Taking the guilt out of lunch (or dinner)

The family table in better times, photo by Andrea Curtis

The irony in the fact that I have just finished my second book related to healthy food (this one for adults—and my cowriter/husband and I are not really finished, we just submitted the first draft), while having nothing in the fridge to eat or feed our family is not lost on me. While in the throes of the final edits this past week, our family ate takeout pizza, Indian takeout, Portuguese chicken takeout and pancakes for dinner (twice). We were just too tired and preoccupied to cook. It wasn’t our finest hour at the family table.

But the truth is, struggling to get healthy food on the table every night is a reality for most families with working parents. It’s not easy to get a meal out (let alone lunch in the lunch bag) when you have no time to grocery shop or even think about the prep. (And I’m not even talking about the working families who can’t afford healthy food like we take for granted.) Luckily, life has returned to normal for us, and we’ll get back to our usual schedule and eat mostly from home this week, but I refuse to feel either self-righteous about our home-cooked meals or guilty about the rest of it.

In fact, I think there’s far too much guilt and hand-wringing done about how we feed our children. The most searched for term on my blog is: “How to get your kids to eat more vegetables.” The question seems to haunt the modern parenting tribe like a bad smell.

That’s why I loved Bon Appetit editor Adam Rapoport’s recent blog post “My kid recoils at vegetables. Here’s why I’m not that worried.” He figures his son will eat his vegetables (as he did) once he’s out of the house and no longer being told he has to.

I’m not saying that we parents should throw up our collective hands entirely. Or that eating healthy food as a family is a lost cause. I just don’t think we need to spend our time constantly fretting about it. And, more importantly, I don’t think we should make other people feel guilty about what they do.

Jenny and Andy at the funny, smart and genuinely useful blog, Dinner: A Love Story approach this with the kind of attitude I think we could all aspire to. They’re like the friend you know to call when you’re feeling low, because they’re steady and sure in their views, but also comforting. They’re big proponents of home-cooking and eating together as a family but, in a recent post, Jenny, whose book about family dinner is coming out soon, wrote about her various strategies for taking the pressure off. Number 3 was “Give yourself at least one From-the-Freezer night.” By that she means, either something you’ve prepared and frozen or something you’ve bought that can be reheated. Strategy Number 5 is “Go out on Thursday or Friday night.”

Now that’s my kind of planning. At our house, we do our best, make good food, grow veggies on our city lawn, but there are pancakes for dinner sometimes and regular takeout nights.  It’s funny, because when people hear I’ve written a book about school lunch, they either a. feel worried I’m going to judge them for sending Froot by the Foot in their kids’ lunch bag or b. ask me for lunch ideas.

But What’s for Lunch? isn’t that kind of book, and I’m not that kind of gal. I don’t offer lunch ideas, or finger wagging about what you should and should not feed children. I’m not a chef or a teacher. My interest is in helping kids reimagine a food system where everyone has access to good healthy food and the potential to make good choices about what to eat and (in the future) feed their families.

I don’t want to be the food police, because I don’t think people respond well to being told they have to do something.  (Check out this New Yorker cartoon about broccoli if you don’t believe me.) That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop advocating for food education in schools or alternative distribution networks that prioritize sustainability or policies that make healthy food affordable and accessible. And it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop working really hard to make sure my family eats well and that we sit down together to enjoy our food.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some grocery shopping to do.

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