Sunday, November 23, 2008

Working along Maslow's Hierarchy from the Bottom Up

Thanks, all, for the most excellent winter jacket suggestions. I looked at MEC, but the coat I want they only have in Violet, and despite Rachel's excellent point I'd like to get something that will allow me to blend more unobtrusively into the urban undergrowth. I think I'm going to go with this, in brown.

Since we're on the subject of basic human needs, though, I have another question, this one about Food.

I love food. No, I REALLY love food. I'm not a foodie, exactly, or a food snob--more of a gourmand in the Calvin Trillin mold. The food of my childhood and adolescence was decent and edible but not particularly notable one way or another, and I don't remember any particular importance or attitudes about food being imparted to me as a kid. I've always eaten pretty much exactly what I like, and I like just about everything, except lima beans. (Not really germane to where I'm going with this, but possibly of interest: with no eating restrictions or dieting or attention paid to food at all except for taste and basic nutritional issues, my weight was just about normal and very stable from childhood until I hit my thirties, at which point I started putting on a couple of pounds a year. Now, at 42, I'm somewhere between 10 and 25 pounds overweight, and probably should do something about it at some point, if only exercising more, but it's not my top priority and hasn't affected my eating habits.)

Anyway, the point is that I am a true omnivore. Though I learned to cook out of the vegetarian Moosewood Cookbook, and in my crunchy granola youth was often mistaken for a vegetarian, I have never been a vegetarian of any kind. I don't keep kosher, not even a little (though for a while I tried not to serve treyf at the actual Shabbat dinner table). I have no food allergies or sensitivies that I know of, and I'm not squeamish.

The Renaissance Woman, on the other hand, does have food restrictions: she's allergic to red fruit, including cherries, as well as several kinds of nuts. She used to be a vegetarian, and though she now eats chicken, she can no longer metabolize red meat or pork. Also, there are several foods, including rice, lentils, and other grainy things, that she simply doesn't like.

Then we have the Mermaid Girl. Back when she was a baby, this child would eat anything, including duck and couscous, but those days are long gone and she has become a classic Picky Eater. She does like vegetables, but for several years the list of proteins that she would eat was about six items long, with three of them being various forms of cheese (string, grilled, and macaroni-and-). Also, like RW (and very much unlike me), she often doesn't notice when she's hungry, and rather than asking for food will deny that she wants to eat at all, all the while becoming crankier and crankier until we insist that she put a piece of cheese (or whatever) into her mouth, at which point more often than not she snaps out of it and wolfs down whatever's in front of her.

I know there are various schools of thought about how much to insist on kids trying unfamiliar or un-favorite foods; since with MG, food soon became an issue of control as well as one of taste preference, and since she's an only child and we don't have to cater to anyone else, we've generally opted for the path of least resistance, and pretty much have let her eat whatever she wanted as long as she gets some protein and a vegetable in there at dinner. I'd leave out some plain tofu or chicken or fish if I was making something with a sauce, and she'd either eat it or mix herself some peanut butter and jelly in a bowl.

This worked reasonably well until last spring, when MG suddenly announced that she was now a vegetarian, and that she did not believe in eating either animals or fish.

This cut down considerably on the short list of protein sources, but we didn't object; first, because vegetarianism has always seemed like an admirable principle to me, and second, because what would be the point? If we told her she wasn't allowed to be a vegetarian, she would just refuse chicken and fish (the only dead-animal food at our house) anyway, and what could we do? She'd just eat cheddar cheese and peanut butter, the way she always does.

In the ensuing months, though, some complicating factors have emerged. For one thing, MG's definition of vegetarianism is somewhat flexible; turns out that it includes meat hot dogs bought at the beach or the mall, (even if vegetarian hot dogs--which she doesn't like--are available), fake crab, and shrimp in any form. But if we offer her any other kind of meat or fish, she will look sad and pained and principled and say, "I'm sorry, but I can't. Don't you remember?" When we ask her about the apparent contradiction, she'll explain either that this is just an exception, or that "it's different. I really like [shrimp, or hot dogs, or whatever]."

So, this inconsistency leads us to be not quite so respectful of her principled stand as we might otherwise be. What I can't figure out is what kind of line to take on this. Do we forbid her to eat shrimp or hot dogs, even though we eat them ourselves? Do we refuse to continue recognizing her as a vegetarian by offering alternatives to our meat meals? Or do we just, as one person suggested, honor that she's attempting to act on principle at all, however imperfectly?

I welcome any suggestions from vegetarians, meat-eaters, picky eaters, and parents of any of the above, as well as people who are none of the above but just have an opinion, as long as you state it kindly.


Blogger dynaknit said...

Kids have the most amazingly complicated attitudes towards food! In your shoes, I would probably remind her that humans are omnivores, so it's fine to eat shrimp and hot dogs etc. but probably not okay to call yourself a vegetarian, in respect to serious vegetarians. I prefer to eat beans & rice, tofu, etc., but since I still choose to eat bacon, I never call myself a vegetarian!

I would keep offering chicken, fish, tofu, whatever.

And hey, you could have my kid, who will eat ANY kid of meat, almost every vegetable, and dark chocolate, but refuses to eat normal kid snack foods--only plain corn chips (why are those so hard to find in a vending machine?)!

6:09 PM  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

Sigh. Well, you know I *ought* to have something insightful to say on this particular issue. I think, in your shoes, I would focus on the issue of hassle-to-the-cook rather than is-she-really-a-vegetarian. I'd definitely not forbid her to eat hot dogs or shrimp (though a little light teasing -- well, hey, better she hears it from you than from others if she's going to present herself to the outside world as a vegetarian).

If she's using vegetarianism at least partially as a way to exert control at mealtimes, then pushing her on how she defines it -- or trying to define it for her -- will be counterproductive and will probably result in even more arcane and nonsensical distinctions.

How much of a hassle is it for you and RW to prepare alternatives to your meals? Are you just reminding of her of the pb&j and cheddar options? Are you cooking a separate dish for her? If it's the former, I'd concentrate on encouraging her to add one or two further options to her "vegetarian" repertoire, preferably something that she can serve herself (we've had success with hummus on crackers or carrots, here). That way she has a reasonable amount of variety in her diet AND she's taking control of what she eats in a reasonable and healthy way. (I'm assuming, of course, that you have no health-related worries about her eating habits or growth curves.)

If you and RW are cooking a separate meal for her more often than not, then I think it's reasonable for the two of you to sit down and figure out what your limits are as short-order cooks. Are you willing to prepare something special for her one or two days a week? Always? Never? Are you willing to prepare a vegetarian meal for the whole family one or two days a week?

Also, does MG eat leftovers? Because if you cooked one special meal for her, one vegetarian meal for the whole family, and MG had the leftovers from those meals on two other nights, then she's only eating pb&j/cheddar/another option three nights a week. Which would make for a miraculously diverse diet in my book.

7:30 PM  
Blogger jo(e) said...

I'd let her choose how she wants to define being a vegetarian. I know plenty of grown-ups who are "vegetarian except for bacon" or "vegetarian except at other people's houses" or whatever. So long as her principles make sense to HER, they don't need to make sense to anyone else.

What's impt is that she's got the idea that she can make choices about what she eats -- and that seems healthy to me.

8:44 PM  
Blogger jo(e) said...

BTW, I call myself vegan because it's the shortest way to describe how I eat. But I do eat honey -- and most vegans don't. But it's a pain to say things like, "Well, I don't eat meat or dairy products, but I do eat honey and I would probably wear wool if I weren't allergic to it, and sometimes I accidently eat whey because I'm getting old and it's hard to read the fine print on lists of ingredients ...."

8:46 PM  
Blogger Pamelamama said...

Continuing the theme of Sam and MG are so much alike, I offer you this link to a blog post from Summer '07

And this additional bit of dialogue from a blog post a week earlier:

{At a yummy restaurant, Sam is insiting on eating spaghetti with butter.}

Me: Hey, Sam, why dont you take a bite of this lamb?

Sam: Nah, no thanks.

Me: Aww, c'mon. {Ripping off tiny, tiny fish-food size flake of lamb.} Just taste this tiny piece.

Sam: Uh Mom. You know. I have decided. I am going to be a vegetarian.

Me. A vegetarian?

Sam: Yeah.

Me: So you're not going to eat any meat?

Sam: Right. I don't want to eat any more meat. I uh. Yeah.

Me: Why do you want to be a vegetarian?

Sam: Well. You know... Uh. I think. I think it's mean to nature to eat animals.

Me: It's mean to nature? To eat animals? What if animals eat other animals, is that mean?

Sam: Well, no. Because, well. Because we can choose.

Me: Ok, well, fair enough. {...pause...} So then Sam, does that mean you are not going to have any more ... CHICKEN SOUP?

Sam: OH MANNNNNNNNNN! Hmm. Well. Well. Maybe I'll just not have meat, but chicken is ok.

Me: So it's ok to be mean to chickens but not to lambs?

Sam: Well... I. Oh, I don't know...

Wah-wah-wah-wahhhhhhh. {ironic trombone}

(That was buried in the middle of this rather long blog, so I just snipped it out:

Still funny.)

8:58 PM  
Blogger Arwen said...

I think that those suggesting not getting up in it are being very sensible and sensitive.

Much more sensible than when Ripley said he was going to be vegetarian "except for McDonald's hamburgers", after which I laughed and teased him.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Susan O said...

would you laugh at me if I said I was a pescetarian except at other people's houses, and except for my dad's potato sausage once a year?

yeah, I thought so.

I wouldn't worry about her inconsistencies, just about how her eating habits are affecting your family life.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous rachel said...

Does MG eat eggs? That's not vegetarianism snark - it just occurs to me that a hard-boiled egg might be something she's old enough to prepare herself, when the dinner you prepared is not to her liking.

7:07 AM  
Blogger Hugh said...

Els this is obviously more of an issue with us because we have 3 but after some years of pandering we now make one dinner (actually, Hugh makes one dinner). If the kids don't like it, they make their own, usually hot dogs (kosher!) or Easy Mac, which is a dumbed down version of Mac N Cheese, sort of horrifying that a dumbed down version even exists. I do think that various articles I have read, in which children are encouraged to try food, even if they don't like it, is beneficial. Eventually, they start to discover tastes for foods they previously didn't like. So while we don't make our kids eat foods they don't like, we do ask them to try the foods. This does pay long term dividends, eventually. Obviously the vegetarianism complicates matters, so I'm not sure this is helpful, but there you go. My guess is that if one of our kids becomes a vegetarian that we would make them make their own alternate meals, but again this is because the alternative is far too labor-intensive. And I do know of many kids who are inconsistently vegetarian. Much love, Alice.

7:43 AM  
Anonymous Fluprosis said...

Starve the kid, lock them in the basement, then leave whatever you want to feed them in small bowls.

They'll eat it. And they'll thank you for the privilege. And given her age, you can always tell protective services she has "an active imagination."

8:16 AM  
Blogger susan said...

What Jo(e) and Phantom said: stepping away from the control battles over food so that MG gets to make healthy choices about what she wants to eat seems like the best course of action here. But the family conversation about the work of cooking for all of you needs to happen, too.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Rev Dr Mom said...

Commenting late here, but just agreeing with jo(e) about how MG defines being vegetarian. I call myself vegetarian but I will sometimes cheat for a hot dog or bacon--or for hospitality reasons, although that is getting harder.

6:31 PM  

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