Food Fights and No-Thank-You Bites

Friday, January 31, 2014

“Mom, am I taking home-lunch to school —  for real?!”

The level of excitement at this prospect was just too sweet. My son’s preschool serves hot lunch, plus two snacks. We parents get a calendar print-out with the menu for the full month. It’s fantastic. The kids get delicious food that’s healthy (fruit is served with everything), and they are also introduced to new things (hummus, lo mein) that they might not have tried at home. And the group dynamic thing helps too, i.e., since all their little buddies are trying the new/different/weird food, they probably will as well.

Photo by Cardiff Food Alliance

Then there’s the “no thank you” bite, which is adorable and effective. The kids are taught that if they’re served something at lunch or snack that they don’t want to eat (because it looks strange or green or wet or crunchy or whatever kid complaint you’ve heard), then they should at least take a “no thank you” bite before completely dissing the dish.  As you can imagine, often they’ll take the one bite and then want to take another because, hey, this green/wet/crunchy thing ain’t so bad.

Yesterday, my son asked if he could take a banana to school. More specific, he wanted that banana and he asked if his name could be written on it. Turns out, one of his classmates always brings a banana to school … yes, with their name on it.

Easy enough. Done. He and I wrote his name on the peel with a Sharpie. (For a split second I thought about this dad’s commitment, buuuuutt that passed, quickly. Listen, hats off to that guy, but mama’s on deadline and the essay wasn’t going to write itself.)

As we were talking about fruits and lunch, The Youngster asked if he could take home-lunch to school as well. One of his class friends “always bring home-lunch, and I want to try that too.” We were five minutes away from leaving, so I told him he could do so the next day. We then plotted out what kinds of things he would take: tuna sandie, raisins, fruit gummies, and an apple. Yaaay, he cheered. This kid was super hyped. About lunch. Well, all right! No complaints from this gal.

The whole exchange reminded me of something I heard on “This American Life” last week. The episode was called “Stuck in the Middle,” and in the prologue we’re introduced to a mom named Rachel. She has two boys: Elias, 7, and Theo, 5. The older brother is a vegetarian. Actually, I should say, he’s an ALL CAPS VEGETARIAN, as in he doesn’t eat meat — hasn’t since he was 3 or 4 years old — and doesn’t want anyone else to eat it either. Especially not his brother.

Theo wants to eat meat sometimes, like pepperoni on Pizza Day at school. Elias gets really angry about it. This all causes a lot of conflict between the siblings. So much so, Theo calls his brother The God of Food, and really resents that Elias tries to control what he eats.

A year into Elias’ vegetarianism, he asked that no one else in the house eat meat either. Rachel and her husband gave it some thought and actually stopped eating meat.  When this is revealed in the show, host Ira Glass calls out the exact thing I was thinking: How is a 7-year-old making the decisions on what the family eats?

The mom concedes that, on paper, it seems like this kid is running things, but says that if you were to hear Elias talk about meat and vegetarianism, you would immediately see why the family acquiesced. (I’m not all the way convinced, but then I’m big on establishing a balance of power in the family and parenting in the lead. Bending to a child’s demands will often create more challenges for you a parent. My two cents.) Elias is deeply emotional about animals being killed to feed humans. In fact, Elias is so disturbed by people eating meat that he freaks out and often ends up crying. For example, he got so upset smelling meat cooking in the kitchen and watching people eat their meals at a restaurant that he had to go sit up front by the door alone.

Theo started lying to his brother, willfully, about his meat-eating, even sneaking out with his dad to have turkey sandwiches behind Elias’ back. (Really, Dad? Come on. Not helping.)  The mom feels caught in the middle. Both boys have strong feelings — and strong personalities — about their food choices, and she doesn’t want to crush either one of them.

Can you imagine, though? This daily dance has got to be frustrated and, frankly, annoying. What would you do if you were Rachel? How do you juggle both of your children’s choices and allay their concerns? Is there a middle ground? Leave your comments below. Always like hearing your take!

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1 Comment
  • 1
    Skye says:

    My gut feeling is that allowing any one member of the household to set a rule like this for everyone else, especially for a sibling, isn’t a great idea. If everyone in the family was genuinely like hey, we can compromise, the house is a no-meat zone so kiddo feels calm here, that would be one thing. Establishing lying as a valid family choice, though? Bzzt.

    (And just for context, I’ve been vegetarian for 24 of my 39 years, so it’s not like I’m on Team Carnivore.)

    But also, I’m not in their life, I’m not them, I’m not the one trying to get through the day. Seven year olds aren’t completely equipped yet to understand that effective advocacy for a cause often requires self-regulation of your own very strong emotions, or that even when you feel 100% passionately about something down to your core, you can’t necessarily change the world or shield yourself from experiencing it.