As parents, it used to be easy for my husband and me to act as our children's food censors. They couldn’t even open the fridge door, let alone request a product they saw advertised on TV. As any mom or dad knows, those days are long but the years whiz by and suddenly we’re the parents of two fourth-graders, a first-grader and a two-year-old.
These days, three fourths of our crew is out in the world, exposed to the influence of other kids’ lunch boxes which – I am told often – have exciting things in them. Sadly, the school cafeteria leaves much to be desired. The dreamy celebrity chef with the cool accent and revolution resources hasn't arrived yet. (A slightly crunchy mom can dream, right?)
So we do the best we can. Most nights, my husband packs lunch ahead. It may not be home grown, but it’s food made with ingredients you can pronounce. We use what I'd call 'middle of the road' whole wheat bread or pita wraps – somewhere between white bread in disguise and a crackling, artisanal loaf. Sandwiches are topped with real meat, cheese or veggies. For a treat, I make cookies with organic butter, eggs, whole wheat flour and ground oats (and of course sugar and chocolate chips). Despite the sugar, I feel good about the nutrients in the whole wheat and oats. We use organic juice boxes to avoid the corn syrup that is on seemingly EVERY label I read.
We’re up against a rainbow of bright colors not found in nature and tempting treats straight off the factory line, but have done our best to calibrate their taste buds to enjoy the flavors found in real food.
It doesn’t always work. They've handed back unopened juice boxes protesting, "I don't like how this tastes." I've been told, "Sam has yogurt with a cup of candy to mix in. Can we get those?" I know what Sam has, and there’s hardly anything resembling yogurt in that cup of colored, gelatinous goo. At home, all four happily go through gallons of organic yogurt sans candy. So the answer is: “No.”
I recognize though, that my kids may not always want to be unique in the cafeteria. They have permission to buy school lunch or snack – but our guidelines are clear. Without being total killjoys, we talk about hormones in milk, pesticides, and chemical additives that just aren't good for you. Still, I know they enjoy the rebellious autonomy of ice cream, nachos and cookies every once in a while. I uphold my end of the bargain by letting go of the fleeting control I had for just a moment.
I've never been sure how well they absorb our random food chats until our six-year-old had his first experience in the school cafeteria. He came home proud, telling us how he bought his lunch all by himself. When his older brother and sister asked what he had, he happily announced:"The hot dog....with lots of ketchup."
I saw their faces turn to shock. My daughter shook her head disapprovingly, strangely maternal, hand on hip, eyebrows narrowed. "Owen, we never, EVER get the hot dog at school!" Owen's big brother then took a turn in the reprimand. "Yeah Owen, it's full of chemicals and crap that you don't want to put into your body." Clearly, a wordsmith in the making. I turned to hide a smile and enjoy a moment of parenting pride.