I didn’t mean to raise my two kids as part of a human experiment in food preferences. It just worked out that way.
When Faith was born in 1998, my husband and I were living in Boston in an historic building where the wainscoting and windowsills were coated with lead paint. We knew we would need to move by the time that our daughter started crawling. Since I am a science writer and Jeff a sculptor, we began to look at communities that offered both large research libraries and cheap studio space. Ithaca, New York thus became our new home. On the very day that Faith first figured out forward locomotion, we loaded up a moving van with all our earthly possessions and headed for a log cabin in the woods just east of the Ithaca town line. The backyard descended into wetlands where great blue herons and foxes lived. The well water was sweet, and the frogs kept us awake at night. When we discovered, upon arrival, that our television set had apparently been stolen out of the back of the truck, we just shrugged.
And so the experiment was set in motion. We didn’t replace the TV. I got pregnant again and started writing a new book, which I was determined to finish before the baby was born. Meanwhile, Jeff took over the running of the household and the care of a willful toddler. He quickly made three discoveries. One, there was a community-supported organic farm at the top of the hill which we could join. It had a play area out in the fields to occupy little kids while their parents picked produce or engaged in adult conversation. It also offered regular potluck dinners, which meant less cooking for him and more choices for his lumbering and now quite finicky spouse.
Two, there was a cooperative grocery store downtown called GreenStar that we could also join. Not only did it stock organic teething biscuits, it had a play area near the deli to occupy little kids while their parents could read, say, the arts section of the New York Times and drink much-needed cups of coffee.
Discovery number three: if he worked two hours a week at GreenStar, we could get a twenty-percent discount on groceries. The discount meant that the prices at the coop now approached those in regular supermarkets. And this meant that he didn’t have to drive anywhere else for dog food, toilet paper, dish soap, and toothpaste. The result was a net gain of time. Running errands with small children, Jeff pointed out, takes a lot longer than just the driving time, especially when one factors in the minutes lost to the buckling and unbuckling of car-seat straps, the zipping and unzipping of little jackets, the diaper changes in the men’s room, and, most dreaded of all, the disruption of the nap schedule. (Parents of toddlers are nodding furiously in recognition here, knowing all too well how one badly timed nap can throw an entire household into chaos.)
I was convinced by these arguments. So, for the past five years, all the food we eat at home has come from our local food coop or a local community-supported farm in which we are shareholders. The result for our two kids — Faith is now six and her brother Elijah almost four — is that they have never been advertised to. The images, jingles, and pitches of the food industry have, by and large, never reached them. Their food preferences have, consequently, been entirely shaped by their direct experience with the food itself and the farmers who grow it. No cartoon characters stare at them from boxes of presweetened cereals displayed at pediatric eye level in supermarket aisles. No candy bars wait in the checkout lane, ready to spark a parent-child battle of wills. No television commercials seduce them with pictures of crispy chips and bubbly colas.
I realize that my children are only a sample size of two. But because their commercially unmediated relationship to food is so unfortunately rare, it seems worthwhile to report on what they like to eat. Both my kids ask for sweet potatoes, baked with maple syrup drizzled on top, as bedtime snacks. Neither of them cares for soft drinks (“Too spicy,” says my son). Both like almost any kind of vegetable, and are particularly fond of kale (with sesame seeds and tamari sauce), broccoli, and peas. Elijah has a special enthusiasm for avocados and cole slaw. Both are willing to try new foods, but Faith has the more adventurous palate. Elijah prefers to stick to the tried and true; he is big on eggs, beans, toast with olive oil, and any kind of soup.
Both of them cycle through food aversions in ways that seem fickle and irrational. One week Faith suddenly proclaims that she hates bananas and always will. The next week, she complains that there are no bananas. Elijah announces that tomatoes are detestable. A few days later, tomatoes are okay again. But no raisins! (Jeff and I treat these sudden-onset reversals of preference respectfully but casually.) Black and green olives, on the other hand, are always desirable, as are brown rice, tofu, red peppers, chickpeas, and corn. Watermelon is the ambrosia of the household, closely followed by cantaloupe, strawberries, and cherries. Apples are a staple.
It also seems worth reporting the following story: About a year ago, while traveling with Elijah and Faith, I was delayed in Chicago’s O’Hare airport for several hours. We ran out of snacks. Forbidden from leaving the gate area — the problem was alleged to be a computer glitch that could be resolved at any moment — I looked around for something to eat. The only vendor within earshot of the gate was McDonald’s. And that is where we went. Well, this is a watershed moment in parenting, I thought, as I handed each of my hungry children a little red and yellow sack, warm with food.
They hated it.
“Too spicy,” said Elijah.
I urged him to eat it anyway; we wouldn’t be home for another four hours.
“Look, Mama,” Faith shot back. “Look at their sign.”
I looked over at the big yellow “M” to which she was pointing.
“Even their name is made out of limp French fries,” she asserted. “Why would you want to eat their food?”
That’s when I realized that she didn’t see the world-famous logo as golden arches at all. No one had ever told her that’s what it was supposed to be. To her, the M in McDonald’s looked like two yellow, bent-over fries. Yuck.
Faith has already begun school, and Elijah will follow her in another year. I know that their innocent, unpropagandized view of food will change once they spend some time at the lunchroom table, comparing the contents of their lunchboxes with those of their friends, hearing other comments, encountering other habits. I can hope that some remnants of the habits and tastes that they’ve developed so far will remain, but I’d like to do more than just hope. Already, Faith has noticed that many of her school friends, as well as characters in books, have disparaging things to say about spinach.
“I guess children don’t like spinach,” she observed. And then she added, “but I am a child who does!