Kids and Food: Gratitude vs. Attitude

Last night, things in our house went just about the same way they always do on a hectic weeknight.  Nearly-4-year-old L. perched on a bar stool in the kitchen, helping me knead, stretch, and pound balls of pizza dough into submission.  In between his efforts (by the way, if you’ve never made pizzas from scratch with a preschooler, I highly recommend the entertainment), he offered commentary on the toppings I had put together:

“How about just cheese, no red sauce?” he bargained, one wary eye on the skillet of diced fresh heirloom tomatoes — thanks, Pak Express farmers — with minced garlic that was simmering briefly on the stove.

“How about cheese AND red sauce, just like you always have?” I responded blithely, distracting him by shoving a disk of elastic dough into his hands and opening a package of prosciutto.

“I want ham on my pizza,” he announced, watching me slice the prosciutto into ribbons.  “Oh no, no I don’t,” he offered seconds later, as I began adding the prosciutto to a pizza already laden with caramelized onions and rounds of  the soft, sweet baby zucchini that draws me to the Zephyr Farms tent at the market every Saturday of the summer.

And so it went, the bargaining, the plotting, the outright refusals that are the hallmark, I think, of feeding most young children.  Of course, my philosophy has always been — and continues to be — that it’s only when you cave into their tactics that truly picky eaters are formed.  But sometimes that battle feels like a particularly tedious uphill climb.  Without hiking boots.  Or gear.  Or water.

L. did eat his pizza, of course, as I knew he would once it had graced his Backyardigans dinner plate with its warm, cheesy, gooey goodness.  But as I watched him eat, and watched P. treat his dinner more as an activity center than a collection of edibles, I started musing.  Some parents don’t wince inwardly with each farm-fresh blueberry dive-bombed to the floor; some parents don’t watch in near-physical pain as their toddlers pull the cheese and tomatoes from their pizza and begin the process of toothily mangling the crusts.  What is it about the selective nature of children, when faced with food, that bothers me so?

The answer, I’m pretty sure, lies somewhere in the last chapters of Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” — a great read, to be sure, but practically a foodie bible in my house.  Late last night I was thumbing through the end of the book for the umpteenth time, and stumbled upon a passage about gratitude.  To sum it up, pedestrian-style, Pollan was talking about how food is best enjoyed when you can be grateful for all the work that went into getting it to your plate.  And that’s where, I think, our children’s enjoyment of their food tends to falter.

With the exception of a few very lucky children, who eat food that has primarily been grown, harvested, and cooked by their parents — and hopefully with help from their little hands as well — most American kids are not very aware of the monumental effort that actually goes into each bite they take.  It’s partly because of lack of opportunity, and partly because of the laziness with which we, as a nation, have begun to treat food and eating.  I won’t get on a soapbox here, or at least not a very large one, but I know that my Great-Uncle Olaf’s Swedish cardamom bread, made fresh each week with his monstrous and yet surprisingly deft hands, always inspired more thankfulness in me than the equally sweet refrigerated cinnamon buns we sometimes heated up on Saturday mornings.  You know the ones — pull apart the tube, separate the buns, bake and slather with stiff sugary icing.  I loved them (still do, I’ll confess), but somehow, I understood innately that the amount of effort put into those buns by the machinery at the “baking” plant was nowhere near as noteworthy as the hours of kneading, rising, and mixing Uncle Olaf devoted to his sweet breads.  I was thankful for his hard work.  I was grateful for that bread.

It goes beyond the machinery, this business of gratitude, and the difference between processed food and homemade.  It goes right back to the pizza L. and I were making, and the vegetables and fruits he and his brother treat with feckless, wanton casualness.  I don’t have a garden — our yard is somewhat small, and gets unreliable amounts of sun and shade, so I can’t for the life of me figure out what I’d plant or how I’d plant it.  Plus, our local farmer’s markets are so good and so convenient that I don’t mind spending my food dollars there to support the growers and the work they do.  But the lack of garden means that L. and P. don’t get to see how food grows, how it comes from seeds and creeps out of the earth, how it struggles to survive and blossom and ultimately become something that can be cooked and served. To them, food is something you go and buy.  You eat it, or you don’t.  And when you need more, you buy more.

Oh, I take them to the market with me, and I talk to them about how food is grown.  I encourage them to interact with the farmers and market workers, to return the berry boxes for the reuse program, to choose fruits and vegetables and ask questions.  We try lots of new things.  And I make them say “thank you” to the farmers, just as I do.  But is it enough?  Do they get it?

That’s the worst thing, for me, about this notion of “picky” eating.  Food preferences are one thing.  But it’s the lack of gratitude for what’s in front of them that really bothers me, when children act up about the food on their plates.  I was taught as a child that if someone went to the trouble to make you a meal, you ate it with a smile and thanked them, no matter how gross you thought it was.  (A lesson I’m trying desperately to instill in L., with varying degrees of success.)  Now, as an adult, I’m starting to think that the gratitude issue extends beyond that.  It extends, or it should, to being grateful to HAVE food — and no, I’m not proposing we all go the way of “You eat your burger, because there are kids starving in Ethiopia who would happily have a burger like that!”  But maybe we need to make it slightly less available.  Not so many snacks magically appearing on a whim.  Not so many things “conveniently” appearing out of little boxes and packages, perfect and ready to eat.  Not so many effortless foods.

It’s not that I’m looking for a thank-you each time I give my kids something to eat.  But in the same way that we teach them to take good care of their toys and books and movies and things, I think I’m realizing that we need to teach them to apply some care to the foods on their plates.  To eat the berries, or set them aside with thanks — but not to use them for target practice.  To try the vegetables, and be proud that they did it.  To consider that the “friend” they made at the farmer’s market worked hard for those tomatoes, that made the tomato sauce, that went on the pizza, that they helped to make.  To be happy each night that they have a table to come to, a chair of their own, and a family to share the meal with them — even when it’s zucchini.  We lose sight of these things in a world of every-2-hour snack breaks, drive-thrus, and packaged everything.  But now, more than ever, our kids — picky eaters, great eaters, and in-between — could benefit, I think, from a gratitude adjustment.

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