An astute reader asked me recently what other people in our lives think about the way our family eats. She commented that when she’s at work, even if her lunch is no more radical than, say, some homemade hummus, other people always have to throw in their 2 cents’ worth (or maybe even a dollar’s worth, I suspect?) about how “strangely” she eats. She wondered how our food philosophies and habits are received by the people around us. I promised her I’d address it sometime. Sometime, my friends, is now.
J. and I just had a conversation about this, which started with me saying, “What do people think about us?” Many tongue-in-cheek answers ensued, but we eventually decided that the question is best answered categorically. Some people in our lives are supportive and wonderful; some are puzzled, but relatively supportive and semi-wonderful; and other people’s responses sort of decline from there.
My family: pretty great, all things considered. My sister D. is certainly a kindred spirit in this endeavor to learn about what we eat and where it comes from; she’s also a fellow “domestic goddess” (har, har), so we share recipes, articles, and philosophies to a great extent. I would say, however, that she is even more committed than we are; her longtime significant other, S., is extremely health-conscious, so their cupboards are much more likely to contain things like Kashi oatmeal, silken tofu, and quinoa than ours are. As to my Mom and Dad, they get it, I think, or at least respect it. I’ve had many conversations with my Dad about Michael Pollan, Food Inc., etc., and have tried to encourage him to convert his red meat habit, at least partially, to grass-fed products; he tends to be of the “I’ve eaten this way for 50+ years and it hasn’t killed me yet” camp, but he’s not disinterested or unsupportive in any way (other than occasionally threatening, facetiously, to slip my kids some raw hamburger, Wonder Bread, Velveeta, and beer). And Mom has always been into eating well, more or less, so she’s unquestionably supportive, though I think even she would admit that sometimes my insistent label-reading and my adult rejection of many things I would have unthinkingly eaten even 5 years ago or so drive her just a tad nuts. But there’s no fuss about it — she and Dad try to make sure they can accommodate our kids’ habits as much as possible when we visit them, and when they visit us, they don’t ask that we stock their preferred items; they simply bring a shopping bag of things they might want during their stay, but are certain we won’t have (Cheez Doodles come to mind).
J.’s family are kind of a different story. His parents are health-conscious almost to a fault due to some medical concerns (both theirs and those of other extended family members — my in-laws are relatively good at learning from others’ misfortunes). For example, they’re on an insanely low-sodium diet, and my mother-in-law manages to almost completely avoid, somehow, the use of any butter, oil, or other fat in her cooking. However, despite these facts, and the fact that they adhere strictly to organics with many food products (partly because of J.’s mother’s information-junkie personality; she is admirably, though pathologically, informed), they have lapses in judgment which are most noticeable when they are with our kids. Last week, they asked if they could take the kids out for lunch — a request I’ll never deny. But L. ended up eating a cheeseburger, fries, chocolate milk, AND ice cream; and later in the day, at snacktime, he was given a cookie. I was told, by way of reassurance, that the cookie was organic. No HFCS! Greeeeaat.
J. also has two older brothers, who have families of their own (their kids are older elementary and pre-teens). I asked him what he thought his brothers would say. Bluntly, he responded, “I think they think we’re nuts.” Musing on this, I think he’s got a point, though both families are improving their own habits little by little (and no, not because of us, in any way — I’m sure of that). His brother T. and his wife love to cook, so home cooking has never been an issue. But they’re a soda family — she drinks several Diet Cokes per day — and a hot dog family; like most people we know, they served their kids hot dogs probably once a week, at least, when the kids were littler, and the dogs still haven’t come off the menu. They’re also a nuclear-colored, chemical-laden Gogurt family. It’s not that they give no thought to nutrition; there are fruits and vegetables at every meal, and the kids are told about eating well. But they’re, I’d say, pretty much like the average American family in that they figure as long as the kids are eating some fruits and veggies, then the hot dog, the Gogurt, the soda, the whatever won’t do them any harm.
J.’s other brother, C., is a single father with two of the pickiest eaters on the planet — at ages 12 and 9, the kids still don’t eat marinara sauce on their spaghetti (in an Italian family, mind you!). At big family gatherings, they eat their pasta with butter. They also don’t eat salad of any kind. Or most meat, unless it’s steak or chicken. Or any type of seasoning — ANY type. Or most vegetables. Or rice. Or whole wheat bread. Or most fruits. Or… Well, you get the idea. C. says there’s nothing he can do. He says kids are picky, and his are no different from anyone else’s. He thinks we’re crazy for “pushing” the food agenda we have with our kids. He also makes some noises about getting healthier and being frustrated, but on a recent road trip, J. was witness to C. wanting to stop someplace for lunch. Because the kids were with him, he wouldn’t stop at McDonald’s (good for him — I’m fine with that). Too unhealthy, he said. But options were scarce, so eventually C. told the kids they’d just grab a snack, then took them to a drugstore and bought them…Chipwiches. All this is by way of saying: yeah, there’s some inconsistency everywhere, and our household is no exception; but perhaps you can see now why J. feels that his brothers don’t really share our food philosophies. And if you still don’t get it, I offer up these two last points: 1) The 12-year old can’t use a fork and knife to cut her own food (anybody else having a Jamie Oliver moment?); and 2) At family gatherings, when there are several desserts to choose from, all five of our nieces and nephews are allowed a minimum of two desserts each. Not slivers. Servings.
I’m not trying to be critical, per se, but I felt like I couldn’t launch into this discussion without talking about what is going on at the tables of the very people who share our DNA. When it comes to finding support systems, I assume that most people look to their families first, and certainly our families are wonderful, across the board, with most things. Big things. Crises. J.’s brothers are great guys, and we love them and their kids, and we’re glad to be family. It’s just that, well, food is one of the things that happens to divide us, not unite us.
Tomorrow I’ll talk a bit about people OUTSIDE our families, and how they react to our Red, Round, or Green ways, but in the meantime: What about the rest of you? Do your families share your views on food and eating, or are you, like us, blazing your own paths?