Dinner last night was a total fiasco. It started off alright, with company — Grandma, an uncle, and his squeeze — and a vat of rib-sticking comfort food. There was pork shoulder braised with the season’s first root vegetables and a broth made fragrant and rich with frost-hardy rosemary and sage from the backyard. There were caramelized Brussels sprouts and blemish-free fruit that cost, as a percentage of our budget, as much as oranges did in Dickens’ day.
But a few minutes into the meal my little family’s longstanding, fragile truce unraveled completely. The grownups were falling into a collective reverie when Son #1, who is 8, shrieked in a way that usually means fire ants have infested his pants. His father actually flinched.
“A seed!” he wailed, pointing at the slice of bread he was using to support a slab of cold butter. It was microscopic, a multifaceted corner of wheat kernel marring a slice of beige hopped up with enough dough conditioners to keep it squishy and soft long past the second coming. “It’s wheat, one speck of wheat,” I snapped, but he was already prone on the couch, writhing and sobbing like a toddler who needs a nap.
Like most of our friends, we’ve long maintained the mealtime division of responsibility laid out in Ellyn Satter’s Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. To my generation of parents, it’s a seminal text, imitated and expanded on by many, and if you’ve been feeding kids for any length of time, I’m sure you’ve heard the gist: It’s parents’ job to put food on the table, and kids’ job to decide whether and what to eat, and how much. Given repeated opportunities to get to know a food and little exposure to junk, kids will eventually gravitate to a balanced diet, the thinking goes. Don’t force-feed, con, cajole, or measure. Just set out bread, fruit, and milk as insurance.
Many of my best friends have Satter-ized their families with awesome results. I have one son who is a liberal-palated poster child for her wisdom. And viewed as a philosophy with broad applications, the overall division of responsibility might just be the single most valuable piece of parenting advice I’ve ever heard. Buy the book today, before you read another word. Okay, it’s working? Awesome — read no further.
It’s not? Welcome to my pity party and take comfort in this: This morning, 14 hours after the attack of the wheat-berry and seven years after I took up Satter-worship and Son #1 took up the banner of resistance, I drove to SuperTarget and, petard firmly wedged between spleen and ribcage, purchased three pounds each of whole wheat spaghetti, tomato sauce, and ground turkey.
He doesn’t know it yet, but instead of setting the table, tonight Son #1 gets to help create a vat of the Only Acceptable Meal on Earth, ladle it into individual serving containers, and create a self-serve shelf in the fridge. He long ago voted for cheese in a big green can, which I’m here to tell you is a) cheap and b) contains nothing but cheese, albeit devoid of flavor.
This is, of course, exactly what Satter says not to do, and a tactic that’s also verboten according to two other notable food-related books submitted for review to Shelf Life’s catsup-stained nerve center: Food Fights, by doctors Laura Jana and Jennifer Shu; and Ending the Food Fight, by David Ludwig, MD. Both are worthy entries, if not post-Satterian revelations.
Jana and Shu’s book is simple, reasonable, and ranks battles according to a helpful scale of one to four forks: One fork and you’re an idiot to pick that fight; four forks and you have their permission to draw the line. Accessible discussions of such issues as allergies and choking eliminate the “Yes but” factor.
I’m less enthusiastic about Ludwig’s book for a couple of reasons. Its “system” is harder to take in, and it dwells on obesity to a worrisome degree. I mean, I realize that Gatorade for breakfast makes America tubby and slow-witted, but show me a parent who buys a book because the South Beach Diet guy endorses it and I’ll show you a family in need of more assistance than a book can provide.
Before we get back to the business of whether it is in fact parental neglect to let Son #1 eat nothing but spaghetti, let’s pause a moment to consider the fighting alluded to in the titles. Does all this talk of culinary jujitsu make you as queasy as it does me? What’s a bigger hazard to your family dinner hour, reheated noodles or rehashed resentment?
If you are really and truly working any of the programs espoused by the books, you are putting a variety of nutritious, tasty foods on the table and then ceding the rest to the fates, not even taking notice of who ate what. No patting yourself on the back that Jason tried the kale or making a mental note that the organic nuggets went down just like the ones from the drive-thru. You are to have no agenda whatsoever. This, I humbly submit, is impossible in this food-obsessed moment in our culture.
Think about it: The grownups are consumed by, well, each other’s consumption. Are the content of the neighbor’s grocery cart locally grown? Grass-fed? Seasonally appropriate? Sustainably produced? Fairly traded? Certainly anyone who makes it through this obstacle course must emerge swathed in the merest layer of self-righteousness. Children are essentially psychic, especially when it comes to decoding their parents silent signals vis à vis social standing and its attendant anxieties. Any child worth his weight in Cheddar Bunnies will detect our subtlest agendas.
Which is a roundabout way of getting to Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious, in which comedian Jerry’s wife dispenses recipes that incorporate disguised vegetables. In all fairness, some cooks in the blogosphere are giving this one high marks, but I wonder if the author has simply replaced the fight with deception. I’m not yet ready to concede that spinach brownies taste just dandy, but assuming they do, it’s fair to argue that they neither accustom your finicky tribe to the taste of spinach or comply with the spirit of giving the small fry a say in what goes into their bodies. I’d kick anyone who slipped me a zucchini Mickey right off my dinner party A-list.
Last night when the crumbs had settled and the small folk gone to bed, I glanced at the stack of column fodder next to the couch, considering the food books anew: We talk about letting go of parental agendas, yet we continue to frame this discussion as a “fight.” And more to the point, clearly #1 was emerging the victor at my house if only because of his Vietcong-like refusal to stop campaigning. Why, exactly, did I think I needed to win this one?
Detached from my need to prevail in this power struggle, I reconsidered spaghetti. The battle of the wheat-speck notwithstanding, #1 is down with whole wheat pasta, and tomatoes are a vegetable [well, a fruit, technically speaking]. Really, the only problem with it is my finicky palate — and it hadn’t occurred to me that with the exception of the beige bread, I never put anything on the dinner table I wouldn’t eat.
It’s an experiment, I’ll grant you that. Will the sauce, which he’s had 1,000 times in his short life, suddenly prove spicy? Will a fleck of basil that resisted pureeing prompt a fresh revolt? Quite possibly. But this pass at détente is going to cost me a half an hour at the stove and maybe, just maybe give me back dinner hour.
Beth Hawkins is a writer living in Minneapolis.
Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense
By Ellyn Satter
Bull Publishing, 3rd Edition 2000, $16.95
By Laura A. Jana, MD, FAAP, and Jennifer Shu, MD, FAAP
American Academy of Pediatrics, October 2007, $14.95
Ending the Food Fight
By David Ludwig, MD, PhD
Houghton Mifflin, April 2007, $26
Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food
By Jessica Seinfeld, Collins, October 2007, $25