It’s almost Halloween, and as much as I may not fully throw myself into participating (for example, ours is one of the only houses on the street lacking inflatable ghosts, scarecrows staked into the yard, and other various eye-catching decorative items), there is a part of me that feels it’s my job to create some festive brouhaha to help the kids feel celebratory. We stop short of donning the matching family costumes (J. wouldn’t do it even if I wanted to), but we don’t confine the occasion to just trick-or-treating. In fact, it’s almost essential that we get as much mileage out of Halloween as possible, because by this point in the year, L. is so geared up already for Thanksgiving and Christmas that I find myself almost making a bigger deal of the little things just to help him understand that it’s OK to slow down. Thanksgiving and Christmas will get here when they get here, but life has lots of other fun surprises in store until then.
That philosophy means that, in the back of my mind, I’m always trying to figure out some small way to liven things up for him and P. on an almost daily basis. I know everything at preschool this week is revolving around Halloween — let’s face it, it’s just too easy (and too cute) to doll up arts and crafts activities with pumpkins, let the kids play freeze dance to the Ghostbusters theme song, and replace Show and Tell with a costume parade so all the little ones can show off their get-ups. So when it came time last night to pack the first school lunches of the week, I had a moment of pause for contemplation.
What Halloween-y surprises could I pack, I wondered, on relatively little preparation? I neglected, for some reason, to put canned pumpkin on the grocery list this week (strange — at this time of year, I try to make sure to always have some on hand); the actual sugar pumpkins on the porch are off-limits to butchery for their meat until next week, and I can’t harvest their seeds for roasting until we carve jack-o-lanterns; and of course, there wasn’t going to be any “early candy” finding its way into the boys’ lunches. It’s tricky, this business of being festive AND healthy, unless you’ve carefully planned ahead of time to have the things in the pantry that would ordinarily inspire you. Having spent the entire weekend, once again, at rehearsals and performances for my choral group’s rendition of the Beethoven “Missa Solemnis,” I certainly had not planned ahead. In fact, since I bought the kids’ costumes and the trick-or-treat candy ages ago, this week sort of caught me off guard.
I should mention before I go any further that I’m on record in more than one place as being somewhat against the idea of “cute food.” It’s not that I disagree with the basic premise that making food attractive naturally makes both children and adults more likely to eat it. It’s just that I always feel some caution about the issue of gussying up kids’ food in a bid to somehow trick them into eating it. I’ve heard so many other parents talk about how their kid will ONLY eat star-shaped cheese, or how they have to dye the milk pink to satisfy their little princess or risk having it rejected outright. I’ve read countless magazine articles about making food appealing to children, in which the stylists preparing the photo shoot have strategically anchored tiny broccoli florets and mushrooms in homemade hummus or mashed potato to make a teeny, beautiful, whimsical woodland complete with frolicking gnomes made of salmon and a stream of blueberries (OK, so I’m embellishing a bit). And every time, I sort of cringe just a bit. Sure, it’s CUTE. Sure, the kids probably squeal. And I’m absolutely positive that many, many children would be far more enticed to nibble on the gnomes’ carefully constructed portobello homes than on a standard mixed vegetable medley spooned willy-nilly into the corner of their Blue’s Clues dinner plates. But I wonder what happens when Mom and Dad get sick of re-creating the entire Island of Sodor in brussels sprouts?
Anyway, this stance usually means that I try to make my kids’ food look somewhat attractive and neatly presented, but not, by any means, like a photo layout from Picky Parents’ Magazine. Sure, I admire the perfect bento-box lunch art some folks are turning out for their elementary schoolers, but purely on the artistic level (I think I’d have a hard time eating Hello Kitty without at least some guilt). Plus, it’s a time thing — I figure, with my life, I can either take the time to make tasty, healthy, unprocessed food from scratch; or I can spend that time making food look really, really precious. The choice is obvious. But on rare occasions — usually at times like this, when I want to be festive in very small ways — I can be enticed to be very, very minimally cute with the boys’ food. It’s a stretch, but sometimes I do cave in.
Last night was such a moment. I turned to the standard Desperate Mommy Food Fun Method: with a sigh of resignation, I pulled out the Halloween cookie cutters and started making apple butter and cheese sandwiches into ghosts and cats and pumpkins. Cute for cute’s sake is sort of okay, I figured, because I know the boys would eat those sandwiches whether they looked like jack-o-lanterns or just plain old squares and triangles. The shapes were not intended to make them eat anything, but rather to give them a little smile when they open their lunchboxes today and see that things look a bit different from usual. However, the lunches (while healthy, tasty, and certainly representative of what the kids would ordinarily bring) didn’t seem complete, at this time of year, without a bona fide treat.
I gave in to the sugar culture. L. had asked me earlier for homemade cocoa granola bars (for which I didn’t have all the ingredients); I decided to revamp that recipe and make him and P. something truly special that still (sort of) fit with our values. Knowing that our kids, like J. and I, have a real affinity for the combination of salt and sweet, I created the Chocolate-Pretzel Granola Bar. It differs from our usual granola bar recipes in that it crosses the line into “treat” territory firmly enough that I won’t allow the boys to eat them for breakfast (or myself, for that matter — I was sorely tempted this morning); it was also created with very little “health” in mind, and more just for fun. When the kids open their lunches today and see these bars tucked alongside their spooky sandwiches, hopefully it will feel just a bit more festive than usual; it’s just one of the dozens of little ways I’ll try, this week, to help them enjoy the moment before they rush ahead to the next big thing.