Monday, May 10, 2010

McDonald Duck

I used to treat a little boy who, looking back, I think had a lot of undiagnosed food sensitivities. He would come into the clinic polishing off a snack of some highly processed food, {"Blue Berry Blast Go-Gurt" was a favorite,} then top it off with a stick of sugarless gum. He would then morph from a fairly reasonable little person, ready to play and have a good time, into an out of control, primitive bundle who became completely dysfunctional, hurling himself on the floor and kicking, as the additives and artificial sweeteners had their way with him.

At the end of the school year, the family went to Europe.  The child's father had been offered a wonderful teaching assignment, all expenses paid, at a great university in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  His parents agonized over the decision to go, worried that their emotionally fragile son would have a stressful, terrible time of it where there was nothing familiar, no friends for playdates, he didn't speak a word of the language, and where he would be expected to comport himself perfectly in a very strict, regimented environment.  {European schools are generally quite, quite serious about these things and have a zero tolerance policy for out of synch behavior.}  I urged them to go, thinking that things would work themselves out and that they shouldn't deprive themselves of such a glorious opportunity.

When they returned, I heard that he had made a fantastic transition, almost instantly spoke the language like a native, did superbly at a very tough school, made friends, and thrived. His parents were grateful to me for all the work I had done to make this possible.  I accepted their thanks while secretly wondering whether this child's life was suddenly so much easier in Europe because he was eating much higher quality food.

Having spent quite a bit of time over there myself visiting friends who were raising young children, I can attest to the fact that  European children just don't consume junk in the same way that American kids do. When my friends were living with their two girls in Munich, their tiny daughters ate every stinky, strong cheese we grownups did.  They routinely polished off complicated, mustardy salads, dense, thickly seeded whole grain breads, sausages, soups and stews, potatoes in every form imaginable, exotic pastries, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. It would never have occurred to their mother to cook the children a separate meal. They ate what we did, and they cleaned their plates.  One day, I was taking care of the one and a half year old while her mother did errands and had lunch with the girls without a child on her hip.  After an afternoon of  peekaboo, horsie, and hide and go seek, she tugged my hand, said, "Brot! Kase!" and led me into the kitchen.  She wanted some brie, and a slice of moist, dark whole grain bread to spread it on.  No Kraft American Singles on Wonder Bread for this child.

Then they moved over here, and the kids, who were seven and four at the time, started demanding Cool Ranch Doritos and Pop-Tarts, since that's what their friends ate.  Their German born mother was justly horrified.

A few years ago, the 17 year old daughter of some friends who live outside of Stuttgart came to visit me for a couple of weeks.  We ate, among other things, asparagus roasted with chopped garlic and pine nuts, leek gratin, artichoke frittata, watercress, tatsoi, cranberry beans, Turkish yogurt with freeze dried blackberries, pistachio-mulberry granola, wild caught salmon topped with homemade pesto, aged Coach farm goat cheese, and rhubarb pie.   We went to the greenmarket and had fun choosing all kinds of curious things to cook and eat together.   I took her to my favorite restaurant in Manhattan, a Roman trattoria specializing in offal.  She was game for anything on the menu, and we had a stupendous dinner.  Another woman my age with a teenage girl sat at the table next to us. As I listened to the two of them combing the menu for something sufficiently familiar and plain sounding enough for the girl to try,  I felt proud of my team.

If it's not clear by now, I think that we do children a huge disservice by dumbing down their food.  I also think that allowing them to ingest large quantities of artificial sweeteners and additives is a dangerous mistake, and that the large corporations who manufacture a good portion of our food do not have our best interests at heart.  {Check those labels!  Even things that are not sugar free are suspect. I no longer buy Juicy Fruit or Bubblicious gum because they both now contain aspartame.}

Amazing things come about when people are introduced to the real thing.  Some of the time I spent in Europe was in the company of a Texan who had been raised on ersatz food, and was indifferent to the pleasures of eating.  He thought orange juice was Sunny Delite, salad dressing was Wishbone, beer was Budweiser, chocolate was Hershey's, coffee was Sanka, and cheese was Velveeta. Wine was for other people.  If I had not strongly insisted on proper meals in restaurants, and on eating local foods, our intake would have consisted mainly of Ritz crackers and Coca Cola, bought in supermarkets and eaten on a park bench.   What a pleasure it was for me to buy him a chunk of gianduja in Italy and watch his surprise and delight as he tasted it, to share a sandwich made with Cambembert and cornichons at a bar in Paris, to give him a taste of my salade frisée aux lardons  at an outdoor café in Nice,  a sip of my hefeweizen at the Hofbrau Munich, and have him flag down the waiter so he could order his own.

Once he tasted the high quality versions of things he had always disliked, he loved them.  He said to me many times after the trip was over that his best memories were of trying all of the delicious new foods everywhere we went.

One of the best things you can do for your family's overall health and functioning is to cook dinner and then sit down and eat it together.   I once read a book called The Surprising Power of Family Meals, in which the author quoted several studies that found that children who ate dinner with their families on a regular basis were much less likely to smoke, drink, or do drugs.

I love to cook, and find it absorbing and relaxing.  It's not as hard as you might think. Before there were all of these fancy cooking shows on the Food Network teaching you how to debone a chicken, form it into a roulade stuffed with a forcemeat of foie gras, ground pork, pistachio nuts, and cognac, truss it into a perfect oval and bake it en cocotte under a layer of homemade puff pastry, there were thousands of women routinely sticking chicken parts in a roasting pan with salt and pepper and maybe a little paprika, steaming some broccoli, and baking potatoes, without worrying whether Martha Stewart would turn up her nose at their efforts.  If you are not a cook, is there someone you know who would be willing to teach you how to put together a few easy things?

I'll end this plea to feed your children good food with an anecdote from the clinic.  As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up:

Three year old girl:  "Mickey Mouse!"

Me: "Donald Duck!"

Three year old girl:  "Huh?  Who?  Donald?  Donald Duck....?  Who?


1 comment:

Scarehaircare said...

This is a huge soapbox for me. I grew up with a grandmother and mom teaching me about gardening, bottling our own food, serving a meal with three veggies. Everything was homemade. No processed packaged food.

My kids never had a frozen burrito until my oldest was 12. He was spending the night at a friend's house when they pulled burritos out of the freezer. They've never had Pop Tarts. I do allow McDonalds once every few months when we are out traveling. Funny thing, give my kids a choice between McDonalds and hitting a farmers market to see what they have for lunch, my kids will pick the farmers market.