Oh, the world is full of slippery slopes, when you start really thinking about food and kids and trying to stand by your principles and all of that. Bettina of The Lunch Tray yesterday referred to me as an “Uber-Mom,” which I find flattering and a touch embarrassing. I think I like being an uber-mom, but it has its downfalls. Really, it can be exhausting. Back in the day (as I shake my cane and adjust my lap blanket), I’m pretty sure my great-grandmother didn’t worry much about the nutritional pitfalls that plague me and other “aware” moms. In fact, I’m sure she didn’t, because I know for a fact that 1) Friday nights were devoted, without fail, to her baked macaroni and cheese casserole (made with egg noodles, milk, butter, and an obscene amount of cheddar — so good, and so not good for you); and 2) she always — ALWAYS — had a dish of candy, and sometimes more than one, hanging around her house. My sister D. and I remember Great-Gramma’s house as the place where we could get sourballs, spearmint leaves, and Andes Candies in abundant supply, just for the asking.
So I’m pretty confident that sending my grandfather and his sisters off to school with their lunches (or welcoming them home for lunch — which seems more likely given the era and their tiny rural town) didn’t come with the angst and drama that hovers around lunch-packing and all matters of kids, food, and peers in today’s world. There are days when I sort of long to be one of those parents who is able to sail through the world with seemingly blissful lack of awareness about the unadulterated junk that is going into their kids’ mouths. For these parents, quandaries like whether or not “cute food” sends the wrong message and how the school Halloween celebration will work out for their kids just don’t exist. Halloween celebration? They’re signing up and bringing cupcakes. No concern over the fact that school regulations mean the cupcakes have to be store-bought (which generally = reams of nasty, unpronounceable, and questionably edible ingredients). No label-reading involved. And if the bat-shaped pretzels are the only way to wean their kids off the cheez puffs, they’re buying stock.
In case you couldn’t tell, there’s a Halloween celebration (pardon me — correction, “Fall” Celebration) at the kids’ school this week. No, I don’t have an issue with this in theory. I’m not the Queen of Sad, Un-Fun Halloween. The kids are going to have a little costume parade, which I’m sure will be nothing but just plain stinking cute in every possible way. Then parents have been invited to sign up to contribute something for lunch. The lunch menu posted by the school (with blanks under each item for kids’ names) is as follows:
Deli Pizza (not sure if this means the odd Rhode Island creation, “party pizza,” which contains no melted cheese but rather a thick layer of tomato-paste “sauce” and is meant to be eaten cold)
Sun Chips (OK, I’m sure they were chosen for their multi-grain reputation and eco-friendliness…I’m trying to just be glad and grateful that it’s not Cheetos or Doritos)
Juice Boxes (I don’t have a problem with juice boxes for a party…but the school only serves 100 percent juice, so I’d prefer that they be specific with parents on this one and ask us to honor the 100 percent policy)
Cupcakes (as mentioned above, they must be store-bought so the ingredients list can be scrutinized for allergens)
There is something really great about this, as I try to analyze the situation objectively. I mean, most places that do a Halloween party (or “fall celebration”) are not consciously trying to construct a menu of actual foods for parents to bring; rather, they’re allowing snacks and candies and all kinds of treats to infiltrate the school environment and either ruin or entirely supplant the kids’ lunches. So I’m really, really happy with the fact that the school is trying to send a message about well-rounded eating even in the atmosphere of festivity. And as much as the store-bought baked-good thing makes me absolutely CRAZY from an ingredients standpoint, I fully understand and support it in light of the fact that so many of my kids’ classmates have really severe food allergies. I hate that my kids are exposed to all the HFCS and hydrogenated oils and scary colors and preservatives when there’s a classroom celebration…but I try to remind myself that if I had a child with a severe allergy to dairy, eggs, and nuts, I’d be even crazier if all the other kids’ parents were sending in homemade goodies willy-nilly. There are few good solutions to this predicament, and none of them would be popular (not that I care about being popular… but I bet the school cares).
My main issue, believe it or not, is not with the celebration itself or with the menu they’ve chosen; it’s with the fact that this menu doesn’t work for my kid. It’ll be fine for P. — he’s a fruit-eating machine and he loves tomatoes, so the weird deli pizza (though not a great choice, nutritionally) and the fruit will be just dandy for him. He’s not old enough or toothy enough to eat raw veggies successfully, but I can relax about that for one day and let him fill up on his veggies at the other meals. But for L., this menu is a nightmare.
1) L. has a sensory aversion to fruit. Unless there are orange slices available, a fruit plate will do him no good.
2) L.’s sensory aversion also means that raw, crunchy veggies are tough for him. So my veggie-eating kid will not be helping himself to anything on that plate, either.
3) L. has never encountered this deli party pizza creature, mainly because J. and I (both transplants to RI) find it repulsive. I guarantee that the absence of cheese is going to make him very cranky about the main dish. He’ll probably scrape most of the tomato goo off it (he eats marinara sauce without issue, but a thick layer of gloppy, pasty tomato is pushing it) and eat the bread. Lovely.
4) Which means that he’ll happily fill up on Sun Chips (an unaccustomed treat!) and cupcakes and juice boxes.
I know the answer. I’m signed up to provide veggie platters for both classrooms, which I’ll do because I said I would. But if I care what L. eats — or want him to eat anything at all for lunch — I’m going to have to also bring orange slices for everyone to share. And I’ll have to bring raw salad greens, either just for L., or for the whole class, because that’s the extent of his raw-veggie personality. Or I’ll have to provide a small container of cooked veggies for him to eat, but he may or may not touch them, because he’s old enough now to realize that it’s a party and he could refuse the veggies in favor of chips and cupcakes and no one will say a word. I may even have to decide to pack a small sandwich or something and leave it in the refrigerator in his classroom, with instructions for his teachers that if he just plain won’t eat anything substantial, to please offer him his packed lunch.
And if I do that, am I crossing the line? Am I just being a mom who’s catering to her kid’s eating whims? It may be that I have more high-minded intentions than the mom who plays short-order cook for her nugget-loving kids at dinnertime, but does that make the behavior (which is essentially the same) any better or more palatable? I’ve sworn, since before I had children, that I would not let myself be that mom who starts every sentence with “But My Little Johnny….” and then proceeds to offer a litany of reasons why my kid should receive different/special/better treatment than everyone else. I said I wouldn’t want the rules to be written just for my kids, but for the well-being of everyone. That policies and practices that are not as comfy for our kids, but are clearly in place for the welfare of the majority, would be an opportunity to teach the boys that Life Isn’t Always Fair and Nobody Said You’d Get What You Wanted and Sometimes We Follow Rules Just Because That’s the Right Thing to Do and Who Said It Was All About You, Anyway?
So I’m in a quandary. And it’s tinged with a bit of shame, because last night I not only broke my cute-food rule once again, but spent much more time on it than I should have, turning roasted butternut squash and Japanese sweet potatoes into ghosts and pumpkins. Precious. Too precious. I’m really edging near a bunch of lines, here, without meaning to, and I think I might need somebody to rein me in. Being Uber can be dangerous.