The Battle Lines Have Been Drawn

I’ve learned more about pediatric nutrition in the last three weeks than I ever cared to know.

I’ve learned about vegetables. And fruits. And proteins, and carbohydrates, and how combining them properly can affect energy levels of small children. I’ve learned which nutrients are absolutely essential to developing a strong body and strong bones, and which ones are not crucial. I’ve studied countless cookbooks, surfed every website, and spent an afternoon at the library with my four year-old, reading about Mr. Milk and Captain Corn and how they can help you be strong, which makes you tough, which helps you fight the bad guys. From a chef, I’ve learned how to disguise veggies, and how to mix them in with other foods to get my son to eat.

It has not made any difference.

He’s still not eating.

Picking him up from a birthday party last weekend, I asked him if he liked the Batman cake and ice cream.

"I didn’t eat any," he stated matter-of-factly. "It was blue, you know."

Of course.

After a lot of soul-searching, I’m ashamed to say that it’s easier to let him choose what he thinks tastes best, rather than what’s best for him. I’m seeking quality time with my son; I don’t want to spend endless hours trying to convince him that what we’re about to eat will taste good. However, any parent will tell you that this is absolutely the worst thing I can do to my child. Not only am I spoiling him, but I’m creating eating habits that are going to be with him forever. Quite frankly, that responsibility scares me.

The reasoning behind all this is simple for me. I don’t want my son to be overweight and unhealthy.

The facts are all there, and it’s something we as a community are dismally aware of – Americans are getting fatter. We’re eating bigger portions and moving around less. Exercise is something we view like taking out the trash – we know it’s got to be done, but it’s so warm and snuggly on our couches, and well, it’s cold outside….at 8:30 on a Monday night, after baths and bedtime stories, the last thing I want to do is move the coffee table over and jump around my living room like a Ninja Turtle. Structured exercise is something I’ve never embraced. I know the eating habits have got to change, and soon.

I see heavy kids everywhere, usually with heavy parents. My son’s father and I are both tall and big, and both on the edge of being considered overweight. (Okay, we could both stand to lose 20 pounds.) I’ve been seriously heavy in the past, however, and I swore I would never feel that way again. But more than that, I’m afraid that if I don’t teach my son to eat well and healthfully, he’s going to have the same struggles as I do. As a parent, I want to do everything within my power to make my child’s way in the world easier.

The problem, of course, is me, not my son. I have to have good eating habits in order to teach my son how to eat, and lately I’ve been very aware of how poor my eating habits actually are. I eat on the run – I very rarely cook anything, and I’ve also realized that I don’t even eat things that need to be heated. I never prepare a main dish and several side things to eat. I’ve had myself convinced that it’s just a matter of time, and when I get my feet back on the ground, I’ll start cooking more. The reality is I’ll never get my feet on the ground, and I had better start setting an example for my child, instead of nibbling a bagel for dinner while asking him to eat corn and carrots.

A conversation with a chef friend of mine has yielded a few helpful pointers. Put the vegetables in a food processor, liquify them and add them to sauces. Serve skinless chicken breasts which can be cooked in 15 minutes, and disguise the chicken in some sort of sauce that’s sweeter (toddler’s taste buds work differently than ours, and small children tend to go for sweeter flavors). Pizza is a key meal for children – made with low-fat cheese, it can be a very healthy thing for both adults and children. Vegetables like mushrooms, onions, peppers (red or yellow; green can be too bitter) buried under cheese and tomato sauce can easily be coaxed into the mouths of babes if you hide it well.

Kids are big carbohydrate eaters. Pancakes, waffles, bagels, breads and pastas are excellent vehicles for other foods. Buy frozen pastas, like tortellini and ravioli (with meat, not cheese), and serve with low-fat spaghetti sauce. Planning is key and it’s important to keep your commitment to serving nutritious meals – in other words, no copping out once you walk in the door because you’re tired. Making meals beforehand is helpful, so you can just warm something up in the microwave if your day has been really lousy. Macaroni is perfect for little fingers; add peas to Kraft Pokemon Macaroni and Cheese and they’re Pokeballs. Your kids are fascinated, and you feel like Martha Stewart. It’s a good thing.

Some parents are probably not willing or able to spend time on these diversionary tactics; this is understandable. Each parent has to decide how much time and effort to spend on getting his or her child to eat. Many children I know will eat more than six specific foods; however, there are a lot of kids out there like mine.

No blue food, please.