Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Cauliflower and Kids

The other day, I was out to lunch with a friend.  I know, I know, I say that so casually.  It’s been such a short time that such a thing has been a possibility, that it seems ridiculous to just throw it out there, as if I’m just that, a girl who can go to lunch with a friend if she wants, and not have the whole house be turned upside down when she returns.  Or not have to take along a squalling infant who will alternate pawing all the silverware and napkins off the table with wanting to nurse at really awkward angles while I try to eat something that requires aforementioned silverware.

But yes, I was at lunch, after a delightful day browsing books for sale and chatting pleasantly with the authors that wrote those books at a book festival at the convention center.  It was a pizza place, but I ordered cauliflower.  Well, I also ordered a wild boar meatball slider, but what I want to tell you about is the cauliflower. 

I can still hardly believe that this is something that I would order willingly. Although even I must admit that I became a grown up a long long while ago now, it just doesn’t seem that long ago that cauliflower was THAT vegetable.  The one I would pick out of the “California mix” of steamed frozen vegetables that my mom served at least once a week while I was growing up.  The one that you really could not talk me into eating, be it raw, steamed, sautéed, boiled, served in something else.  Not even in my favorite Mongolian Chicken takeout from China Village.  Nope, the Styrofoam bin at the end of the meal on Chinese night was always a pool of brown sauce and some white trees.

But here I was, with a whole menu to choose from, and I picked a plate of cauliflower.  Not a side of it to go with my sandwich.  A whole plate of anti-pasti roasted bits drizzled with vinaigrette.  This wasn’t even an “I’m on a cleanse, I’ll pick the healthiest thing on the menu” choice.  Evidence, course two: a meatball sandwich.  Which I should add, is served on a Blue Oven bread English muffin, which is an item that is actually fried in clarified butter.  Yeah, not so much the healthy choices guiding me this weekend. 

As I was eating those roasted bits of vegetable goodness, I got to thinking how very far I’ve come as an eater.  From a place where I once lived almost exclusively on frozen White Castle burgers and microwaved hot dogs, or just about anything covered with Viva Italian salad dressing, to the place of my current eating habits. Where absolutely the highlight of my last date night meal was a plate of toasted broccoli.

Is this just what happens when you grow up?  Does your palate naturally shift towards these items that your parents promise you that one day you will enjoy?  What is it about vegetables that are so unsavory to young people?  Or, is it, more likely, just the overlap of the general ongoing battle between children and parents over things that are “good for you,” whether it be lean protein, whole grain fiber sources, leafy greens, or books rather than video games? 

Of course there is something different about choosing to eat cauliflower now on my own, knowing that no one is really ever going to pressure me into eating something I don’t prefer.  Yes, I know I should make healthier choices in my dining.  TV spots, Internet articles, whole magazines are out there reminding me to “Eat This, Not That” every day.   But let’s face it, no longer is anyone asking me to just “try it, you’ll like it!”  or forcing me to eat five bites of something I view as repulsive.  I’ve felt a fair bit of shame about the fact that I really do not enjoy fish of any kind, when I know it is a healthy, adult, source of protein.  It seems ridiculous to exclude an entire group of food.  While people express surprise when I mention I don’t eat fish, “Not any?  Have you tried grilled salmon?  How about tilapia?”  Yes, tried them all, and I feel fine with saying I’m done ordering it ever again because every single time I’ll like all the other stuff on the plate, but will leave that lovely fish that gave its life for me largely untouched.

I started this post with the idea that I was simply surprised at my ordering choices as of late, but I’m starting to wonder if this isn’t in some way just a follow up to my most recent post about my approach to cooking for my admittedly picky children. 

It is something I think about all the time.  I’m not interested in being a short order cook most of the time.  I care about their long time health, growth, and nutritional choices. I also want my children to grow up to be adventurous eaters, if only because some of the most pleasurable experiences in my life right now center around sharing delicious food with others, cooking with both new and familiar ingredients, and seeking out places to enjoy meals that have been lovingly and interestingly prepared.

But, I truly intensely dislike the battle of wills that goes on in my house much of the time over food and what my children either do and will not put in their bodies.  So much of the time I feel like dinner starts off as a pleasant enough experience, but then goes south right around the time I realize that no one has eaten anything except the bread portion of a meal.  The reminding, bargaining, and then demanding all commence not too long after that. 

Add to it that we have multiple food allergies and sensitivities in our house that affect what foods we can and cannot have in our house or serve at a common meal.  I don’t do dairy, so I don’t often serve dishes that rely heavily on cheese or cream, even though they might be enjoyed by the majority of people in my house.  We don’t have peanut butter or any nuts in our home, so the alternative of just making oneself a PB&J isn’t there for our family.  That also rules out nuts as a nutrient rich source of protein for the anti-meat eaters in my house.  We also have some issues with eggs, soy, and some fresh fruits for various members of our family, so there have to alternatives for all those options in our house at one point or another.  We haven’t really sorted out my youngest’s food sensitivities in a clear way yet.  So always in the back of my mind when I’m insisting one of my children try a new food is “what if he really means it when he says it’s making him feel like he needs to throw up?”  However, I don’t want any of them to feel like it’s acceptable to avoid eating healthy dinners I spend time preparing  and just replace it with a junk food item later. 

I’ve been thinking about this article by Mark Bittman that appeared in the New York Times a week or so ago.  He was responding to  the requests he often gets from parents asking how to raise children that will try new foods and eat healthfully.  I thought all of what he had to say was interesting, and probably true, at least for him.  He talks about getting rid of junk food as options in the house, and just offering a broad range of healthy choices.  Not to make an issue out of eating what’s on the table for dinner, but only having healthy alternatives available.  This all seems perfectly reasonable, but for some reason really difficult to put into actual practice.

He mentions a mother that cooked in uninteresting ways, but praises that she “always showed up.”  He paints his own childhood eating habits outside the dinner table as one long binge of processed junk, including breakfast of cookies and milk.  He talks about his own current eating habits as a response to that unhealthy way of life, as if it was a natural  progression to rebel against such a thing.  So, that has gotten me thinking.  If raising children with a diet full of junk food eventually leads them to one of discovering cooking and healthy choices, why then do we believe that raising them without junk, and with only healthy choices will lead to a adulthood full of similar items?  Why aren’t we concerned that once confronted with the smorgasbord of junk and processed foods available on the market for the first time that they won’t gravitate to a feast of excess?  I’m reminded of childhood friends who were never allowed to have sugary foods or snack foods at home, who would go to birthday parties and gorge themselves, then head home to vomit.  It was as if they had no boundaries or ability to deal with these temptations.

Like Bittman, many of the items that make up my current diet as an adult are things I would have never dreamed of eating as a kid.  I want to say though, that wasn’t because my parents fed me only a “kid friendly” diet, though there was probably a little of that going on, or that I grew up in a home without much thought about nutrition or food choices.  My mom also "showed up," cooking nearly every night in my memory.  Eating out just wasn't something we did very often.  My parents wanted me to eat, and I wasn’t a particularly easy child to provide food for, since I was allergic to, or at least sensitive to, many different foods in a time when food allergies just were not that common.  My parents were not concerned about my weight or health in general, so I can absolutely see how they were grateful when I found just about anything that didn’t make me vomit. There’s an ongoing joke about the years in junior high and high school when I bought my lunch every day, but my purchases consisted of either green onion potato chips and a chocolate chip granola bar, or a large order of fries.  Also to be fair, I ate quite a few fruits and vegetables without argument, so it wasn’t all junk food entering my system.

I think a lot of the way we view food has just changed over the years.  Health and nutrition education has definitely come a long way from the simplistic ‘four food groups’ model.  Along with the overabundance of convenience food and over processed snacks marketed to children has also come a separate movement towards availability of more vitamin rich produce, better sources of animal protein, and more interesting ways to cook all of it than was available during either my own or my parents’ childhoods.  We’ve moved beyond meat and potatoes and white lettuce to a food culture that embraces multiple ethnic cuisines and regional styles, as well as celebrates locally sourced ingredients.  There are simply more choices available to us as eaters, both good ones and bad. 

I’m not saying Bittman’s approach is a bad one. Nor am I saying my parents had it all right and we’ll all get to the place of eating well eventually.  There are definitely adults I know who still struggle to be adventurous eaters and eat the diets one usually associates with preschoolers.  What I’m saying is that I really have no idea what the best way to get to the right place is, even for my own particular family, so maybe I should stop beating myself up about not doing it one particular way.


There is so much advice out there on parenting, not just in the realm of feeding your children.  There are so many people giving conflicting and strongly worded advice, that’s its hard not to either feel really shamed or alternatively, just want to abandon all of it and do what’s easiest.  I’ll admit, I’ve had both reactions in  lots of areas of parenting.  In this one, however, I guess I’m just going to keep my eyes on the prize of that plate of cauliflower.  I want that experience for my kids, so I’m just going to keep doing things that seem like they lead us in that direction.  Maybe it means lightening up on some of the dinnertime battles.  Maybe it means less junk in the house, and more healthy options for snacks.  O. has recently started to be interested in learning to cook, so I’ve had him help out with meal preparations more lately, and that seems like a good sign even though so far, he still doesn’t eat much of the meals he helps with. For sure, it means continuing to vocally model my own best eating habits in the hopes that they  too, will one day hear a little voice in their head that says “maybe I should at least TRY that.”

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