On Balance

Published on November 2nd, 2020 | by Andrea Appleton


An Abnormal Burden

Our children no longer find joy in pretending to be giants eating broccoli trees or bunnies nibbling carrots. They no longer care to eat vegetables at all. Enlightened modern parents that we are, we do not force them. We do not make them sit at the table in a dark house after everyone else has gone to bed, staring at a bowl of flaccid green beans floating in greasy soup. The soup was made from the boiled head of an antelope, or at least that’s how I remember it.

The antelope-head soup incident is the only time I remember someone forcing me to eat. It was a family friend, watching us while my mother was in Baja on her honeymoon. My mother claims not to have been a hippie, but she cooked like one. We ate vegetables from the garden and chickens from the coop, buckwheat and kefir and deer jerky. We didn’t think to ask for Twinkies or Frosted Flakes, perhaps because for a good stretch of my childhood we had no TV to sell us on their virtues. In the summer, we’d climb a mountain and at the top, my stepfather would take a Snickers bar out of his coat pocket and slice it into four pieces with his pocketknife. It was glorious. “Why do kids only eat mac n’ cheese now?” my mother asks. “Is it something in the air?”

Enlightened modern parents that we are, we do not force our children to do very much. We use natural consequences. The natural consequence of never eating a vegetable, it turns out, is chronic constipation. The doctor says my 4-year-old has probably had it for a long time. He needs to eat bran, she says. He needs to drink the equivalent of a Starbucks Venti coffee every day, except in water, not coffee. He needs to eat vegetables with the skins on. She does not explicitly say that we have failed, but the abnormal stool burden in the x-ray says it for her. The doctor tells us to conduct a bowel clean-out, only fluids and laxatives for an entire day. We market it to the 4-year-old as a Popsicle and Poop Party, such an effective strategy that my other child is jealous.

The older child barely knew what popsicles were at 4 years old. He thought raisins were candy and ate an assortment of vegetables. But it wasn’t long before he learned the error of his ways and began holding out for carbohydrates. I’d like to blame it on daycare, but it was probably our surrender to convenience, to granola bars and graham crackers. In desperation at what we had wrought, we scanned articles and bought books and inquired on social media, shopping for an overarching philosophy. We chose a hands-off approach. Children will learn to eat well if you don’t pressure them, these experts counseled. You decide what and when your children eat. They decide whether they eat, and how much. But always serve bread with dinner, in case they decline everything else. Years later, bread is what our children eat. A nibble of cucumber and my heart soars.

Research shows that a child’s taste in food is influenced by what the mother eats when he is in utero. That children of authoritative parents are healthier eaters than children of authoritarian or permissive parents. That restricting high fat and high sugar foods leads to preference for those foods. Worldwide, constipation is increasing.

After the divorce, I lived with my father on and off. We ate frozen turkey pot pies and Polish sausage and quesadillas and pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. I don’t know if he worried about what we were eating. He had a lot of other things to worry about.

Packaged Facts, a market research company, notes that many parents choose what foods to buy based on perceived nutritional value. “Hidden veggies are . . . a way to create a healthy/nutritional halo while aligning with parents in the fight to make eating fruits/veggies more fun for kids,” one Packaged Facts report advises.

Photo by Brianna Santellan on Unsplash

Products with halos include:
· Heartland Hidden Vegetable pasta, made with a covert puree of corn, carrot, and squash.
· Sneakz Organic Chocolate Milkshakes, with a half serving of vegetables in every box. (Sneakz!)
· Kidfresh Chicken Nuggets, breaded in whole grains and a presumably clandestine blend of pureed cauliflower and onion.
· MadeGood Chocolate Chip Crispy Squares, imbued with shiitake mushroom and broccoli extracts. Yum!

Parenting only recently became a verb, or rather a gerund. A gerund implies an action that has not ended, that continues even now: Questioning, observing, self-flagellating as our children choose to put in their mouths that which disappoints us most.

Grow your own vegetables and let your child pick them. Put vegetables in brightly colored bowls. Set up a playdate with a child that does eat vegetables. Have a chocolate fondue party and only provide broccoli for dipping. Stuff pureed peas in your child’s cheeks when he is sleeping.

“The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” by Dr. Benjamin Spock was the only book on being a parent my mother owned. At the time, it was one of the only books on being a parent that anyone owned. “Don’t take too seriously all that the neighbors say,” Spock advises. “Don’t be overawed by what the experts say. Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense. Better to make a few mistakes from being natural than to try to do everything letter-perfect out of a feeling of worry.” Isn’t that lovely? It makes me want to burn every other parenting book I own.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

After the bowel clean-out, the doctor instructs us to give our child a daily laxative for the next six to eight months. This is so the pertinent internal organs can shrink to their normal size. During this entire period, his poop needs to be the consistency of applesauce. The poop taxonomy chart she gives us also includes mention of nuts and sausage, seemingly the least pleasant analogies a person could come up with. “Don’t worry,” the doctor says. “My child was on laxatives for three years and her favorite food is black beans and rice.” This does not comfort me.

“Trust yourself,” Dr. Spock writes. “You know more than you think you do.” I wish I’d read that back when I knew something. Perhaps I would have just eaten how I’ve always eaten, and my children would have followed suit. Too late now. Now we eat our grain salads and bean soups and grilled asparagus, careful to exhibit neither forced enthusiasm nor silent condemnation. We accept the natural consequences of outsourcing our birthright. We learn that man can indeed live on bread alone.

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About the Author

Andrea Appleton writes essays, short stories, and creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in The New England Review, The Fourth River, and Aeon, among others. She was recently shortlisted for a Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship. She lives in Baltimore and you can find more of her work at andreaappleton.com.

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