I took newly 17-month-old Stella out for ice cream last week. Just me and her. There was no special occasion other than “mama needs ice cream NOW.” We headed out on foot at around 7pm to sneak in our treat before her 7:30 bath (which, of course, didn’t happen until 7:45). On the “walk” home, she stopped between wind sprints to request “more more more.” I happily served her bites of my mouthwatering masterpiece: perfectly salted caramel and rich chocolate Molly Moon’s ice cream in a waffle cone made two minutes before we ate it. I didn’t even mind sharing, until I realized she’d finished the salted caramel, leaving only chocolate and destroying the dessert’s mindblowing salty-sweet synergy. Really, the outing itself was a treat that instantly turned into a sweet memory.
So imagine my reaction to an increasingly popular declaration being made on mommy blogs lately: “My toddler eats no sugar or white flour whatsoever.”
First thought? Sheer defensiveness. Then, “WHAT DID YOUR POOR TODDLER DO TO DESERVE THIS???” Lemme tell ya, I gave up dairy for two and half months in a last-ditch effort to make breastfeeding work, and it eroded my soul. I’m 27% more evil now. Had I been forced to give up sugar and white flour too, which to me means insanely sexy chocolate and crusty loaves of French or Italian baked goodness, I would not be here today. With no caloric or emotional reserves to draw from, no boost from my extra special favorite foods, the breast pump would’ve eventually worn me down to a pathetic pulp. The way our dryer would wear down my jeans if I put them through an unrelenting tumble cycle every three hours for two and a half months straight.
Maybe it’s because I just finished reading “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan, which I highly recommend as an enlightening antidote to our need to control and monitor everything we eat. Maybe it’s because for a few hellacious months, my baby refused to eat and required a feeding tube. In the process of helping her learn to embrace and enjoy eating, I had to let go of my own lingering fear and anxiety around food. (Fear is likely behind parental sugar bans, by the way.) Whatever the reason may be, I find sugar-free righteousness to be ridiculous, unrealistic, unhelpful and practically inhuman. Mark my words: An all-out sugar ban will backfire.
So, you may be thinking, “Blasphemy! America is obese and unhealthy because we eat so much sugar and white flour!” There is some truth to that, but I pretty much disagree. I didn’t gain 15 pounds at the end of college because demonic sugar and white flour had me at their mercy. I gained weight because I was afraid of food and of gaining weight, didn’t treat food or myself with respect, and as a result could not eat in a balanced, sensible manner.
American obesity and our collective disastrous health aren’t due to sugar and white flour. The current breakdown is the product of our culture’s unhealthy relationship with food. You know, the kind of relationship that tries to ban certain ingredients and nutrients and while granting sainthood to others. That’s really working for us, isn’t it? Just like when you ban your teenage daughter from dating that guy whose entire torso is pierced. Hmm. That would make him impaled, which is fatal. But I digress.
Remember in the 1990’s when fat was freaking outlawed? I’m pretty sure it was the only legislation that has been embraced by both parties in decades. If anyone saw you eating a burger, they’d mark your chest with a huge “F” (for “fat ass”). If you were fat enough, they wrote the whole thing out. I lost a good J. Crew sweater that way. Remember how we all ate a lot more fat-free stuff back then? Snackwells should’ve been called Crapwells. Only you didn’t crap, because more often than not those so-called “cookies” caused severe constipation. Turns out that in trying to avoid fat, we got fatter than ever while enjoying food a lot less. Oh and then it happened again with carbs. And people ate only bacon, causing death and organ failure. (Confession: Bacon is my best friend, but I don’t see him every day. We text a lot, though. Okay, I’m having an emotional affair with bacon. Don’t tell Cody.)
In thinking about all this, I remembered a story on NPR’s Fresh Air about the Paskowitz family of nomadic surfers. Their patriarch, an eccentric doctor, enforced an all-organic, raw-foods, no-sugar-whatsoever diet on his tan family, which included nine children. Much like the aforementioned sugar-phobic moms, he wanted them to live the most healthy and “natural” lifestyle as possible. And you know what? They really did, so long as they all remained isolated in the 24-foot camper where they lived. The thing is, eventually, those nine children grew up and faced huge challenges in learning to live with others and in our culture. The problems weren’t limited to food. But they didn’t have to wait long until that particular ban backfired.
At one point in their wanderings, the homeschooled Paskowitz kids spent a brief stint in a schoolhouse while doctor dad worked to make some money so they could move on to their next surfing adventure. The school served breakfast, including the crack of sweets: sugary cereal. That’s when young Jonathan Paskowitz sat down and ate 72 boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal. In that one sitting. SEVENTY-TWO BOXES. Of pure sugar. Because he’d never tasted it before, and literally could not stop himself. The dad punished the kid, and while reflecting in the NPR interiew Jonathan said that his dad’s punishment taught him a valuable lesson: “Everything in moderation.” But I don’t buy it. You can’t learn moderation and balance from someone so extreme and rigid.
We live in a world with sugar and flour. Even if you try to pretend we don’t. By sheltering kids from them completely, we prevent them from developing the healthy, balanced mindset toward food that they will need to navigate our crazy food culture. Frosted Flakes shouldn’t be eaten very often, but they also shouldn’t be made into a huge, exciting, off-limits deal. I now believe that we shouldn’t label foods as good or bad. There are foods that make up the majority of our diet. These foods include lots of vegetables, whole grains, fruits and quality protein sources. There are foods that we eat only once in a while. These foods include grandma’s apple pie and mom’s chocolate chip cookies. And then there are the processed edibles that aren’t actually food but still manage to fill grocery shelves. Extreme Red Rush Go-Gurt! (an example used by Pollan) is a great example, packaged in handy tubes with “the wholesome goodness of real Yoplait® yogurt.” Yeah, and more sugar per ounce than Coca Cola, including high fructose corn syrup. It’s not food, and I won’t buy it, but I still won’t ban it outright.
I’ve spouted a lot of opinions related to food and feeding kids. So it’s probably time to back it up with some specifics on our approach. Stella and I eat together during the day, and at night, the three of us always sit down together for dinner. Stella is not forced or pressured to eat anything. We offer wholesome snacks and meals, and she decides how much and what, among what’s offered, to eat. No power plays. Just patience, a reasonable amount of effort, and relatively sensible choices.
It works for us. Stella and Cody and I eat our share of health-nut favorites like fish and kale. I used to make baby cereal from a variety of grains and legumes, but during these heady days of toddlerhood I make oatmeal or “Ben’s Friday Pancakes” with buckwheat groats and steel-cut oats (the recipe contains no flour, but a little cane sugar) instead. Scrambled eggs with parmesan are a staple. Cauliflower and watermelon are two of her favorite foods. She loves beans–made with love from dried beans by yours truly or scooped from a can with love and added to pasta and tomato sauce. She loves my homemade mac n’ cheese (I use whole wheat pasta, usually) and refuses to eat chicken nuggets. Chocolate milk helped her take to a sippy cup. Recently, she devoured coconut rice. Avocado is a frequent side dish. Her eyes light up at a fresh, buttery croissant, not to mention cookies, and I’m known to throw a few chocolate chips her way now and then, just because. I suppose it’s one of the million different ways I show my love.
I’m proud of how my family eats. But nutrition is only one part of that. Variety, togetherness, and enjoyment are just as important to health (and certainly to happiness) as omega fatty acids. To all you sugar-free moms, I promise to do my best to refrain from judging or getting annoyed with you. That’s not helpful to anyone, and I hope you’ll try to treat me with the same courtesy. But if I catch you holding a packet of NutraSweet or Splenda, I may not be able to stop myself from smacking it out of your hand and replacing it with an amazingly synergistic ice cream cone. You’ll thank me later.