“I don’t even want to go to a barbecue at my boss’s house this summer, because it might not be any fun with all our food restrictions,” my husband admitted to me last week. “What if they offer the kids a juice pouch, or the dreaded freezer pops with artificial colors? And then there’s the hot dogs with nitrates and the buns with gluten…there’s just too much to say no to.”
My heart fell. Just when I’m trying to convince the world of the Internet that real food eating is totally doable and elimination diet meal planners work, my husband is overwhelmed by what he’s learning about, and by our own diet.
My response was eloquent and poignant and made the whole situation dissipate: “But…hamburgers are okay though!” Can you hear the desperation and lack of foresight in the question?
He also voiced concerns over our hosting Easter brunch, since I have a bit of a track record of getting stressed out when trying to make food from scratch to serve to a crowd. He would have rather gone out to a restaurant to eat, but I had vied for hosting, desiring to have a healthy meal instead of that heavy “I ate too much” feeling and the temptation of toast, HFCS pancake syrup and chocolate milk for my kids.
As a pretty intense conversation ensued, I couldn’t help thinking that it was interesting that the previous Sunday on the way home from church, I had drafted a partial post in response to some reader comments. It was about how having food rules certainly didn’t have to take the joy out of family life. It seemed that, in fact, here was my response, and God wanted a broader perspective.
I’m not exactly sure where this topic is going to take us, but let’s go along for the ride and see where we end up…
The Polite Dissenter
I discussed artificial colors a few times this Lent since we were experimenting with giving them up as a family, mostly to see if they had any impact on my children, and I received a comment on both posts with a gentle warning about balancing our quest for healthy food with our family relationships.
I certainly advocate wholesome meals, but there needs to be wiggle room. If not, we run the risk of making our food rules more important than the people in our lives. Certainly NOT what God intended.
I speak from the perspective of one who has long been an advocate for real, whole foods, but has seen relationships suffer as a result of my desire to do the “right” thing. Relaxing my standards a bit has allowed me to enjoy myself, my children, our extended families, and our meals together much more.
Research is just beginning to uncover all the variables related to eating and health, and some of the most interesting involves how our feelings and attitudes toward eating impact the manner in which our bodies process the food we eat. May I humbly recommend the resources available at www.ellynsatter.com for anyone interested in relaxing about their food a bit? Blessings to all as we try to find balance and do our best.
And my response:
Believe me, on a site dedicated to “finding the balance,” I do appreciate your dissent. However, I find just as many readers pick on me for letting my kids have too many bad foods, so do know that, outside of this experiment, my kids have PLENTY of wiggle room for junk food. We put very few restrictions on them at family parties, other than that they should eat some good foods before they get dessert, and they are allowed to eat out (usually with grandparents) more than most people expect from me.
Do we need balance? Sure. But like a few other commenters have pointed out, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that although we are being counter-cultural, it’s the culture that is so messed up, feeding our children things are are not food.
A few other reader responses:
also, regarding ‘joy of eating’, that’s why we are so obese and sick. we should find joy in life and eat to live not live to eat. having said that, we are on the GAPS diet now and i can honestly say that my children enjoy their food much more now than they did before. and hopefully it’s not making them sick while they’re enjoying it.
I have to chime in here: there are some things that are not meant to be eaten. For example, the famous Red 40 is “Red AC was originally manufactured from coal tar, but is now mostly made from petroleum.”
We found my parents to be very supportive and helpful during our times of diet restriction. Others would invite us for a meal with only 1 or 2 items we could eat. I learned to take food with us and to teach the boys to just say “no thank you.”
We are talking about something much more than “I don’t like lima beans”–which I do detest. Or greater than not eating pork for religious reasons.
It is okay to refuse food that causes harm. Once children are old enough to understand how certain foods are detrimental to their well being, parents do need allow the child more decision making power. But a child under the age of 4 or 5? Parents should speak up for the child’s well being!
Not dissuaded, Nicole commented again on the next My Food is not a Number! reflection, again very politely:
However, let’s be honest that there is a cost associated with this decision, and perhaps a higher one than we may realize. It is this: we put much credence in a “clean” diet and do our level best to accomplish this, and for our efforts, our children throw tantrums; our extended families are afraid to eat with our kids; we are so stressed about food choices that our kids hoard and sneak to get the foods that taste good to them; and WE suffer real, physical consequences from all the stress.
On the other hand, if we are truly willing to extend grace to ourselves, our children, and our families regarding food choices, we do better – both emotionally AND nutritionally. Fear and avoidance do not generally last as motivators for eating in a certain way, and they have the potential for seriously distorting our children’s eating attitudes and behaviors.
I thought quite a bit about her basic point – do we compromise on what we know is best for our kids just to reduce the stress of interacting with others around food? Is it possible to eat a strict, whole foods diet and still enjoy eating, even eating with others? And what would that look like?
Clearly, now that you’ve observed part of my conversation with my husband, you know that our family is not hitting the bullseye in this game, but I’m sure hoping we can get a little closer to the target, meaning achieving the balance of a proper diet without stress or fear of food weighing us down.
What You Don’t Know Can’t Hurt You
I’ve always said when my babies were little that for them, ignorance is bliss. If they haven’t a clue what is in the crinkly wrapper or how sweet the blue frosting is, if they’ve never tasted juice and don’t expect dessert after a meal, they truly don’t know what they’re missing.
Withholding junk food – “fun food” – from them doesn’t hurt them in the least. They are not deprived. They are not being shorted anything. Their life is not less full for lack of sugar of food coloring. They are perfectly happy and content, sometimes even blissful, with the healthy (and delicious) food offered to them.
Similarly, kids who watch little TV (especially if it’s without commercials) don’t beg for things at the grocery store, whether cartoon-infused food-like substances or licensed character toys that will break before the year is out. (More on that later this week.)
Are they missing joy? Are they stressed? No, and neither are the parents who don’t have to say “no” at every turn, simply because they planned ahead and filtered the child’s experience up front.
Things only get hairy and complicated when the children are out of the parents’ control for a moment, perhaps with a grandparent or loved one. Should other family members be expected to abide by “the rules?”
In many ways, it’s the loving thing for those grandparents, aunts, uncles, or friends to play the same game as the parents. Don’t offer children things they shouldn’t have according to whatever diet their parents have chosen for them. If you do, you’re causing them to want it, which makes them sad. It’s only the knowledge of what they’re missing that creates a problem. Rather than making a child happy by introducing them to a certain off-limits treat, the well-meaning relative actually causes a problem and creates opportunities for the child to be disappointed.
Of course, as my husband pointed out, visiting acquaintances can be a tricky situation. How much do we need to discuss food choices with hosts before accepting a dinner invite, especially since we don’t actually have any medically based dietary restrictions in the family? Is it okay to simply throw caution to the wind for a day? And can Katie manage to do that without getting grumpy watching everyone eat junk? (I struggle a lot with getting into a funk when I know the kids are eating things to which I have acquiesced, but still wish they wouldn’t.)
What is Joyful Eating?
I do joke that with all I learn about food and the environment, with all the thousands of tiny changes we’ve made in our family to protect them from the crap in the world, I’ll still probably die early from the stress of managing it all and worrying about the elements that are out of my control that might still cause cancer or IBD or something.
Some days that joke is not very funny. Nicole’s comments made me think about the joy of eating and how we achieve that because of and in spite of the foods we eat and don’t eat.
Finding the joy in food has many facets:
- the attitude with which the food is served
- the company with whom you eat the food
- one’s participation in the food preparation
- the routine or break from routine around the meal
- and finally, savoring the food itself
Does food have to be filled with sugar and bright blue to be “fun”? Does it have to be deep-fried and dipped in ketchup to be “kid-friendly”?
I’d certainly like to think not. The food itself is only one part of the meal.
My attitude when serving food is one area I am sorely lacking. I do allow myself to get stressed out while making dinner, especially if (a) something goes wrong, (b) I’m running behind schedule, or (c) my husband doesn’t enjoy the meal as much as I hope. Often I am hit with all of the above, but it’s still no excuse to be grumpy or slam down a spoon or rush everyone to the table without a smile on my face. It’s no excuse to be sullen about a compromise food or equally sullen about healthy food that doesn’t end up being well-received by the peanut gallery.
It pains me to write it, but I often serve my real food meals with a side of negativity, which exudes from my countenance and drips onto the food, cross-contaminating my good intentions.
Food as a social endeavor
In our culture, food surrounds every social event. Food is often the center of family and holiday gatherings, and without it, people wonder why they would even get together. Those food traditions make any changes challenging, but it’s definitely possible to get together, have a great time enjoying family, and enjoy the wholesome food without compromise.
I did manage to successfully plan ahead for Easter brunch, working very hard to have a lot of prep work done before even going to bed Saturday night. I was uber prepared and knew exactly what needed to be done Sunday, and I knew it could be a leisurely pace while people enjoyed playing with the kids.
We had a lovely, grain-free, real food brunch, and everyone enjoyed the food.
My mother-in-law brought frozen glazed cinnamon rolls, and even though I was finished giving up sugar and my husband was no longer officially giving up gluten and my kids would have gotten one if they asked, not one of us had any. Our lives were no less full without them, and I’m guessing that no one would have gone away hungry if they hadn’t even been available.
(In fact, my kids were having so much fun with their grandparents, aunt and uncle, that they neglected to even ask for dessert after getting full on fruit!)
Eating as a Family
Keeping true to a family dinner is another important facet of joyful eating. Inspired by this post about family dinner conversation, we started sharing our “high/low” moment of the day at dinnertime.
I think it’s pretty awesome that it’s my 3-year-old, the youngest (who can talk) of the family, who more often than not reminds us and asks the question around the table. Her budding leadership skills give me joy, that’s for sure!
I’m not always joyfully accepting of offers of help from my kids in the kitchen. There are days I’m just ready to be alone in there, preparing food, and other days when we’re rushing and I really can’t afford the slow-down of the novice, clumsy-handed chef’s helper. I’m trying hard to remind myself that if I turn down too many requests of “Can I help make dinner?” they will stop coming, and then I’ll be all alone with my missed opportunities.
Any time I can involve my kids in the cooking, joyfully, I know I should. I try to celebrate their efforts by announcing to anyone eating what they did to help and how wonderful it all tastes. For that brunch, they both helped shred cheese for crustless quiches and slice potatoes (in the food processor). We’ve often team worked to cut a whole pineapple, and they know it will be served as dessert, but they’re happy they got to help prepare it. Here are some amazing ideas, for every age, about how to get kids in the kitchen.
A little spice of children goes a long way in bringing joy to a dish.
Keeping Treats Part of Eating
Food should be fun sometimes, but that doesn’t have to mean super-processed, brightly colored, or full of sugar.
We saw baby pigs, cows, turkeys and ducks at the farm this morning. How can you imagine any more joy and connection to your food? Opening up their world to nature is just one of the many ways I try to keep the “fun” in our food. I also like to present them with things like mashed potato ghosts on Halloween, and I surprised Leah by saying at 10 a.m. yesterday, “I think we should have a candy from our Easter baskets, don’t you?” Because it’s a break from routine, it’s fun. If they had Gogurts every day at lunch, those wouldn’t be fun either – in our family, adding a squirt of raw honey (use the code Katie15 for 15% off at that site!) becomes a treat!
Let’s also remember that “treat” need not be something sweet. I used to treat my kids to nitrite-free meat sticks from a local butcher – pricey, but no more than an ice cream cone. And they loved those meat sticks! The Easter Bunny even put some in their baskets two years ago, and believe me, it was as good as candy. (I’ll show you their real food Easter baskets later this week.)
Any parent can figure out creative, non-sweet, non-processed, non-junky ways to treat kids, with and without food. Grandparents can too – my in-laws are awesome at buying in-season fruit and always have crafts for the kids to do at their house. I love that!
Are Food Rules Oppressive?
Like with strict diets, many say about the Catholic Church, “Don’t all these rules take the joy and spontaneity out of faith, don’t they hamper your relationship with God?” On the contrary: the rules give us the freedom to know what is right, thereby escaping the worry and pain that comes with making mistakes and being separated from God’s love. Rules allow us to be joyful in our salvation.
Similarly, good food gives us freedom from chronic illness, pain, and digestive distress. Food rules and the knowledge about why we eat what we do allow us to explore God’s creation and eat foods as they were meant to be enjoyed, to seek creativity in food preparation and to know that we are doing a good thing for our bodies when we eat. We are more conscious of what we put in our mouths, and with the right attitude, we can make dinnertime – and any eating time – a joyful and wholesome experience.
As with nearly anything worthwhile – doing chores, going to church, writing a thank you note, learning to tie one’s own shoes – the process of eating good food could be drudgery or joy, depending on how it’s presented. Our kids, all three of them, attended Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday services for a total of over 6 hours of church in four days. Do we risk turning them off from the faith because that wasn’t very fun? If so, to me, training the child in the way they should go and underlining the importance of God and church are the greater good, and it’s worth the risk.
Do we allow our kids to play-play-play like they want and skip the process of learning responsibility through chores? Nope. Do we let them eat candy whenever they want – or whenever it’s offered to them – because it would be more fun? Nope. We teach them, through discipline (and fun!) how good food is good for your body, and that what God made is better than what man refines. We can even teach through servicelike giving real food to those in need.
I wrote a post called Soul First, Body Second wayyyy back in the infancy of Kitchen Stewardship®, and I think it’s a good reminder for myself and newer readers of the final priorities – food should never become an idol – but also seeking balance and not throwing caution to the wind for the sake of some bump in the nutritional road or familial relationship that could be solved in other ways.
I may not always be excellent, or even proficient, at serving a meal with joy, but I know it’s important. I understand the goal.
I’m a work in progress…but I truly believe that, although it takes extra work and a lot of forethought to keep to a good diet in any circumstance, it is possible.
This summer, we’ll gladly accept an invitation to a cookout…and we’ll bring some side dishes and a few rules so that we feel good when we leave, both in body and spirit.
How do you balance eating and joy in family life?Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.