Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Adventures in Toddler Diets: Raw Fish, Cafeteria Food & Fried Rice

It's a motto of mine that no morality should enter into food, pretty much ever. That includes "Whole Foods" style morality, it includes diet industry morality, and it includes locavore dogma as well. Food is sustenance and pleasure, plain and simple. Preparing and eating food is a big part of what family is: I want to leave that unsullied as long as possible. We eat vegetables because they're good, not good for us.

That said, I am by no means capable of living up to my motto. So, when I learn that Grace eats two and three bowls of food at daycare -- food prepared by the school as part of their now-mandatory lunch program, well, I would be lying if I said I didn't feel a twinge of "you should know better" rooted in the notion that mass food is bad food. And when Grace sits down to sashimi with me and happily devours every last bite of fish, I would be lying if I didn't say I felt a twinge of pride. The beauty of sashimi is that it makes you realize that everything we do to cook fish detracts from the flavor of a fresh, quality product. A small part of me thinks Grace understands this (the same part of me that thinks she has perfect pitch when she sits down to her piano).

Neither of these feelings is really rooted in the healthfulness of the options. On the whole, I think nearly every American could eat more fish and be better for it--but I do have thoughts about mercury and toddlers that mean that even if it were financially feasible, I probably wouldn't have sushi for dinner every night. And though I'm sure there is more of all kinds of "bad" things in the cafeteria food Grace eats, the root of my snobbishness toward it is really cultural more than dietary. Frozen food heated up and served on trays is gross. Period.

But publicly, in my explicit words and actions, I plug on with my philosophy. If Grace enjoys the food at daycare, wonderful, I say! She's learning to enjoy things I would likely never serve her. At home, I continue to cook the food I cook, be it what it may, and serve it up. If Grace eats half a plate, I'm happy. If she pushes her food around the plate and then goes and plays, fine -- play is also fine. K occasionally prods, worried she'll go hungry, but I'm confident no Hinkle has ever gone hungry in the presence of food.

That said, I would be lying if I said I didn't have my private doubts every time Grace leaves her food untouched. Maybe I should whip up some mac and cheese for her, nevermind that she's not asking for it and is now happily engaged in hopping in circles.

Yesterday, though, I had an interesting experience. It was a night when I was home late from work and had to whip something up in a hurry. I had at my disposal a lot of fresh vegetables from a Sunday trip to the store and a bit of leftover rice I had to use: the obvious solution, fried rice. In this case, we were short on rice, so I compensated by chopping about twice as many vegetables as I normally would. The key to my fried rice recipe (which comes from one of my several beloved Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid cookbooks) is that you finish it off with a healthy wallop of fish sauce. I once had my nutritional program do the calculations, and it turns out you get something like 100% of your daily sodium from the recipe. Oh, and you top it off with a fried egg: that adds a fun, toddler-friendly, interactive element to the meal that's very important to both Grace and my pleasure in food.

About half way through dinner I looked up and saw Grace happily picking up one vegetable after another and popping it into her mouth like candy. Zucchini. Pepper. Bamboo shoot. Broccoli. Asparagus. Mushroom (well, that's no surprise, she loves mushrooms above pretty much everything but butter and cheese).

I didn't say anything of course--I'm convinced Grace will cry foul at any attempt to encourage her to eat a given food (I know I would). But I did wonder about it. What was the difference between these vegetables and the countless ones she'd rejected? These were not in soup format (a usual favorite). They were not overcooked and textureless (also a frequent toddler favorite). What they were was abundantly salted (at the last minute, with fish sauce, which is why they didn't lose their texture to the salt).

Which has me thinking: I'm aware salt is an oft-avoided food, but on the pantheon of food evils, I think salt is pretty low. When I first started introducing food to Grace, we avoided salt -- I'd learned somewhere that babies don't show a preference for salt and that baby food was only salted for the sake of parents tasting it. Given the supposed neutrality of the baby, it seemed silly to add salt. I still have no idea whether this is true, but it is certainly true that toddlers show a preference for salt, and an immense one (as do adults, as pretty much every bite of restaurant food I've ever tasted demonstrates). In the case of last night's dinner, it was salt + umami, which fish sauce packs an abundance of.

Now given how much joy Grace takes from sprinkling kosher salt onto food when we cook together, I'm thinking it might not be the worst thing in the world to let her salt her own food. Maybe with a little MSG for the umami.

A quick check of parenting and nutrition websites shows that in having these thoughts, I'm pretty much the devil. But of course, these recommendations never seem to take into account actual tastes. I wonder how many people try to cook the "right" way, find it doesn't work at all, and end up supplementing with packaged foods with far more salt than they'd add in cooking in the first place. In Grace's case, for example, she may well make up all of those calories she doesn't eat at dinner in crackers and cheese. Given that, wouldn't it make more sense to let her eat the salt with her dinner?

And now just having read those websites I looked up is making me start to shrink back into moralizing and guilt and all of those feelings that make you skip real food altogether in frustration and grab a candy bar or a cracker for the calories... which kind of brings me back to the beginning. Good food, right? Focus on the good part, not the good for you. Sashimi with soy sauce, vegetables with rice and fish sauce, these things are good. I would much rather Grace grow up knowing a variety of delicious foods that might not quite pass the nutritional test than trying to down bland and virtuous "good" food while fantasizing about the delicious "bad".

Wish me luck.


Michael said...

Great post, made me smile.

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Sam M said...

If sashimi, vegetables, and rice are "bad" foods, what the hell are the good ones?

Your dinners sound delicious. :) And I'm all for being sensible about these things.