Take a look at my Google search history and it tells a story of my failings as a mom. With each desperate food-related question, the daily battles that are waged in our home are revealed.
- Do raisins count as fruit?
- Can a 3-year-old live off milk and crackers?
- What are the symptoms of scurvy?
As any mom knows, mealtimes can be stressful. Veggies have to be hidden in a sauce, pasta will be rejected if it’s not the right shape, or size, or too cold or too spiky (whatever that means). I’ve also been told that I make toast “too picky” and that my homemade pizza is “floppy and slimy.” Mmm. Luckily, in the privacy of our own home, my ego is fine with losing the balanced diet argument; I can give in, serve jello, and no one has to know. But now that my son is growing up and venturing into the world, my inability to make quinoa appealing to a 3-year-old is on show for everyone to see, and I hate it.
See, I know am being judged on the crappy snacks I send my son to preschool with. I know this because I used to be the one judging.
As an elementary school teacher for 13 years, I definitely saw my fair share of Pinterest-worthy edible lunchbox creations. One mom would use a different type of bread every day for her kid’s sandwiches, using cookie cutters to make them into interesting shapes, or rolling them up into sushi-inspired rolls. I remember thinking she must be a terrific mom — solely based on her brilliant, beautiful snacks. And anytime I asked parents to provide food for a class outing or concert, the parents sprung into action as if they were contestants in a baking competition, trying to outdo one another’s contributions. We even had one mom order custom organic cupcakes from an uber-expensive, trendy bakery. She left the $220 receipt on top of the boxes as evidence of her superior mothering.
But I also saw an awful lot of total lunch fails. I routinely sighed upon opening up a knapsack to see a pre-made plastic lunch kit devoid of any nutrients. Sometimes there was candy. One poor 4-year-old was sent to school with fries from a fast food restaurant with a note on top that read: “Teacher: heat up.”
Now, somehow, I have pretty much become that mom. My son’s diet seems to revolve around three predominant food groups: 1) Things he liked yesterday but hates today, 2) Things he’ll eat if I cut it into the right shape (but what shape that is he will not reveal to me), and, 3) things I am too embarrassed to send to school.
I had no idea when I was a child-free educator just how difficult it is to feed a kid day in and day out. Over the years I taught over 200 children, and before I was a teacher, I was a nanny. In my day, I made countless meals for children, but I had never made meals for my own kid; I had never been a mom, and there’s a huge difference. I thought I understood everything there was to understand about children and child psychology, but I was missing a vital element: the emotional component. For one thing, children simply do not behave the same way for their parents as they do for other adults. We parents get the very best of our children, and, unfortunately, also, the very worst.
When our best efforts at crafting a delicious meal are rejected, it can feel like we are being rejected as well. Feeding our offspring is supposed to be natural. My son breastfed for a long time and I was able to provide him with everything he needed right from my own body; now I can’t even make a palatable sandwich. I want to excel in this role so much, but more often than not it feels demoralizing and exhausting.
I remember in those pre-kid days watching a talk show where a toddler had become obese because his mom couldn’t say no when he asked for more cookies. I yelled at the TV, “Just don’t buy cookies, you’re the adult!” But I had no idea. Sleep-deprived parents at the whim of a mini-tyrant are just trying to stay alive. Now I am the one bartering, begging, bribing and breaking all my own rules along the way.
My son’s tastes change on a whim. One day he loves toast, the next day he gives me side-eye as he declares “Toast is disgusting!” I’ll pack some fruit but it can’t touch any other item in his snack because that’s “gross.” For weeks at a time, he will only eat bananas – but then suddenly one day he’ll leave them untouched and will cry because we don’t have any pineapple. I am not sure he has ever even tasted pineapple.
It can feel as though I am desperately trying to appease him in an unending illogical game where I haven’t read the rules and I’m always losing. I’ve contemplated sending him to school with a Bento box of amazing nutritious treats just to impress the teacher, whom I know is judging me on the contents of his Thomas the Tank Engine lunch box – just as I used to judge. But I know it will all come home uneaten. And at this point I just don’t even have the energy for that.
Despite living off a diet that would make most nutritionists blanch, my boy is tall, incredibly active, athletic, whip-smart, hilarious, and just aced his dental checkup. Those facts keep me going when I feel like a short order cook and my third attempt at serving dinner has been rejected.
Mom-shame is a plague, and it comes at us from all directions, from child-free people, from the general public, from other moms, and from ourselves (maybe most of all.) So I am giving myself a pass on snacks and lunches. They won’t be Pinterest-worthy at all, and you know what? I’m OK with that.