By Jennifer Matlock, Contributing Writer
One of my Grandmother’s favorite stories to tell happened around the time I was born. My parents were at the hospital with me and Grandmother and Grandad had come to stay with my older brother Greg, who was 2 ½ years old. The morning after I was born, Grandmother was making coffee and could not find any sugar for it. She turned to Greg and asked him, “Gregory, where does your mother keep the sugar?” Greg had never heard the word uttered in our household before, so he started looking in the first – to him, at least – logical place for it. He turned around and starting calling “Sugar? Sugar! Here kitty, kitty!” (We did not have a cat named Sugar.)
I grew up in what could easily be classified as a WAPF household. Our food came from the garden, the orchard, a local co-op and animals. I remember weekly trips to the local dairy to pick up our milk, summers picking cherries, apples, apricots and peaches in my great-aunt’s orchard, yogurt culturing on the counter and bread rising in the corner.
It didn’t take me very long to realize that I was growing up in a very different household than most of my peers. One of my earliest memories – I couldn’t have been more than three years old – was when my mother dropped me off at an afternoon daycare (sort of a “mother’s day out” program). She left me with a small snack, promising to return soon. The only thing I recall about that entire afternoon was when the teacher told us it was “snack time”. All the other kids gathered around her as she handed out handfuls of jelly beans. I stood in the back of the group, hesitating. Finally, after all the other kids had received their “snack” she turned to me.
“Do you want some jelly beans?” she asked me, smiling brightly.
“No thank you.” I choked out in reply. “I have carrot sticks.” I held up the baggie my mom had given me. What happened next was probably what so indelibly imprinted the memory on my mind. The teacher laughed. She called to her assistants, telling them “how cute” I was with my pathetic little bag of carrot sticks, turning down jelly beans. What seemed like hundreds of little eyes stared at me, all young like me, but old enough to know that no one turns down jelly beans for carrot sticks! For several minutes, the teacher tried to get me to accept the jelly beans, explaining that I could have both, and even that “all the other kids” had some.
“No thank you. I’m not allowed.” I stuck to my guns, ate my carrot sticks, and anxiously waited for my mom to return.
That was the first time I encountered a new environment – one where the rules were different. As I grew up, it became increasingly clear that my parents had very strict rules about foods: This is good, that is bad; eat this, not that; this is allowed, this isn’t.
I can’t remember a single time that either of my parents ever bothered to explain their reasons for avoiding sugar, packaged foods, processed foods, and restaurants. Because I didn’t understand their reasons – or even realize that there were reasons – I came to believe that their food rules were just a way to keep me from enjoying myself. All those things that had been labeled “off-limits” by my parents looked to me like the promised land.
Yes, I knew the WHAT when it came to eating well. What was missing was the WHY!
To make matters worse, as I began to get older, the rules seemed to relax. Cans of “cream of…” soup appeared in the pantry, making their way into casseroles. We stopped going to the dairy, and started buying milk at the grocery store. My mom started buying boxed cereals (as long as there were less than 10 grams of sugar per serving). The rules were changing, and not only did I have no explanation for the first set of rules, but now I had no explanation for the changes.
I was basically a disaster waiting to happen by the time I went off to college. My head knew the rules, but my heart was easily swayed by the campus food offerings – especially the dining hall. One swipe of my card and I was granted entrance to the land of white flour, white sugar, empty carbs and fake fats.
I met my husband at college. He’d grown up in the Midwest, in a fairly “normal” family eating the fairly normal Standard American Diet (SAD). When we got married, he ate three vegetables: Corn, green beans (from the can), and iceberg lettuce salads (with a little carrots, and maybe a bit of tomato on top). The first 10 years of our marriage, we lived on mostly packaged, processed SAD foods, and only when we weren’t out at a restaurant. The only meal I regularly “cooked” was oven-baked chicken drumsticks (from the grocery store), green bean casserole (complete with MSG-laden cream of mushroom soup and French fried onions mixed in AND on top), and Stove Top stuffing.
We’ve now been married 16 years. The past 6 years has been an ongoing journey to return to the diet of my childhood. It all started with the milk – I was talking with a friend from church and she happened to mention that they were getting raw milk from a local farmer. Just hearing the words “raw milk” made my mouth water. Of all the things we ate growing up, I missed the REAL milk the most. When she went on vacation and offered to let me use her cowshare while she was out of town, I jumped at the chance. Since that day, it’s been an amazing journey to get to the place we are now.
These days we eat very similarly to the way I ate when I was a kid. With one huge difference: I spend as much time and energy teaching my children why we eat this way as I do preparing the food we eat. I involve them in the decisions we make. I do not make things “off-limits”, but rather give them the information and the choice.
For instance, my children all attend AWANA, and over the course of the year they get several chances to visit the AWANA store and purchase things using the “shares” they’ve earned by wearing their uniform, bringing their Bible, knowing their verses, etc. Several of the items in the store are candy – Airheads, Twizzlers, giant Kit Kat bars, and other tempting treats. These are not things we have in our house, but they have the opportunity and the permission to purchase those items if they want them. They know what to look for on the labels (our big three are High Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils, and artificial colors). They know that they can choose to bring home an item even if it contains one of those big three ingredients, and that they’ll be allowed to eat the item. They also know that it will be rationed out to them using an “80/20” scale; 80% of the food they eat has to be healthy, nutritious whole food and the other 20% can be not-so-great. In the past 6 years, the amount of candy coming home from AWANA has dwindled to nothing. The last candy was “purchased” over a year ago by my youngest, and she took one bite of what she’d chosen and decided that it wasn’t worth eating. She threw the rest away and told me “next time, I’m going to get something that I can use, like a hula hoop!”
We also educate our kids about restaurants. We don’t have a large budget for eating out, but when we do, we go to a variety of restaurants. Luckily, we live in an area that has a few locally-owned (and one national chain) restaurants that use local and/or organic products and make use of the excellent farms we have nearby to source pastured meat and eggs. One of these restaurants even lets our kids eat free on the weekend!
Sometimes we go to (gasp!) bad restaurants – Burger King, Pizza Hut, and some of those other awful places. I’ll be honest – the first couple of years into our WAP food journey, I looked forward to these visits. Now, I tend to opt out of eating when we do go. I just can’t stand the way I feel after eating there, so I choose to steer clear. The funny thing is, as we’ve given the children some leeway in making choices about where to eat, they have also stopped wanting to eat at those places. The rare request by one child usually gets vetoed by the other three, and the requester is usually reminded that “you never like anything you get there.”
I’m not guaranteeing that there’s a perfect formula for getting your kids to make wise choices when they grow older. For now I’m just doing what I can to help them understand why we’ve chosen to eat the way we do. Here are a few things I’m trying to do:
- Be honest. While our eating habits today are much better than they were 6 years ago, they certainly aren’t perfect. I struggle with chronic pain issues, so I still rely on the easier meals, which includes some packaged food. I make sure to point out that these aren’t the best choice, and explain how badly I want to get well so I have the energy to make more things from scratch.
- Share what you learn. If you’re just getting into this way of eating, take your kids along on the ride. Don’t just drag them, but involve them whole-heartedly. When I was educating myself as we started this journey the second time around, I was so excited I couldn’t keep what I was learning to myself. Our kids were the perfect audience. My enthusiasm was catching and they – like most kids – were eager for information of any kind. Though we don’t go to the grocery store any more, when we first began this journey our kids loved to shop with me, checking the ingredient lists on all their old favorite foods for “the bad stuff” and happily putting items back on the shelf when they discovered that those items weren’t really even food.
- Allow choices. Taking a hard line, a “my way or the highway” stance on foods can push kids away, sometimes for good. Allowing kids to make some choices about what they eat, even when they make poor choices, can help them develop a good feedback loop, learn to listen to their own bodies, and feel some measure of control.
- Offer alternatives. Our kids often get offered little “treats” like dum-dum suckers or miniature candy bars at church, at the bank, etc. However, they know that if they politely refuse these artificial-ingredient-laden things, there are better options waiting for them at home. Things that taste at least as good, if not better, than what they were offered. While Yummy Earth suckers and Equal Exchange chocolate still have sugar, they are at least sourced from organic ingredients and don’t contain anything artificial. I keep a supply of both on hand, and my kids always turn down the proffered “treats” knowing that they can come home and have the better-tasting, and better-for-them stuff.
I often wonder if some of my health problems, and definitely my weight problems, could have been avoided if my parents had been more open about the reasons for their food choices. I hope that in taking this path of teaching my own kids the what and the why will help them avoid some of the problems I’ve had.