Sunday, July 29, 2012

Crazy food mum

I wrote this for Bottoms Up but I thought I would post it here as well. 

One of my favourite websites is TED. One of my favourite talks on TED is by Jamie Oliver. It’s about food. It’s not food porn but it’s worth spending 20 minutes on. It’s inspired me to feed my children well and to not rely on what is convenient for me.

The temptation is always there, to turn to what is convenient. I have always been weird about food. From the point I was 13 and started running competitively and had track coaches who taught me not to mix carbs and protein. These same coaches taught me about red meat and the uric acid deposits in red meat that collected in our joints. On the same token, I learnt that bananas were great and coconuts not so much. My mother worried about me during that time. She freaked out the year I was 15 because I decided to go vegetarian and went through nary a piece of meat for the year. It took me years to eat pork and beef again.

 My thoughts on food aren’t so fanatical now but having had that sort of background and always being so aware of what goes into my body, it comes as no surprise to me that I am careful with what my children eat. At the same time, I am horrified by the food options that are available to children, and even in places that claim to be child-friendly. How can a child-friendly menu comprise deep fried fish sticks, nuggets, deep fried chicken wings, and pasta in tomato sauce without anything else? And all this served with fries and sweetened juice or soda?

 For the first few years of my twins’ lives, they never ate out. I tried to buy organic vegetables and fed them only wholewheat or vegetable pasta. I came home with nine-grain cereals that had to go into their porridge and would watch over my helper like a hawk to ensure it went into the porridge. I fought an uphill battle. The older generation who helped with the children begged me to stop. “They couldn’t digest it!” “They painstakingly remove bit by bit from their mouths!” “It makes them throw up!” “You grew up on white rice, you turned out fine!” No one understood my Nazi approach to food as I stoutly refused to give them what had traditionally been seen as children’s food.

Food on my enemy list included:

  1. Sausages and other processed meat. 
  2. Sweets, lollipops, biscuits, and chocolate. 
  3. Anything from MacDonald’s. Until today, the twins have only ever had hotcakes at McDonald’s with us. 
  4. Fish balls because of the salt and the MSG. 
  5. Deep fried food. I remember how much I suffered as a child with tonsillitis; I couldn’t bear to put the children through that much pain. 
  6. Salt, colouring, and preservatives in general. 
  7. Soda or sweetened drinks of any kind. 
The problem with this was that I was fighting a losing battle against the rest of the world. Once the twins (and now Muffin) started school, it was difficult to control who ate what. Once the rules got broken by others and the children had tasted forbidden fruit, it was difficult to go back. Jordan very often tells me that she likes lollipops and sweets. Evan tells me he loves “soyty” (read: salty) food. Muffin can’t tell me what he wants but I know he likes tasty food as well.

I have had to make concessions. Primarily because I am not with them all day and because I would go crazy if I tried to police every single thing that they consume. Someone very wisely told me that I couldn’t fight all the battles. I had to choose the rules I wanted to stick with and the rest was fair game. So, in the case of food, I had to figure out a way of still getting healthy food into the kids’ tummies, and also to accept that there were going to be some situations that I would have to watch, albeit in horror, as they consumed something or everything on my “No” list.

So this is how I rationalised it and learned to bear it:
  1. If they get sweets in school and eat them, I cannot stop them. All I can do is ensure they brush their teeth before they go to bed. But I will not be party to their teeth rotting or them going hyper so I will not buy the sweets. 
  2. They get to eat at McDonalds and have processed food on school outings and at parties. I wish their school wouldn’t feed them fast food when they are out on excursions, but the logistics of feeding so many children often makes the Big M the only available option. When that has to happen, I remind the teachers to ply them with extra water and I make sure that their next meal is filled with vegetables. I have friends who refuse to allow their children to eat what the school provides as meals. They send the child to school with full meals. I thought about doing that. But the school gently reminded me that if I were enrolling my children in the school, I should trust that they would feed them relatively healthily. While I still have my doubts about that, Fridays being ham/jam and bread day in school, I have left it at that. My consolation is that every day, the children go to school with a snack box full of fruit. They have been so accustomed to it that they automatically take it out after lunch and munch through it like Hungry Caterpillars. 
  3. The children get two fish balls a week and taste in their food now. It would be hypocritical for me to ban them from fish balls seeing that as a child, I ate nothing but. Mindful of the salt and preservatives though, I limit it to once a week, in their noodle soup and on the condition that every sliver of vegetable in the soup is eaten up.
So have I sold out? I don’t feel that I have. I am still a Nazi food mommy at heart. I have just adjusted my ideals to the reality of living in Singapore. If I were living somewhere else, where organic food was much more readily available, perhaps I wouldn’t need to make these concessions. But I’m not. I live in Singapore, land of deep fried food and MSG. And there are some other reasons too, why I decided that I couldn’t be 100% strict with my kids’ diet: I have learnt from Jamie Oliver that feeding my kids good, wholesome food most of the time is more important than fretting over the occasional hot dog or nugget. I would like the children to learn that the things I encourage them not to eat are for their own health. For me to do that, I have to give them space to absorb what I nag them about and internalise it. I intend for the children to grow up and have normal experiences. This means eating what others eat in school and eating food that is not prepared the same way as it is at home. It would not benefit them in any way if they ate healthy at home but gawked at food from school or camp or wherever because they grew up with rigid ideas of how food was supposed to be prepared. The reality is that they will have meals away from home. They also need to learn that junk food/unhealthy food exists and if they get to eat it, it is a treat rather than the norm. They can look forward to the times that they can eat it, but it won’t be something that is going to happen on a regular basis. Most pragmatically, feeding three kids organic and totally healthy food would mean that I would need to stop work to bake and prepare everything myself. At the same time, I would go broke from buying all the stuff!

Having said all this, just because I concede doesn’t mean I am okay with it. I am not. So, to offset whatever they might eat outside of my rules, I make sure their subsequent meals are more wholesome.

Generally, these are the food rules that our household lives by:
  1. Vegetables: Each meal has to have at least three vegetables in it. The magic number is three. The most common ones we use are spinach, carrot, broccoli (Australian), and celery. Peppers and mushrooms get thrown in if it is stew or meat sauce. 
  2. Fruit: The children get fruit first thing in the morning. They get fruit in their snack boxes. They get fruit sometimes in the afternoon when they come home from school. They get fruit on the weekend when they are home with their dad and glued to the telly. 
  3.  Eggs: Jordan especially is sometimes erratic about her meals. But she doesn’t mind eggs. So, she gets eggs in the morning in various forms—French toast, half boiled, omelette with ketchup, or fried into her roti prata. 
  4. Cheese + Fresh Milk: Muffin is still on formula but we’ve weaned the twins off it. So they get a cup of fresh milk in the morning and slices or cubes of cheese as snacks. I buy out enough of the dairy department every week at the supermarket. 
  5.  Olive Oil: Most of our meats that the twins request to be fried are grilled. To make it crispy, the trick is to slather olive oil and some salt over the meat before grilling. This makes the skin crispy without all the extra oil. 
  6. Water: They drink water. Ribena is only given to them when they are sick. As a treat: Cold water or ice cubes. No soda, and almost no juice. The occasional bottle of Vitagen (Vitagen because it’s lower in sugar than Yakult). 
If I thought really hard about why I am particular about the children eating well, I couldn’t go beyond the cliched reason of “healthy body, healthy mind.” I wouldn’t be able to say for sure that the children don’t fall sick as much because they eat healthy. But I do know the converse. I do know what happens to the body when it isn’t fed well and what goes into much of the processed, pre-packaged food out there. And I cannot, in good conscience, after knowing all that, ply my children with the ground-up snout, ear, and hoof of a random animal that is passed off as meat.

Incidentally, Evelyn of Bottoms Up is running a contest as to how to make the world a better place where those who take part stand to win a Fluf! Sandwich bag from JED Packs!

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