I think sometimes, as I write this blog and avidly read the food blogs of others who are concerned with the health, nutrition, and habits of children, that we can fall into the trap of making it all sound so easy.  Want your kid to eat healthy?  Just put healthy food in front of them.  Talk to them about what’s good for them and what’s not, and model the behavior you’d like to see them emulate.  Be vigilant, but not too vigilant, and provide carefully packed lunches to keep them away from the school food lines.

I wish it were that easy.  I mean, yes, sure, all of those things are wise nuggets of advice, and I follow them myself and can vouch for their effectiveness.  But there are so many variables, so many X factors, in the formation of tastes and eating habits, and so few of them really reside in the camp of “under parental control.”  There are days when I swear I could no more get P. to eat spinach than I could stop him from stripping naked in his crib to protest naptime, and in many ways, I’m right in that assessment.  Kids have free will (much to our parental chagrin).  Food provides them with a way to exercise that free will.  And in many ways, allowing them to do so is good parenting.

No, we shouldn’t allow them to go completely rogue, demanding chicken nuggets and Twinkies instead of the family fare we set in front of them.  But we can acknowledge their right to have likes and dislikes.  As much as I might want L. to like strawberries, he clearly does not.  And every time he says “I don’t want strawberries,” I tend to respond with, “No, I know you have tried them and you don’t like them.  If you decide to try them again, you may.  But if not, you may have _____ instead.”  Whether it’s right or wrong, I don’t know; but I do know that he relaxes and eats the other healthy options in front of him when I acknowledge the fact that he does not have to enjoy, nor even eat, everything on the table.

Enter other children, stage right, to thwart this philosophy.

Here’s the crux of the issue, at least this morning: I can try and try and try to do what I think is right by L. and P., and I can attempt wholeheartedly to make them into conscious eaters with relatively open palates.  But when they are exposed to other kids, I can see all of that going down the drain in an instant.  Let’s face it.  Other kids are far more powerful influences, just by example, than Mom and Dad saying “Spinach is your good-body food tonight, and your body needs the good food before it can have the sweets.”

Over the weekend, we enjoyed a lovely pre-holiday celebration with J.’s parents, since we’ll be spending Christmas with my family.  One of J.’s brothers also came over for a while with his two kids, ages 12 and 9.  In an attempt to save everyone’s sanity, J.’s mother, G., decided to order in some takeout food, and got an array of different choices from a Chinese restaurant nearby.  (Bless her heart — G.’s also quite health-conscious, and she did her best to get everything MSG-free and with as many vegetables as possible.)  J. and I walked in the door with our kids and were greeted with the following exchange, at top volume:

“Noooooo, I don’t like that kind of chicken” (this from the 12-year-old).  “It’s DIFFERENT from the one Mommy gets.”
“Don’t DO this to me right now!” was the thundering response from her exasperated father.  “Just eat, would you, for once in your life?  I don’t care if it looks different.  It’s CHICKEN.”

J. and I froze in the act of taking our jackets off; our eyes locked.  I could tell he was thinking the same thing I was thinking: Oh, good grief, not this again, not today.

The chicken in question was the kind of battered, deep-fried chicken finger appetizer option that exists on almost every Chinese menu in the U.S., not because it bears any resemblance to actual Chinese cuisine, but because the restaurants assume (apparently with some merit) that nobody’s kids will eat the actual food they make and therefore need to be appeased with something reminiscent of American fast food.  And yes, seriously, it looked somehow “different” from the battered and deep-fried chicken finger appetizer at the takeout place the kids’ mother apparently orders from, so the 12-year-old was having none of it.  Ditto the fried rice (not that she’d eat that anyway — it’s “all mixed together” and has “too much stuff” in it), the soups, the entrees.  She ended up toying with a fried chicken wing (yes, there were two varieties of deep-fried chicken on the table) and some plain white rice.  She did start to eat a strip of beef from the beef and broccoli, but she and her brother both proclaimed that “it doesn’t taste like regular steak” because “it has some sort of…SPICES or something on it.”  Beef, unceremoniously 86’ed.

Ordinarily, I’d find this dinner table drama semi-annoying at most, and only because of the constant noise of plaintive whining, countered by barking orders from my brother-in-law (who I love dearly, and I can understand his frustration, I should say).  But L.’s getting old enough now to absorb it — heck, the second he gets near his cousins, he practically OSMOSES their fussiness and spits it right back out at us.  L. loves Chinese food and has never been particularly picky about it, until he sat across from the chicken finger debacle.  Then he looked at his plate, back at me, back at his plate, and over to his father.  “Mommy,” he began.

“Look,” I said, cutting him off.  “This is that yummy food that comes from China.  Like Kai-Lan.  Remember how much you liked it last time we had it?”  We’d arranged some fried rice, beef with broccoli, and won-ton soup for him.  (And no, for the record, I’m not saying this was a “healthy” meal…but it was Chinese takeout.  I view these types of eating experiences more as exercises in trying new foods and broadening his horizons than as balanced meals.)

“Auntie,” the 9-year-old said helpfully, eyeing L.’s plate, “that steak is gross.  It tastes like there’s something ON it.”

Sigh.  Thus began the push and pull.  I’ll give L. credit for eventually eating pretty well, all things considered, but I did end up feeling as though I had to cave slightly and let him eat a couple of the horrible chicken fingers his cousins were maligning — his radar was working in full capacity, and he semi-accurately deduced that the fingers were the “kid food” and everything else was just some kind of grown-up nonsense Mommy and Daddy were trying to push on him.  It never fails to happen that way; whenever L. is confronted with his cousins’ eating habits and their constant dinner table negotiations, he tries to follow right along in their footsteps.  J. and I are therefore shoved into the awkward position of trying to assess just how much to “let go” of our food values to keep the peace at a family gathering, and how much to stand our ground so that L. understands we don’t accept the type of behavior that goes on among the older kids.

Ah, the holidays.  Once again, they provide us with a petri dish of family togetherness, which magnifies all the little daily issues of feeding and parenting children.  I know we’re not the only ones who’ll go through this type of scenario this week; other parents all over the country will be inwardly groaning as they try to triage the cookie-table madness, the eggnog consumption, the chip-and-dip fillers that will lead to an outright rejection of the holiday meal.  But it’s more than just the junk food mania of the holiday season; it’s the influence of family and friends, both positive and negative, that I find us floundering in this year.  I say: keeping the peace is one thing.  But just as you wouldn’t accept your kids imitating the behavior of other children who are cussing, hitting, or disrupting the party, don’t blindly accept their imitations of poor eating behaviors at the holiday buffet.  Love and consistency don’t kill the holiday spirit.  A sugar-high puke and subsequent crash probably will.