My teenage son knew he was asking for trouble, not to mention lessons in food politics and nutrition, when he agreed to go shopping with me for school lunch supplies to start the school year.
“Mom, can’t we just this one time get the regular peanut butter?” he asked.
“Sorry, I can’t support a sandwich full of hydrogenated oils and sugar, not to mention pesticides, for lunch every morning,” I said, grabbing the organic “peanuts only” tub from the shelf. “The Center for Science in the Public Interest says we should buy peanut butter that contains one ingredient, and one ingredient only.”
He’s heard this before. He knows I’m right. That didn’t stop him from next trying to toss an economy-sized jar of generic strawberry jelly in the cart.
“I don’t think so,” I said, blocking his arm and pointing at the fruit-only jellies on the shelf.
“Come on, that fruit-only stuff doesn’t spread right,” he said.
“That’s because it’s not full of high-fructose corn syrup, which they’re not only linking to obesity and diabetes, but now, I hear they’ve added liver disease,” I said. “Besides, you don’t even make your own PB&Js.”
“OK, OK, Mom,” he said. “But there’s one thing I can’t compromise on: Whole-wheat tortillas. I don’t care how good they are for you. They taste like cardboard.”
And so the negotiations go, between the normal, red-blooded American teenager and the thinking mother whose favorite movie is Food, Inc.
I let him win the tortilla argument. He lets me win granola bars with flaxseed and brown rice syrup. I give in to mint Oreos with yellow dye No. 5 and blue No. 1. He accepts my refusal to buy anything with sugar as its first ingredient. I let him pick out a couple of breakfast cereals. He knows I won’t buy anything that has than 20 grams of sugar per serving.
Twenty-three years, I’ve been doing this. Twenty-three years – ever since this boy’s older brother, now 24, was going to day care at my friend’s house – I’ve been trying to figure out how to feed my children healthfully when I’m not around. Of course, like everything else when you’re a mom, it was easier when they were babies and couldn’t ask for Lay’s potato chips, much less have teeth to chew them.
These days, with one 16-year-old child left in secondary school and with a strong desire for independence – his and mine – I construct the peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread or the cheese/bean/grilled veggie tortilla. And I freeze it in advance for him to grab. I stock the fruit basket with fruit and the fridge with cut carrots. I work as many wholesome, healthy products into the pantry as I can get away with.
And then I give it over to him.
Instead of hovering over him while he packs his lunch in the morning, or packing up the whole lunch bag myself like a lot of the moms of teens I know, I provide the options. And then I cross my fingers he’s not only listened to my rantings about high-fructose corn syrup all these years. But that he’s actually heard me. That he’s not just nodding mindlessly when I go on about the serious effects of energy drinks. But that he seriously knows nobody needs a beverage that’s three times the amount of caffeine his dad drinks in the morning.
I look for the educable moments.
I also listen for signs my son is finding his own way in the compromised, confused world of Dunkin’ Donuts and 64-ounce Big Gulps we’re all trying to negotiate.
“You do know that whole-wheat tortillas are better for you, right?” I prod, watching him eat white tortillas that might as well be made of negative nothing.
“Yeah, but you shouldn’t waste your money, because I won’t eat them.”
Funny how that actually makes sense.
Journalist Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio (www.debralynnhook.com), has been writing about family life since 1988 when she was pregnant with the first of her three children. Read her blog: debralynn-bloopbloopotter.blogspot.com; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or join her column’s Facebook discussion group at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Debra-Lynn-Hook-Bringing-Up-Mommy/195642263780710