Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast, Again

Welcome back to the Parenting Blog Carnival: Around the World in Six Weeks. In this Carnival, we ask: What can we learn from parents around the world and how they raise their children?

For the next several weeks, I will join Sarah from Left Brain Buddha, Jessica from School of Smock and others in writing about our reactions to Christine Gross-Loh's new book, Parenting Without Borders.

Last week, we looked at co-sleeping. This week we tackle a subject that is anxiety-provoking for many of us: How should we teach our children to eat?

Food, unlike co-sleeping, is a hot-button issue for me. Consequently, Chapter 3 of Gross-Loh's book, "Global Food Rules," was incredibly difficult for me to read let alone write about.

Frankly, I could not care less if you co-sleep with your child or banish him to the east wing. I don't care a whit if, by virtue of your sleeping philosophy, you create your very own Buster Bluth or produce the next Dexter Morgan.

Well, maybe I care if you create a serial killer, but you catch my drift: Your personal sleeping habits and those of your family do not concern me.

But eating? Eating is communal.

And what your child learns will inevitably hold sway over what my child thinks is normal. I might not want him to graze all day long, but if every other child on the playground is running around clutching a fistful of Cheerios, well, he's not going to understand why he can't, or shouldn't, do the same.

Eating is communal.
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One Nation Under Food Fetishes

As with the chapter on sleep, there was one paragraph in the chapter on food that blew me away. In it, Gross-Loh quotes Jeannie Marshall, author of The Simple Art of Feeding Kids: What Italy Taught Me About Why Children Need Real Food:
Marshall...argues that when we raise kids to think of food as pleasure, we shape children's eating habits for better. "In Canada and the U.S., everyone has their own particular eating style (vegetarian, vegan, low-carb, gluten intolerant, lactose intolerant, organic only, raw food...)," Marshall explained to me in an e-mail exchange. "Even if some of these styles are actually healthy, they're still a form of picky eating." (emphasis is mine)
Yes, a thousand times yes. Upon reading that sentence, a flood of relief washed over me. I could finally articulate what bothers me so much about American-style eating (besides the complete lack of portion control): we have fetishized eating and made healthy, normal eating inaccessible, even frowned-upon, for the average person.

Food blogs abound. People actually take out their cameras in restaurants to photograph their food. Celebrity chefs can't write books fast enough. The simplicity of an honest leaf of lettuce has gone by the wayside; we have lost the art and pleasure of eating simply.

Alimentary Education

Growing up, my sister and I ate three square meals a day and drank whole milk from cheerfully colored Tupperware tumblers until we were almost double-digits. Soda at dinner? Never. Ever. Roasted butternut squash whole-wheat ravioli with sage butter sauce? Hardly. We ate macaroni (and no, we didn't call it "pasta") with homemade tomato meat sauce, chicken cutlets, pork chops with apple sauce, lentil soup with sausage from my grandmother. Simple stuff. Every meal included a vegetable.

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It wasn't until I moved to Italy in the mid-90s, however, that I realized how clueless I was about food. I wrote about it last August, and you can read the post here: Alimentary Education. The upshot is that Americans are terrible at knowing what food is in season. For us, everything is always available in the "produce aisle" of our air-conditioned, fluorescent-lit supermarkets.

In Italy, I learned that food tastes best when it is local and in season. I learned how to eat proper lunches, seated at a table, using a knife and fork. The fruit that followed every dinner was dessert enough.

Most of all, I learned that "food" meant "Italian food." Everything else was a treat or an aberration. In this way, food rules cohered internally. We may have eaten pasta every day for lunch, but it was a small portion, and we didn't follow it up with a 24-ounce Porterhouse steak for dinner.

Culture Rules

In explaining one of the problems with American eating, Gross-Loh writes, "In America, food is an expression of who you are as an individual." It's another truth against which I feel helpless.
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In the U.S., everything is an expression of who you are as an individual. That is our culture. We prize uniqueness, individuality and self-expression over community, tradition and listening. I don't know how to escape that culture short of leaving it entirely, which, believe me, has crossed my mind more than once in the last two decades.

One would think that between my unconsciously good food upbringing and my conscious lessons abroad, I should have no problem teaching Henry to appreciate and savor the simplicity of a good meal.

Yet I, too, have gained terrible habits over the years (and the weight to prove it). They are the habits of the over-worked, over-scheduled, instant-gratification-dependent American. Eating whenever I want because I'm too hungry to wait for Rayne. Eating out of the container because I'm too lazy to wash another dish. Eating standing up because I'm grazing. Eating well past my point of hunger because I crave sweets. Eating walking down the street because I "don't have time for lunch."

My transgressions are easy to justify because everyone in the U.S. has the same -- or arguably worse -- habits.

And that's exactly my point: we are creatures of our environment. And in the melting pot of the American twenty-first century, we have lost the food rules that our species developed over thousands of years. There are hundreds of eating philosophies; each culture's rules make sense within its own coherent boundaries. Mixing them, however, particularly in a society that values self-actualization as much as ours does, is a recipe for disaster. No pun intended. (Okay, maybe a little.)

Swimming Against the Tide

In business, there is a saying attributed to social ecologist Peter Drucker that goes "Culture eats strategy for breakfast, every day." It means that the culture of an organization holds more sway than a prescribed strategy. You can strategize all the live-long day, but at the end of that day, the strategy will fail if it does not match the behavioral norms of the group.
Which way is upstream?
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Put another way, it's difficult to swim against the tide.

I cook for Henry all the time: frittatas, pasta, chicken cutlets, vegetables. Simple things. I eat dinner with him at 5:30 p.m. because I want to get him used to the idea of the family meal. (That means I often end up eating two dinners, one with Henry and one with Rayne.) When we are home, he takes a time out from whatever he is doing and sits in his high chair for meals and snack. I try my best not to let him see me falling into one of my bad habits.

But the truth is, I don't know how to instill healthy eating habits in a culture of obsessive-compulsive eating and dieting. My children will never go to one of those elementary schools in Japan Gross-Loh talks about, where the children have healthy, freshly made lunches straight from the school garden. Heck, I'll be lucky just to be able to afford part-time private preschool.

And as Gross-Loh says,
[O]ur unhealthy food culture compels well-meaning parents to be extremely vigilant about the foods their kids are allowed to eat, belying that healthily relaxed attitude toward food that we want to teach our kids to have.
I don't want to be that mother. I am not that mother. I only want to give my child a love of food that is divorced from guilt and artificial "rules" but not from the food supply that offers him this incredible bounty.

So tell me, what should I do?


Be sure to check out the other Carnival posts on the topic of food:

Jessica @ 
School of Smock: How We Teach Our Kids To Be Picky Eaters -- And What To Do About It

Sarah @ 
Left Brain Buddha: Mindful Eating: We are HOW we eat

Stephanie @ Mommy, For Real: Feeding My American Family: The Path of Least Resistance

Lauren @ Omnimom: Food, Glorious Food

Norine & Jessica @ The Science of Parenthood: Food Rules and Food Rules 2.0

Here are the questions we'll be exploring in future posts. Please join us. You can email any of us or comment on our posts to let us know you'd like to join the Carnival -- for one or all of the remaining posts.