I have become a food Nazi. I don't know how exactly it happened. It's really quite remarkable how much my attitude about food has changed over my life. My childhood, after all, took place in the 70s. It was a decade of Sugar Pops cereal, microwaved hotdogs, and the Kool-Aid man crashing through walls with pitchers full of his sugary bounty. My baloney had a first name, and it was O-S-C-A-R. There were sponsored cartoons by the dairy industry that played between cartoons after school: "I hanker for a hunka...a slice a slab a chunka...I hanker for a hunk of cheese!" Oh, I definitely hankered for a hunk of cheese.
Not to mention I was raised in the deep South, so the memories of glorious mountains of Crisco melting in a deep fryer on almost a daily basis are still with me. Chicken fried steak. Fried chicken. Fried tacos. Homemade french fries. Hell, I believe I even could have eaten a deep-fried doorknob under the right circumstances. There were vegetables, sure. All prepared lovingly with fatback or butter. Every Southern home had a container of leftover bacon grease on the stove top to spoon into dishes. On account of the deliciousness. I kid you not. And I loved it all. Unfortunately, as I matured, my love of this type of cuisine did broaden me through the beam considerably.
So despite my deep and abiding love for craptacular food, I was dragged kicking and screaming into maturity when I decided to try to get pregnant...and discovered my alarming cholesterol levels that were going along with the extra weight I was carrying. The effects of poor food choice were no longer just cosmetic for me.
For the first time, I realized my eating habits and the subsequent effects on my health didn't just impact me. There were people who needed me not to drop dead of a massive coronary event. And somehow, over time, with the help of friends who were awesome cooks, I became a foodie. Refrigerated doughs no longer enticed me. I stepped away from the fried cheese. I embraced, GASP, vegetables. And not cooked with bacon fat or Velveeta, either.
I never enforced my new, more healthy habits on my family, though, even though eventually I narrowed my heinie to a single-digit pants size and corrected my cholesterol problems. I didn't want to go to war with my children over food and make the dinner table a battleground. I feared risking my relationship with them by being too controlling. I wanted them to feel like they had choices. They'll mature, I said. Their tastes will change. I give them vitamins, I told myself. It's all good. And it was...until my husband was diagnosed with liver disease.
As frightening as Hubs' diagnosis was, I was told by his medical team that there was plenty we could do to take care of his lemon of a liver...and most of it was nutritional. He needed mega-doses of certain vitamins, and supplements weren't going to be enough.
He needed to re-haul his diet. And having been told, I was on it. Being the information wonk that I am, I did thorough research on the foods that packed the nutrients he needed as well as ways I could prepare these foods so he might actually eat them. I, in a scant few months, became an excellent and creative organic chef. An honorary PhD in nutrition was born, and the broccoli wars were begun.
But I was loathe to enforce this diet on my children. Hubs is a grown-up, and I was having trouble enough converting HIM. Like their mother, my kids can be a bit...comment se dit?...recalcitrant. Self, I said to myself, don't all children live on chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and pizza? What's a childhood without Cheetos and cupcakes? None of my children were overweight, I rationalized. They were active. But I made different meals for each one of them daily. I capitulated to what they insisted on eating. And I can own it: it was easier, and I felt overwhelmed. They outnumber me, you see.
But then: I had what we in the counseling and theology circles call a Come To Jesus meeting with a naturopathic doctor in the form of a six hour workshop about the biology of happiness. What I learned from her was astonishing. She gently pointed out that the lack of protein, the chemicals, the sugar my children ingested might...just might...have something to do with why they often act like baboons on crack. She explained the brain chemistry of how vitamins and protein impact mental health...and the role it plays in mood and attention span...and behavior.
Duh, as my eight year old son would say. I realized I had gradually decided to take the path of least resistance to the detriment of my children and despite what I knew as a professional counselor. Yikes. I couldn't wait for THEM to get sick before I radically changed their diet as I had Hubs'. As Sam Cooke sang, a change is gonna come. There's a new sheriff in town at Chez Counce, y'all. Pray for me. But I will embrace the Food Nazi label gladly if it makes my children act any less like hellions. If it helps my dyslexic son succeed in school. If it impacts their happiness and success positively in any way.
You see, I made a common parental mistake: I had confused generosity with duty when it came to my children's diet. It's very generous to give my son Pringles and cupcakes when he wants them. It makes me very popular. I am assured at the time that I am the best mommy ever. Indeed, forcing more nutritious choices on the kids has rendered me, for the moment, momma non gratis.
My daughter is angry with me even as I type this. I won't let her have chocolate Cheerios for lunch. I'm taking a beating. Along with a side of sullenness and tantrums. But I'm determined to remember my duty by them. Not always popular, but the right thing to do. Because I have my children's best interests at heart, I'm now in it to win it...no matter how much aggravation ends up on the menu.
Eliska Counce's Momma Drama column appears weekly on TSB.