L.’s preschool has recently begun something that tugs at both sides of my mommy conscience (mom-science?) — the Friday pizza party.  Well, maybe “party” is a bit of a stretch.  As far as I know, they order pizza from the little place across the street, cut it up, and toss it on plates for the kids at lunchtime.  But it’s Pizza Friday, nonetheless.

When I first heard about Pizza Friday, my first inward reaction was “Whew!  Dodged a bullet,” because it actually was Friday, and we were in the process of putting L.’s carefully packed lunch into the refrigerator at his school when his teacher said, “Oh!  I completely forgot to tell you!  We’re getting pizza today!”  However, L.’s lunch that day happened to be something he really, really likes — a quick glance back in the notebook tells me it was “no-fuss” baked chicken fingers, blueberry applesauce, baked eggplant fries, and oven-dried tomato chips, plus a little bag of homemade snack mix (plain popcorn, raisins, pretzels, and a few chocolate chips to make him feel like it’s really special).  So when the “p” word was mentioned, I dared a glance at my son, and he said “I like this lunch, Mommy.”  I beamed.  Polite thanking of the teacher.  Quick dash for the door.

Of course, my immediate relief then turned into a nagging little preoccupation with Pizza Friday, because I’m smart enough to know that I can’t avoid this ritual forever.  L.’s teacher was also smart enough to know that I’m the kind of parent who would benefit from a reassuring rundown of all the kids in the class who don’t get pizza.  Okay, so it’s only a handful, and only the ones who have serious food allergies, but still…it’s not like opting out of Pizza Friday amounts to making my kid the odd man out.  Right?

Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against pizza, really.  We do eat it, and although we more often make it than buy it, L. has had his fair share of pizza-joint slices.  In fact, on the second week of Pizza Fridays, my loving husband J. said to me: “You’ve had a long week.  How about instead of you dealing with dinner, we call the pizza place across from the school before we leave work?”  So it was strike 2 for Pizza Friday at school, because the offer of a night off from dinner duty was too good to pass up.  I felt a slight pang of guilt packing up L.’s lunch, but I explained to him breezily that we’d have pizza for dinner, so he could look forward to that.  He seemed happy enough.  Week 2 neatly evaded.

So what is my objection to Pizza Friday?  It’s not an across-the-board issue, for sure.  It’s just that I feel like pizza-joint pizza is intended to fill an occasional celebratory niche in a kid’s diet, not become a regular player.  It’s sort of the kicker for the team — all the other, more nutritionally sound players tussle it out play after play after play, hoping for a touchdown, and only when the options start to run out does the pizza-joint slice trot out onto the field for its big moment.  Everybody likes the pizza-joint slice, everybody’s nice to him in the locker room, but let’s face it: he’s never going to be the superstar that the other players are.

In my mind, I envisioned allowing L. to take part in Pizza Friday about once a month or so, which I figured would be just enough to keep him satisfied and still hold true to my belief in moderation.  As week 3 of Pizza Fridays approached, I mentally ran through L.’s diet in my head and discovered, to my chagrin, that he’d probably eaten far more of the leftovers of our pizza dinner than I’d intended.  No pizza lunch necessary this week, I reasoned, soliciting L.’s help in packing up a grilled whole-wheat pita stuffed with avocadoes and cheese, along with various fruit and vegetable sides and the now-routine Friday snack mix.  (“Chocolate chips are enough of a treat!” I deluded myself.)

And Week 3 was the end of my delusions.  When we picked L. up from school, his teacher said to me, “He was so cute.  He ate pretty well, by the way.  But he was sitting with his friends, and they all had pizza.  So he called me over and said ‘Ms. K.?  Maybe you could tell my mom for me that I like pizza too.'”

Arrggh.  Foiled by the preschool peer pressure.  Naively, somehow, I hadn’t seen it coming.  I thanked her and collected my child, mommy-guilt nibbling at the edges of our happy reunion.  So today, Pizza Friday #4, was the first time that I have sent my little one off to school with a few dollars tucked into his lunchbox, for the purchase of the much-anticipated “just like everybody else” lunch.  It’s in his lunchbox, by the way, because we made a deal last night.  If I would let him have pizza with his friends (“Real pizza,” he bartered, “with cheese and red sauce.  Right?”), he would also choose two healthy things to eat with the pizza.  Cucumbers and spinach with olive oil and a blueberry applesauce were tucked in with the money as a gesture towards making Mommy feel better.

But other pitfalls lurk, and they’re the usual pitfalls of childhood.  His fourth birthday is fast approaching, which means — due to far-flung families and the ushering in of the era of parties with his friends — several days’ worth of uncommon treats, spread out over a two or three-week span.  Beginning this weekend, there will be ice cream cake, cupcakes, popsicles, and more, all in abundant supply.  I’ll moderate it as best I can, while still holding fast to my desire to let him revel in being spoiled a bit, because that’s what birthdays and parties and summer and childhood mean, in the end.  I’ll crumble before Pizza Fridays, not every week, but often enough to let my quirky, sort-of-misfit kid feel like he’s one of the gang.  I’ll enjoy every second I have before his 16-month-old brother, P., starts to fall prey to these same influences.  And I’ll be aware, the whole time, that food — after all — is one of the great unifiers, one of the hallmarks of human connection, something that brings us together and binds us, and that is one of the reasons I immerse myself so fully in the experience of cooking and eating with my family.  Right now, it’s Pizza Friday that binds my son to his classmates, in a way.  Score one for the other team.