For decades now, I’ve had issues with food. I’ve discussed it here ad nauseam, but basically an unknown issue with gluten led me to thyroid disease. From there, I developed gallbladder disease before being diagnosed with a second autoimmune disease. I’m gluten free, mostly dairy free, and avoid soy, and hot peppers definitely wreak havoc. I have to balance my food and alcohol consumption too or I can overwhelm my digestive system with its missing gallbladder. I’m far more fortunate than those with Crohn’s, but having to watch my diet so closely is difficult and depressing sometimes. There aren’t words enough to express how much I wish I could still eat ice cream, manicotti, cheesecake, onion rings, and cheeseburgers on a real bun. But eating all the yummy foods isn’t worth risking my health and potentially ending up with a third autoimmune disease.
As I’ve been watching the Formula One Netflix show Drive to Survive, I’m learning all sorts of things about racing. I honestly had no idea how many factors a winning race is dependent upon: the driver’s health and mental state, the car and its requisite parts, the track and weather conditions, the other competitors, and sometimes even garden-variety luck. It’s crazy. The cars especially are a huge part of whether the racer does well. The driver could be having the race of his life, and the engine gives out and it’s game over.
I realized today my body is a Formula One car and my mind is its driver. My body is finicky. It’s an intricate machine that requires the utmost care, attention, and fine tuning. If I treat it well and give it the best fuel for it, I can keep going. If I don’t, well, it’s game over for me.
Who knew it, folks? All this time I’ve been bummed that I can’t feed my body Cheetos, milkshakes, and cheesecake. What was I thinking? I’m not a Ford Focus. I can’t take regular gasoline. I’m a Formula 1 Ferrari, goddammit! I need the good stuff. And wouldn’t you know I have no digestive issues with escargot or Kobe beef or truffles. That’s all the proof I need.
So the next time you go out to dinner with me and are frustrated by the ridiculous substitutions I have to make in my food order, just remember I am a Ferrari. I’m am a little high maintenance, but I was built that way.
Our sons have many predictable rituals in our home. None is more predictable than the two-hour-post-dinner-second-dinner. This annoys the living daylights out of me. I understand they are growing. I understand they are hungry and therefore, like every Labrador retriever I’ve ever known, constantly believe they are starving. And all this would be fine if we were independently wealthy but, alas, we are not. And a year ago, in an attempt to cut processed and genetically modified foods from our diets, I began doing the majority of our grocery shopping at Whole Foods. This was not an inexpensive choice, but it was one I felt good about making. At the rate our boys are currently eating, however, we will have to disconnect our cable and wireless Internet and drop our iPhone plans to support the sudden bump in our Whole Foods habit.
Tonight, two hours post dinner as per protocol, Joe came downstairs and asked if he could consume the last of the chocolate ice cream in the freezer. He’d already had dinner and dessert, so this would technically be his second dessert. I balked.
“What fruits and vegetables have you had today?” I asked.
“I had that chicken soup for lunch,” came the reply.
He was referring to some of the homemade chicken soup I make for him each week for his school lunches. He enjoys it, and it’s a labor of loving creating a whole food lunch to infuse some measurable nutrition into my son’s diet. Sometimes I put kale in it. Sometimes I toss some edamame in there. It is always full of vegetables. It is always organic. So I had to give him some credit for that meal.
Sensing I was not quite fully satisfied with his answer, he quickly added, “I had a mandarin orange too.”
“Well….that’s probably about half the fruits and vegetables you should have eaten today,” I said. “You would need more of that before you would be eligible for more of dessert.”
In our family, dessert is not an issue. They are allowed dessert every night because they are blessed with skinny genes. Caloric intake is not a concern for our boys who are only in the 10th percentile for height and weight. Nutrition, however, is a constant struggle. It’s hard to get them enough calories in healthy foods to keep them growing. They require more nutrition than they have traditionally been willing to ingest. We have to sneak it in through negotiations. So off he went to the kitchen in search of some additional nutrition to appease his demanding mother. Hubby and I went back to watching our Netflix movie.
Eventually, the banging noises coming from the kitchen got my curiosity.
“What did you find?” I asked, fully aware of the current Mother Hubbard condition of our cupboards.
He held aloft for my approval a now empty package of organic, chopped, frozen spinach, which he’d dropped into a ceramic bowl for heating. Interesting, I thought. Although I had bought that frozen spinach specifically for inclusion in one of my green smoothies, I decided that now was not the time to complain about his eating my food. I’d sent him in there to forage for something healthy, and he’d found it. Best not to bicker when your child listens to you and chooses spinach for his evening snack. And he did consume the entire 10 ounce package. Without butter or salt or any enhancement whatsoever. God bless him. I’d managed to sneak two additional servings of vegetables into our nearly teenage son’s day without so much as an eye roll or grunt from either one of us. Yep. I’m a ninja like that.
Of course, he still got his second dessert. It was chocolate ice cream. There are some forces of nature that even a ninja warrior can’t fight.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
There’s something about turning 45 that has made me take a good, hard look at my life. Maybe it’s because I did the math and realized, if I’m lucky, I literally am at midlife. Maybe it’s because I’m starting to notice changes to my body that a few trips to the gym will no longer be able to cure like sagging flesh and wrinkles in places there were none before. Maybe it’s because I’m beginning to hear that I creak and crack more than a rusty-hinged shutter in a dust storm. In any case, over the past year, I’ve put greater focus on my food choices. Fueled by the notion that I might perhaps be gluten intolerant, I began changing my eating habits. My plan was to mostly eliminate wheat (I still need a decent piece of NY style pizza on occasion), cut way back on sugar, and completely ban artificial sweeteners. Along the way, I’ve begun paying better attention to where my food comes from and what is in it. I’ve pushed the food with no food in it to the back of the pantry and filled the crisper drawers with organics. And true to everything I’ve read, I have found that I feel better. I sleep better. I don’t have midday energy crashes. The amount of Tums I consume is at an all-time low. I’m happier and have fewer mood swings. I’m feeling better now and am healthier than I was 20 years ago.
Up until this point, I’ve made these changes mostly for myself while simply trying to do right by my children. This can be difficult, however, when the little buggers are on the very bottom end of the growth chart and are exceedingly fussy. We have struggled just to get our kids to eat anything. Our youngest child is the worst. The. Worst. Luke has a horrible gag reflex (mostly psychological) and the kid can look at a food he finds unappealing and throw up. It’s unbelievable. Nothing like having to put up a cardboard barrier around your son so the sight of your quinoa with kale doesn’t make him puke on the dinner table. So, I’ve been sneaking in their dietary changes bit by bit. I’ve been slowly reducing the amount of non-food food I buy and increasing the healthier items. I realized that cleaning out the pantry one day of all the foods I have for years allowed and replacing candy, cookies, and goldfish crackers with yogurt from happy cows, Lara bars, and organic cheddar bunnies would be too much of a shock. I understand I cannot build Rome in a day, so I decided to view this change for our family as a food journey. We’re in the slow lane on the road to healthier habits. We’ll get there…eventually.
A while back I watched the documentary Food, Inc. It scared me more than The Shining and, for a while, the memory of it kept me in line at the grocery store. It kept me from being cheap and easy with my food choices. Over time, though, the memory faded and I got lazy. Then I decided to read Fast Food Nation, which reiterated exactly how important my food choices are, and I started to pay better attention. Well, last night I rented Food, Inc. again for a refresher course in where our food comes from. As I sat in my room watching it carefully, the boys were wandering in and out. The more they watched, the more wide eyed they became. Today in the car on the way to school it was still on their minds.
“I’m sorry, but fish should not be eating corn,” Joe said out of the blue. “That’s just wrong.”
“I agree, Joe. Cows shouldn’t be eating it either.”
“Meat scares me too,” he continued. “I think I want to be a vegetarian.”
“You can do that if you want, but you don’t need to be a vegetarian. We can make better choices. It will cost more money and we’ll have to eat less meat, but you don’t have to totally give up eating your dad’s famous homemade chicken nuggets. We just need to tweak the ingredients a bit.”
“Well, I don’t like thinking that our food is all chemicals. It’s creepy,” he said.
“It is creepy. It’s not just the pesticides on the fresh food we need to think about, though. It’s the additives, flavors, and food dyes too. We need to pay better attention to what is going into our food because what is going into our food is going into our bodies and these are the only bodies we get.”
Then, out of nowhere, the world’s pickiest eater piped up.
“I want to eat healthier,” Luke chimed in.
“You’ll have to start trying more fruits and vegetables. And we’ll have to change the brands of foods you’ve been eating to healthier alternatives,” I reminded him.
“I’ll try,” he said. “It seems like a good idea.”
Indeed it is. I am happy to see that as we travel down this slow road to healthier food they’ve finally closed the car doors and are prepared for the journey. Luke doesn’t realize it yet, but he’s already been eating healthier. That new homemade apple-cinnamon bread I’ve been making and he’s been devouring is made without sugar, oil, or wheat flour. Everything in it is organic, real food with actual nutritional value. I just neglected to tell him that. I figure what he doesn’t know will definitely help him.
The more you read about our food supply, the scarier it gets. But changing our food system seems an insurmountable task. I mean, which one of us is prepared to take on Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Kraft, or Tyson? Now I’m never going to be one of those folks who is 100% healthy about my food choices because, well, sometimes I just need to eat some dang Skittles. (What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?) But I understand that the only way to change the food industry is through one consumer at a time. I cannot expect the food industry to produce healthier, cleaner, less toxic meat, produce, dairy, and boxed foods unless I tell them with my choices that better food matters to me, at least most of the time. I want my kids to eat better, so I have to eat better to set the right example. For changes to occur, it has to start with the little guy. If a bunch of us little guys start making bigger demands, things might change. Lest they forget, the food industry works for us. As Gandhi suggested, we need to be the change we wish to see in the world. No matter what we hope to change, our food, our health, our career, our attitude, we have to start somewhere or we’ll get nowhere.
“As a child, I was what is known as a ‘fussy eater.’ ‘Fussy eater’ is a euphemism for ‘big pain in the ass.'” ~George Carlin
My kids are weird eaters. Some would say they are picky eaters, but they’re not. They’re just plain weird. Joe likes foods many kids eschew (that is, won’t chew), which is why he is weird. My oldest loves all kinds of fish, except for frozen fish sticks. He once ordered trout at a restaurant and ate the entire serving on his plate, including the fish skin. He will eat any vegetable. He loves milk but won’t touch fruit juice. As a rule, he’s a fairly healthy eater, although none of the foods on his plate can touch each other and he has to eat his meal one item at a time. Heaven forbid he get a piece of corn on the fork along with his chicken. Luke, on the other hand, is your typical kid. He love chicken nuggets, pizza, and peanut butter and jelly. To the best of my knowledge, he has never ingested and then actually digested any vegetable. Ever. He will only eat two fruits…bananas and applesauce. He will eat organic strawberry yogurt but you couldn’t pay him to touch an actual strawberry, and Luke will do nearly anything for money. They both love french bread, bacon, and brownies. Neither will eat lettuce, cheese, or ketchup. Today for lunch Joe ate a can of tuna. No. Really. A can of tuna. If I start turning the can opener, he comes running like the family cat. (Recently, though, he learned about mercury in fish so now he limits himself to one can of tuna per week.) Weird.
For a while when they were younger, I tried to force the food issue with Luke to get him to branch out. Due to his gag reflex and aversion to certain textures, though, all that usually got me was a handful of Luke puke. The more I pushed him to try new foods, the more resistant he became. So, I stopped. Our pediatrician, the sweetest older gentleman in the world, told me to let it be. He had overseen the health of over 15,000 children and he assured me the boys were growing along on a steady curve. They both had excellent muscle tone and healthy skin. They need calories and as long as they’re getting them and growing, there is no reason to be concerned.
I grew up in a house where if you didn’t like dinner, you went hungry. We ate what was served or else. That was how it worked. There are starving children in Africa, you know? This is why I took up the food fight initially with my kids. It was a power thing. My parents had carried out this battle with me and, out of familiarity, I fought with my own kids about food. Eventually I understood that the food fight I was waging with my kids was more about control than it was about food or health. When I let it go, I began to see a change. Since we decided to stop pestering them about their food choices, both boys have become more willing to try new things. Go figure.
My kids are not the first humans in the history of the world to be weird, fussy eaters. The Beaver wouldn’t eat Brussels sprouts. The brothers in the commercial never thought they’d get picky Mikey to eat a bowl Life cereal. In the holiday family classic, A Christmas Story, the mother told her son to show her how to “eat like the little piggies do” to coax him into eating his dinner. My father-in-law, who has traveled the world and eaten the cuisine, went through a phase as a boy when all he would eat was bread with cream and brown sugar. My awesome friend Tracy will not eat “vegetablows” (her term, not mine). And, let’s not forget the dude in the Dr. Seuss book who flat out refused to eat green eggs and ham. Yes. My kids can seem a bit high maintenance with their food aversions, but wherever we go we can usually find something they are willing to eat. While I know it bothers some people (like my entire family) that they’ve got their particular tastes, it no longer vexes me. Weird eating habits notwithstanding, my boys are great kids. I’m sure they’ll turn out just fine. They might not, however, eat your special green bean casserole at Thanksgiving.