This afternoon, while I was at work, my boss mentioned something about needing a snack; about an hour and a half later, I passed by his office to see him finally munching.  “I see you got a snack at last,” I said, and made some not-quite-funny joke about upper management starving to death for the company.

He chuckled (bless him) and said, “Yeeeeahhhh…I walked around looking for a while, actually, but all there was anywhere around here is CANDY.  So I had to come back here and grab something else.”  The ‘here’ to which he was referring was his office, and more specifically, one of his file drawers, where he keeps a stash of dried fruits, nuts, and various other healthy snack items.  We chatted for a minute more about the state of his snack drawer — serious business — and I went back to my desk, my mental wheels grinding.

He was right about the candy situation; in our office, like so many others, people bring their extra and unwanted Halloween stashes to generously “share” with their coworkers, so there are quite a few sweets hanging around right now.  I’ve chosen to indulge in a small piece once or twice this week; J.’s chosen to indulge, probably more than that; and my boss?  He chose not to indulge.  All valid choices, all perfectly fine (especially given that we’re all quite healthy eaters, generally); and in his case, made easier by the fact that he knew he had his extensive stash of good-for-you-goodies at the ready.

Every once in a while, I hear arguments that people shouldn’t be allowed to bring junk food into the office to share with others, because it doesn’t promote healthy habits.  And while I suppose I should agree with that theory, I don’t — not more than superficially, anyway.  Sure, I’m all for promoting healthy habits, but my major issue with disallowing practices like candy-sharing among adults is that they’re all, well, adults.  They can all, theoretically, make the same choices for themselves about the candy consumption that J., my boss, and I all made this week; and, just as all of us did at one point or another in the past few days, other adults can also pass up a Kit-Kat bar in favor of something a little healthier and more sustaining.  We provide for ourselves at mealtimes, and we can make our own decisions about snacks and treats, too — because we ultimately control our environments.  An office filled with candy isn’t a sabotage environment for grown people unless those same grown people don’t care to ALSO provide themselves with healthier choices.

But kids?  Kids don’t control their environments.  They don’t get to choose.  And when we DO provide them with “choices” about eating, we’re often really just working under the illusion of choice.

Take, for example, this “lunch” of Cheetos and nacho cheese sauce, constructed by a high school student from the ala carte line of his school cafeteria — one of the many segments of the lunch program designed to offer “choice.”  No, the school didn’t make that lunch, and they didn’t put it on his tray; but neither did they actively promote NOT eating Cheetos and nacho cheese for lunch.  I know, I know, they shouldn’t HAVE to, and I’m not trying to lay the entire blame for this kid’s culinary creation at the feet of the school.  What I’m saying, though, is that when you serve a variety of crappy food, peppered with a few better choices, and then say that students are being given the power to decide for themselves how to manage their healthy eating habits…you’re not really providing a “choice.”  You’re providing a minefield.

And why can’t the high school kids deal with choice more appropriately?  Why can’t they just choose the apple over the Cheetos and be done with it?  Among the many, many reasons — parental influence, media, peer pressure, and a laundry list of other factors too numerous to rant about tonight — is the simple reality that most of them have lived, from an early age, in a condition of false choices when it comes to eating, or a condition of no REAL choices at all.

Just today L.’s preschool class “baked” cupcakes together, and ate them for snack.  He and I had a few unpleasant moments tonight because he wanted to be allowed to choose a treat after dinner, but our family rule is that if there have been sweets consumed during the school day, there won’t be sweets at home that evening.  Now, L. loves cupcakes, but it occurred to me somewhere along the way of us squabbling that what really bothered him about the situation was that he’d lost his choice in the matter — even if he probably would have picked the cupcake anyway, he would have liked to have been asked ahead of time whether he’d want to eat the cake or wait to choose another treat later.  He felt like his control over what to eat and when had been taken away from him, and unfortunately — because he’s five years old — in his mind, I was the one who had taken that control away and was wielding my parental power against him.  The people who gave him cupcakes = good.  Mommy, denying sweets = not good.

So then I got to thinking about it, and I realized that whether it had been cupcakes or a fruit salad, L. and his classmates never have any control or any choice when it comes to their snacks at school.  The school provides them with a twice-daily parade of crackers, cookies, and other “kid-friendly” items, and they eat them, whatever they are.  Then those kids go home, from a choiceless food environment, and they — like L. tonight — might be seeking some of that missing choice element.  They might want some control and some say in what they’re going to eat.

Some families deal with that by doing the short-order cook thing, making separate dinners for each member of the family; or they deal with it by allowing two or three “safe” and easy choices only for those family members who don’t like what’s being served.  Unsurprisingly, when left to their own devices, with palates conditioned by school snacks like animal crackers and Ritz Bits, kids in these environments default to asking for chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and pb and j.  Seriously, who among us knows a family with short-order cook syndrome in which the parents are just overwhelmed by their preschooler’s constant requests for lamb shanks and tofu?  So even in the midst of being offered some kind of choice about food, in fact, the kids are boxed in by the LACK of real choices; they’re essentially being set up to fail.  The message their brains — and their palates — have gotten is that the kind of safe, non-nutritious pablum served to them in environments where they have little choice is the kind of food that’s appropriate for them.  So when they’re suddenly placed in a position of having great power over what they eat, they don’t know how to make a better decision; they only know how to eat what other people have shown them how to eat.

In our house, the choice thing goes a little differently: You may choose to eat, or you may choose not to eat.  Oh, I allow the boys, especially L., to make small decisions about things like fruits and vegetables — squash or peas tonight?  Cous cous or rice?  Do you want bananas with your lunch, or raisins? — but once I’ve prepared a meal and it’s on the table, the choices about WHAT to eat have ended.  It may seem counterintuitive, but I’m trying to help them navigate that high school cafeteria minefield of choices by LIMITING their choices early on; I’m conscious of the fact that I’ve got to consistently counteract the graham crackers, the Sun Chips, the whole-grain Lucky Charms other people are serving them by placing in front of them food that I want and expect them to eat, with no option other than Take It or Leave It.

See, world, if you get to deposit cupcakes in front of my kid whenever you feel like it, and you’re not offering another option, then I have to make sure I fill the gaps you’ve left.  If you show only junk food, then I have to be your polar opposite, not because I’m anti-cupcake; I’m just against setting children up to fail.  If you give him fake food at snack time, I can’t offer fake food as a choice at home, no matter WHAT the other option is.  Because if I put a cupcake and some carrot sticks on the table, he’s going to go for what he knows.  And he knows the junk, because he’s encouraged to eat it by you.

So, yeah, my kids know carrots…but only because I make it so.  And they choose to eat vegetables, but only because vegetables are the only choice they’re being given.  And eventually, hopefully, the consistency of being offered a real choice between equal options will begin to create habits in them.  If it’s always vegetables vs. vegetables, fruits vs. fruits, or — at dessert times — sweets vs. sweets, then maybe, just maybe, the first time somebody plunks them down in an environment where the choice is vegetables or CRAP, their brains will pause for a moment.  Maybe they’ll sing the “one of these things is not like the other” song inside their heads, and they’ll realize that Vegetable vs. Crap is more like a B horror film than like a food option, and they’ll at least stop to wonder about it before they choose whatever it is they eventually do choose (and no, I’m not naive enough to think it’ll be the vegetable every time).

Incidentally, even right now, it’s not always the vegetable every time; it’s not even always EATING every time.  In the grand scheme of our family dinners and the Eat It or Don’t proposition, there are plenty of times when they choose “Don’t.”  Tonight was almost one of those nights, but it was somehow salvaged — mainly by the fact that P. realized cooked spinach resembles “swamp goo” and decided to “gross us out” by eating it.  L. wouldn’t be outdone, so J. and I made appropriate noises of revulsion while they happily worked through their portions of Spanikopita casserole.  I bring it up only because people have been asking me for the recipe on the RRG Facebook page, and this seems like a perfect opportunity to share.

Spanikopita Casserole (served with roasted butternut squash)

Spanikopita Casserole
Serves 4-6, depending on appetite
For the filling:
2 tablespoons olive oil
5 cloves garlic, finely minced or grated
1 small onion, finely diced or grated (I actually use a microplane grater for the onion and garlic in this recipe to get a smoother texture in the filling)
16 oz. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
4 cups chopped fresh kale
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
pinch nutmeg
1 tsp. lemon zest
Juice of half a lemon
1 1/2 cups good quality ricotta cheese
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

For the pastry:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons olive oil
8 sheets thawed phyllo dough, preferably whole-wheat

In a large skillet over medium heat, saute the onion and garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the spinach and kale.  Season with crushed red pepper flakes, salt, and nutmeg, and cook for 4-5 minutes, just until the kale is slightly wilted and everything is warmed through.  Shut off the heat, add the lemon zest and juice, and stir.  Transfer to a small bowl and mix in the ricotta and feta cheeses until the filling is smooth and evenly combined.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Melt the butter together with the 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a small saucepan.  Liberally brush the bottom and sides of an 8×8 baking dish (preferably glass) with the butter/oil mixture.  Cut the sheets of phyllo dough in half crosswise.  Place one sheet into the bottom of the dish, allowing it to overlap up one side of the pan; brush with butter/oil.  Place another piece of phyllo into the bottom of the dish, on top of the first, and let it overlap up the opposite side.  Brush again with butter/oil.  Repeat with pieces of phyllo dough, alternating directions, until there are eight layers in the bottom of the pan and some overlap coming up each of the four sides of the dish.
Press the filling gently into the phyllo crust, making sure it’s evenly distributed.  Use the remaining sheets of phyllo dough to cover the top completely, folding any excess in towards the center this time, brushing each layer with the butter/oil mixture as before.  Bake the casserole at 400 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until it’s golden brown and crispy and the filling is heated through.  Let stand for 3-5 minutes before cutting into wedges and serving.