouth. It was the happiest I think she’d ever looked. And it taught me something, something I’d heard long ago in Catholic school but never fully understood until then. We don’t have to be of the world, but we do have to live in the world. Chocolate cake happens, and it’s not a tragedy when it does.
The thing about food is, it isn’t just food. What’s obvious from the way my baby nuzzles contentedly on my breast, taking not just milk but love and comfort and security, becomes so much more tangled up the minute a child first pries herself off mom and toddles over to a bowl of Veggie Booty. I want to raise my kids to be healthy, strong women who get their recommended daily allowances of vitamins and minerals. I want them to be highly skeptical of at least half the chemically altered, nutritionally vacant stuff at the supermarket, no matter how alluringly, brightly colored it may be. But I also want to give them joy, and sometimes joy is a candy coated milk chocolate that melts in your mouth, not in your hand.
It’s not sufficient for me to raise them to eat healthy food, I have to figure out, every damn day, how to raise them to have a healthy relationship with food — which, paradoxically, means making room in our lives for unhealthy food. While I can feel satisfied that my children have never had fast food or soda, I want to feel equally okay when the inevitable moment comes that they do. They’re girls, and it’s going to be different for them. Someday, probably soon, someone will tell them about going low carb or high protein or counting calories. And soon after they may lose their gift for devouring second helpings with unselfconscious enthusiasm, they may stop loving their beautiful bellies and their round angel faces as much as they do now. I cringe every time I lazily let my preschooler order a hot dog for dinner, but if the alternative is making her feel there’s something catastrophic about it, I’ll live with the guilt. I’ll take inspiration from my husband, a man whose relationship with vegetables is ambivalent at best, and simply serve up the fries with a side of broccoli, the ice cream with a few strawberries. And the funny thing is, left to their own devices, they actually eat both with gusto, growing and thriving on a mix of healthy meals and occasional flat out crap.
I don’t want them looking for happiness in a box of Ding Dongs, but I really don’t want them growing up under a mother who neurotically rations out their food or greets their pleasure in something from the ice cream truck with a disapproving eye. All I can do is feed them lovingly, talk to them honestly, and hope they listen. That, after all, is what the dinner table was made for, even when there’s pizza on it.