Food Follies: Feeding Children

11/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Before their births it seemed I was already obsessed with my children's nutrition, mixing up a little concoction of brewer's yeast, yogurt, molasses and orange juice every day to drink while pregnant. Then there was the calves liver orgy one afternoon, reminiscent of "Rosemary's Baby" (though I did finish cooking mine). What devil obsessed me then? some article on pre-natal nutrition in a parenting magazine designed to induce guilt and keep me awake at night? I was determined to make this work right from the start.

Then baby Numero Uno arrived, a strapping smiling girl-child, no doubt the product of superior pre-natal nutrition. And what does a gourmet caterer feed her firstborn as soon as she's ready for solid food? "Baby Blocks" that's what I would call them. It was a post-partum inspiration for my next new food venture: fresh pureed veggies frozen in the shape of those old fashioned alphabet blocks with the letter on the side. I'd make green ones with an S for spinach, orange ones and a C for carrots, etc. You get the idea. I'd just pop them out of the freezer tray and into the microwave and zap- a beautiful, nutritionally balanced menu, chock full of vitamins. Bon appétit, baby.

The prototypes were made in ice cube trays and the kids loved them, until they got older, say two or three and got real taste buds and stopped eating all that stuff because I wanted them to. The power struggle had begun.

So I went underground. I hid food in whatever handy culinary vehicle could foil the flavors of the healthy stuff: tofu in the oatmeal, egg whites in the milk shakes, pureed carrots or peas in the meatloaf or spaghetti sauce. They learned not to trust me and eyed any new dish that I placed before them with suspicion. I ended up sharpening their taste buds so I couldn't fool them any more if I tried.

Next there was the rabbit sausage incident. My then ten year old daughter, who owned a darling lop-eared bunny named Brownie, discovered some rabbit sausage in my freezer one day. "How could you?" she asked horrified. Somehow I had the grace not to fight it and asked, "What's the difference between rabbit sausage, lamb sausage, or pork sausage?" "You're right" she replied, "I won't eat any of them." So, okay. So, all right. So she didn't eat meat or seafood for four years. It didn't stunt her growth.

My son, whose first word was "cookie", presented his own set of culinary requirements, not because he was a vegetarian, but basically the opposite. He seemed to thrive on meat, potatoes, sugar and as much pre-packaged fast food as he possibly could manipulate me into buying. And thrive he did. He was exceptionally big for his age (growth hormones??) and rarely got sick. What he didn't like were surprises and those nifty styro-packs of burgers, nuggets and fries always fit the bill. No wonder he would crawl under the table at Chinese restaurants when faced with all those odd looking dishes crowding the table in front of him.

Trying to accommodate the disparate food preferences of a family of four became a serious challenge. The avant-garde chef became the short-order cook. In order to cater to everyone, I often resorted to convenience foods, spending so much time I reading labels in the freezer section of the grocery, I got frostbite.

Sometimes I feel like I failed, got too caught up in the morning edition of nutrition news, forgot what it was that I loved about food- the taste, the satisfaction and the sharing. It's not that I didn't feed them well. They got more nutrition than they ever needed. It's just that I may not have shared my passion for food at full bloom, for the intangible feeding of the soul that food also provides.

We all survived. Maybe I even gained some wisdom. It seems it's not just the nutrition that counts when we take on the care and feeding of a child. Food is one of the ways we let them know we love them and measure ourselves as good moms, too. It's our daily test against the Betty Crocker Scale of Motherly Competence, a relentless feedback so to speak, three meals a day for maybe eighteen years. That's 19710 meals. Even an all-star batter doesn't get a hit more than 30% of the time and hardly ever gets a homerun. And look what they get paid.

So what's a mother to do? It seems really pretty simple now. Cook them something that tastes good, something you love, something they will come to love, though maybe not right away. Give them some choices, mostly fresh, but not too many. Show them how to cook it themselves. Tell jokes and stories at dinner. Tickle them when they spill their milk. Let them sit under the table, but don't let them eat off the floor. They will eat when they are really hungry. Their brains will remember that mealtimes were fun, their bodies will grow, and their hearts will know that they were loved. And don't worry, they won't starve. If you get it right only once a day, you're an All-Star.

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