After a brief hiatus from the topic of “how others perceive the way the Red, Round or Green family eats,” I’m back on track today.  I said I’d talk at some point about how people outside of our extended families — coworkers, friends, the general public — seem to respond to our food philosophies and eating habits.  I mulled over this post quite a bit, and every time I thought about it, I just kept coming back to the peanut M&Ms.

It must be said that I really do not eat candy (shocking, I know!).  J. and I try not to have anything like that in the house, unless it’s Halloween, in which case we just make sure to give it all away as quickly as possible.  And in general, even when I’m near candy, it’s not a huge issue for me to decline it — more proof, in my opinion, that when you acclimate your body to better food choices, you simply don’t want the junk anymore.  However, every once in a very great while, I like a little treat, and I REALLY like peanut M&Ms.

They are available in our office vending machine — a bone of contention for many people.  I am, unsurprisingly, a member of our company Wellness Committee, and there’s been a lot of discussion on that committee about doing away with the vending machine altogether.  I advocate something closer to the approach we have taken, which is to split the offerings in the machine between the top-selling “junk” foods and a number of healthier options; people are surprised by this stance, from me.  One very passionate person on the committee argues that “If the machine weren’t there at all, you wouldn’t eat anything from it!  Why do we need it anyway?”  But I understand a couple of things about the vending machine:

1) It is enjoyed by more employees than not, and dispenses some very benign things, like seltzer, all-natural granola bars, and pretzels.
2) Even if it’s completely loaded with crap food, the fact that so many employees do enjoy its wares would not inspire our company leaders to do away with it altogether, no matter what a handful of us happen to think.  Adding sensible choices, and maybe even providing employees with menus from affordable local restaurants that sell better choices than the drive-thrus so many of them frequent, seems like a better way to lead by example.
3) We’re not talking about school vending machines dispensing sugary junk to children; we’re talking about an office full of grown adults, who can presumably make their own choices.  While I may not agree with the choices they make, I don’t think taking away all the unhealthy options so that we can force people to “do better” is the best way to deal with people whose judgment and mental acuity I should be holding in esteem equal to my own.
4) I like the peanut M&Ms, I don’t eat them more than once or twice a year, and it’s nice to know that if I get unreasonably hungry some afternoon and decide that a treat fits into my overall eating plan at that moment, I can go get some crunchy, chocolaty, peanutty goodness.

But of course, moderation is not a stance that people necessarily associate with my food attitudes — it seems that when they hear all the things I have to say about feeding my kids and my husband (and myself) well, and trying to avoid processed junk, etc., they miss altogether the fact that we still enjoy things like ice cream and tortilla chips.  We just enjoy LESS of them, and read the labels more.

So it happened that on the one occasion (just one!) recently when I did treat myself to a package of M&Ms, I received some very disapproving looks from co-workers, along with a few comments of the “Whoa!  Guess that ‘healthy’ thing didn’t work out so well for you, huh?” ilk.  I actually felt sort of guilty for a moment, until I realized that I have no reason to defend my choices, any more than the IT guy who eats Wonder Bread and bologna and Oreos for lunch every day has to defend his choices to me.  We banter a bit, sometimes, about whether or not he’d like some kale chips or some bulgur or some chickpeas from my lunch, and he teases me about slipping Oreos to J. when I’m not looking.  But ultimately, the IT guy is an adult human being with kids of his own, and I’m not going to force my opinions or habits on him.  (I did, however, try to hide the fact that I ate those M&Ms from him…I’d never live it down.)

It’s sort of an uncomfortable vantage point sometimes, if you want to know the truth; I know what I believe about food and eating, and I’m happy to share, give tips, etc. to adults who ask and are interested.  But as long as junk foods are on the market in this country, if someone who is old enough to make their own decisions and purchase their own food chooses to eat those foods, I don’t see it as my right to do anything more than provide them with better information and the opportunity to make a different choice.  The rest is up to them.  If they know it’s bad for them, and they know that they could easily order their lunch from a place that does good homemade chicken wraps and soups rather than from the burger joint, yet they choose the humongous burger combo meal with a Big Gulp and fries anyway…to each his own.

What DOES make me slightly crazy is the attitude among other parents that we must be wizards of some sort to have kids who eat the “stuff” our kids eat.  There’s a new child at the boys’ preschool, and his mom walked him in the other day while I was showing L. an open container from his lunch and telling him what was inside (we do that every morning; L. really likes to know what he’s got to eat).  She was uber-impressed.  Every day since, she has asked me in passing, “What’s for lunch today?”  (By the way, today it’s avocado and cheese sandwiches on pumpkin biscuits — with a little ham for L.; blueberry applesauce; pumpkin pudding; orange slices for L. and yogurt with oatmeal and fruit for P.)   And even on one of the most mundane of days — sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches, orange slices, applesauce, etc. — she shook her head and said “There’s no way I’d ever get him to eat that.”

Really?  Applesauce?  I mean…people think it’s odd that L. doesn’t eat much fruit (though being able to explain that he has a sensory issue does help answer the questions pretty neatly).  But even he eats applesauce religiously.  And oranges seem like a pretty soft sell, too, judging particularly from the fact that they’re the one “whole” fruit L. will absolutely inhale.  I couldn’t help but wonder what was in that child’s lunchbox, if items like fruit and what is essentially an allergen-free PB and J are off the menu.

I hear it all the time, though: “You won’t like that,” “You REALLY want to try that?  Well…okaaaaayyyyyy….” and “Oh, my kid wouldn’t ever eat THAT.”  It’s not that I believe that kids don’t have food preferences, just like adults.  I believe that they have the right to like and dislike foods, just as we do; to change their minds about foods, just as we do; and to make choices about their eating habits, just as we do.  But we, as the parents and adults in their lives, shape those choices and preferences and habits.  And I’m sorry, but there are way too many people copping out and offering “choices” like: an apple or a chocolate chip granola bar.  Guess which one most kids are going to pick?  If you say “Do you want whole-wheat spaghetti OR chicken nuggets,” most kids will pick the nuggets.  Broccoli OR french fries?  French fries.  Yogurt parfait with fruit OR cookies?  You get the idea.  We offer unequal choices, and we offer things based on our own palates, creating a defeatist environment around food and a self-fulfilling prophecy about kids and pickiness that is very, very hard to undo.

So when people respond to us as if we’re some sort of geniuses, it makes me a little uncomfortable.  L. wasn’t born eating kale chips — he came around to them over time.  P. didn’t like avocado the first three times it was offered, and now it’s a staple.  I never liked plain greens or raw pepper strips when I was a kid, but I would never dream of telling my kids they can’t try those foods that way because they “won’t like them.”  I just keep putting food in front of my kids that I know is appropriate for their health and development, and I try to offer choices that are equal, within reason.  Eventually they learn to make their own decisions about what to try, they broaden their horizons, develop their palates, and learn to eat well.  The risk we run when we take the easier road — the “feed them what they like now to avoid the battle” road — is that they’ll grow up to be the people who rely on the office vending machine to dispense all the junk they feel they can’t live without; and people like me will be sitting around tables talking about whether or not to take the M&Ms away.