Setting the Table — And a Good Example

Brookline Tab, August 2003

The recent movement to regulate school cafeteria food raises some important issues in terms of public versus private matters. Not only would such legislation have an impact on what Brookline schools may or may not serve its children; the supporters of such legislation believe that there would be a beneficial effect on children’s health. Although I would tend to support measuers that would create healthier menus in our schools,and I think this could be a step in the right direction, I believe that the issue of what our kids eat and do with themselves is deeper than cafeteria choices. It has to do with living in the land of plenty, and becoming educated and empowered well enough to steer successfully.

We all understand, as parents and citizens, the adage “children learn what they live.” But how well do we practice it? I thought I was doing pretty good role modeling in terms of diet. In early May I started the Atkins diet. In the early weeks I struggled with “eating like a freak” as my husband kindly called it: picking the cheese and pepperoni off pizza and leaving the denuded triangular crusts; petulantly sipping decaf at J.P. Licks while the rest of them gorged on medium cups of Oreo; shunning tomatoes, pie, yogurt, in favor of a slimey piece of turkey. Forbidden Fruit now had literal meaning for me. I was miserable for a while. I nearly gave up, when my son said, “I think you should keep going, Mom; you’re really doing well.” I realized he was proud of me. So, during the months that followed, when my determination faltered, I had but to remember that my kid was proud of my efforts.

But then I discovered the carb-free candies. And cookie bars. And Atkins shakes and ice cream. And before I knew it, I was snacking right along with the kids. I was still losing weight, but was it fair play? This stuff is junk food, after all, even though it’s diet-approved. I had to ask myself, was I teaching my children that one can control what they eat and achieve their goals—or was I teaching them that there’s always a way to get what you want? That you can have your low carb cake and eat it too?

Healthy eating values are all the more difficult to maintain given our gluttonous society: the advertising, the product varieties, the quantity. As I roam the aisles of the supermarket I am stunned by the overwhelming floor-to- ceiling array of unhealthy food choices there are. I push the cart into the cereal aisle, and the kids peel off, each returning with their preferred sugar-and-corn syrup combination. The same is true for the cookie. Now don’t judge me because I buy them this stuff. I know what you’re thinking: Bread & Circus? Trader Joe’s? Yes, of course. For my husband and me! But my kids have not evolved to the point of appreciating “Rain Forest Crunch” yet. Anyway, I see what happens to the kids who are never given the sugared junk at home. They eat a ton of it when they come here!

I am clearly not a believer in rigid denial, because I think it often backfires. I err to much on the side of indulgence, that is certain. But as I drag them through Stop and Shop, I do refuse to buy them their choices more frequently than not. I understand that it is my job to be the Bad Guy, the Limiter. It is also my job to show them other possibilities so that life, and eating, don’t feel like prison to them. Perhaps then another message they may have gleaned from my Atkins experience is, if you work hard enough, you can find creative ways to be happy, (e.g. an occasional low carb candy) without sabotaging your objectives. Because the fact is, you have to be able to make it not only through school lunch healthily, but through the check-out line at the supermarket and the restaurants, too. Regardless of how our school cafeteria choices may change, children need to learn how to make the right choices everywhere. And that lesson is lifelong.