These are things I didn’t know about food or cooking until I was an adult:
- I didn’t know that you didn’t need a box of Jell-O instant pudding to make pudding.
- I didn’t know you could make pancakes without Bisquick.
- I didn’t know the difference between butter and margarine.
- I didn’t know that American Cheese slices were not actually cheese.
- I didn’t know the difference between Non-Dairy Creamer and cream. (Seriously — I must not have read that “Non-Dairy” part too closely.)
- I also didn’t know the difference between whipped cream and Cool Whip.
- I didn’t know that you could make salad dressing without an envelope of pre-mixed spices.
- I didn’t know there was any kind of lettuce besides iceberg.
- I was eleven before I found out you could make cocoa without Swiss Miss (my mom shocked me by making it right on the stove with a wooden spoon and a tin of Hershey’s cocoa).
- I was thirteen before I knew you could cook a hot dog by boiling it instead of putting it in the microwave.
- I was fourteen before I knew you could make mashed potatoes out of potatoes instead of out of a box. (We loved the lumps and embarrassed our stepmother by going on and on about them.)
- I was fifteen before I knew you could make a grilled cheese sandwich from actual cheddar cheese. (And my boyfriend impressed me even more by making it on homemade bread and even added sprouts.)
Sometimes I think about this as a very clear metaphor for the baggage we haul around from our family of origin. Some of it is good stuff, some of it is bad stuff and some of it is just plain wrong stuff. Fortunately you can start to correct the bad stuff just by being out in the world and being open to noticing new things.
I’ll admit that I was a 23 years old before I learned the difference between whipped cream and Cool Whip. Doubly embarrassing since I’d spent a couple of years working the retail counter at Katzinger’s, where knowing about food was part of the job description. But we never used whipped cream there that I can remember so when my co-worker asked me to go grab some for the strawberry shortcake she was bringing to our lunch potluck I headed to the frozen food aisle. Meeting up at the check out line she gasped at my blunder and marched me back to the dairy aisle to grab a spray can. (Later I learned to make whipped cream myself with an ice cold mixing bowl. Miracle of miracles!)
As time went on, I learned to pick and choose from the things I learned from my family and the things I learned as I went along. I only made homemade pudding once — the results were good but not worth my boredom stirring over the stove. But I never use margarine. My kids like their grilled cheese made with “Grandma Cheese,” so-called because I kept our ‘fridge stocked with actual cheddar until they discovered those creamy individual slices at my mom’s house and insisted on putting them on the shopping list. We don’t have a microwave and I never make mashed potatoes out of a box but I do use Bisquick to make these particular chocolate chip cookies my kids love and my husband likes to mix Hazelnut Non-Dairy Creamer with his half-and-half in his morning coffee.
We pick and choose. We learn things, we discard things, we pick new things up and we keep some old things close.
It’s that time of year again. October leads the march for the next three months when sweets become one of the central issues for many families. Everywhere you turn there are suckers, cupcakes, frosted cookies and mini chocolate bars.
I’ve been hearing it from a lot of parents these days. (If you’re not one of them, if you’re totally OK with how the holidays play out at your house, feel free to skip this post!)
A lot of parents are worried about monitoring it and about kids whacked out on sugar and about arguments every morning about how many pieces and when. They’re worried about kids eating so much that they don’t eat dinner or who have pixie stix for breakfast.
On the other hand, kids love Halloween. Because they love candy. It’s not just the candy itself that they love; they also love the getting of candy. They love the having of candy. And yes, they love the eating of candy.
But for a lot of kids, the fun of candy comes with the drag-down of guilt because they know their parents don’t like it. Then the candy starts seeming like a much more complicated prize.
Sometimes I think holidays are a kid’s introduction to disordered eating/thinking because it’s such a binge time with all of those otherwise forbidden foods.
A child listens to her parents lament about the egg nog and the leftover Halloween candy in the breakroom, all those holiday pounds they want not to gain. The magazines scream at the child while she stands with her parents in the check-out line, all about how to stay thin over the dreaded holiday season. Then she’s faced with the bowl of whip cream, the holiday pies, the bowl of M&Ms in autumn colors. She eats it all up, she eats too much because it delicious. She wants it and she never sees it any other time of year. And then the shame, the disapproval. The adults who shake their heads at her when she reaches for another slice of pumpkin pie or breaks off another piece of gingerbread house. She listens to her uncle praise her cousin for turning down the gravy or for eating the spinach souffle instead of the candied yams. She comes home with a bag of candy and her parents take it away. Later that night she sneaks a piece off of the top of the refrigerator, tip-toeing off with the stolen Twix bar, guilt, pleasure and shame mixed with the melting chocolate in her mouth. She spends the time at her friend’s party trying not to think about the chocolate gelt they’ll go home with, wondering if she can eat it all on the ride home before her parents take it away.
These are the stories I hear from kids but from adult, too, who remember being that kid.
That’s not what we want for our children, right?
Halloween and all the rest of the holidays are a great opportunity for typical kids to learn eating competence. Young kids might need your help so after the candy sorting and counting, let them pick some out to keep for themselves (because remember having is part of the fun) and then put the rest away to distribute in the lunchbox and at the dinner table not doled out with worried counting, but some put by their plate without comment. If they eat it before the meal, no problem. Give them enough that there’s still room for the other food you serve but don’t fret about the order in which they eat.
(Imagine that — a world where candy is just food! Nothing else! Food you can eat just like any other food, because you like it and your body welcomes it! Food that is not better or worse than broccoli, which leaves you room to notice that sugar is not filling, that sometimes you want something savory. Imagine that!)
Bigger kids can be left to manage their own intake. Now they will likely make mistakes. They might gorge themselves and get sick and they might show up for dinner too full to eat. Instead of shaming them or taking the candy away, let them figure it out. What have they learned? What will they do different tomorrow? Mistakes are part of growing and really, how bad is the mistake of eating too much Halloween candy? It won’t end up on your permanent record or keep you out of college or get you arrested. It’s just candy.
You will find that when left to their own devices that every kid will handle it differently. Some will count out the days and give themselves a candy allowance. Some will eat it all over a few days and be done with it. Some will forget they have it and you’ll find it next Halloween when you go to unpack the treat bags. How they handle it is morally neutral because there are lots of right ways to handle it. What’s most important is that they learn to listen to their own bellies and they learn to manage their own intake.
If this all sounds too hard or too crazy, please check out Katja Rowell and Ellyn Satter. They both have web sites with a ton of great insight (and lots and lots of research) to help you feel empowered to grow children who can eat competently. You are not alone in this. There is lots of information and lots of help. You really can enjoy the holidays and feeding kids all at the same time!