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A New Puritanism

I was talking to a parent recently about keeping kids from eating too much sugar. As we talked, she revealed that her child hadn’t ever tasted candy. I said that my son didn’t even know that donuts existed till he was four. She was wondering how she was going to introduce her child to Halloween without candy. It seemed like a pretty usual conversation until she clarified that her child is six. Six, and somehow he doesn’t even know about Halloween and candy yet.
Most parents I know are trying to cut down the amount of sugar their kids get. But some parents are going much, much further. They seem not to want their kids to know that sugar exists.
This is completely foreign to the way I was raised. My father is a Midwestern German, and we loved sweet food. At our house, we made cookies, cakes, and other desserts as a general part of life. Some of the things I remember making, unsupervised, when I was a kid: petits fours, cream puffs, cheesecake, German chocolate cake, Schwarzwalderkirschtorte… Dessert making was to me as non-stop art projects are to my kids. One time my brother and I got a hankering for cheesecake and started it in the early evening. We waited up till midnight so that we could get a piece thoroughly chilled.
The key to all this dessert-eating was that it was also dessert-making. We’d ask our mother to buy a Hostess product we’d had at a friend’s house, and she’d look at us like we were aliens suddenly dropped at her side. “Why would you want that junk when you can make something so much better?”
This is the mother who fumed about being in the grocery store behind someone using food stamps to buy chips, Hostess cupcakes, and soda. “They’d be better off buying a bag of beans, some onions, and some vegetables,” she’d say.
When I think back to how much sweet stuff I ate as a kid, I’m sure it was too much. But the reason I think that is that I remember eating sweets to cure hunger as well as for enjoyment. My family has a high childhood metabolism that had to be fed with constant calories. My son inherited it, and I’m amazed at how much he can pack in there. But I make sure that when sugar eating happens in our house, it’s acknowledged as “pleasure” and not “food.” As I say to my kids who say they’re hungry and go for a can of olives, “Olives are entertainment, not food. Get some food first.”
The other thing we do is (for the most part) follow the “eat only what you’re willing to make” rule. We bake sweet breads – pumpkin, banana, zucchini -, cookies – this morning we made Mrs. Wasserman’s chocolate crinkles! -, and occasionally cakes, bread pudding, rice pudding, tapioca. The list may sound long but the point is that none of these foods is achieved without effort, and none of them is eaten when something more nutritious is needed.
I might add that although I could stand to lose ten pounds (and am usually planning to start), we are all well on the thinner side of the average American.
Why is that? In part it’s genetics, of course. But I think a healthy attitude toward food is much more important. My husband and I can’t eat nearly as much as we used to, and so we simply don’t. Our children see us turning down food all the time, behavior that we’re modeling them for the future.
The thing I fear about kids raised without a healthy relationship to pleasurable foods is that they will be unprepared to meet the real world once they’re out there. Just as older kids in my family were offered, in the German and Italian traditions of my parents, small amounts of wine or beer, learning to eat moderate amounts of pleasurable foods is a skill that needs to be taught.
I remember very clearly some kids from the strictest anti-alcohol families in town. Once they got older, those kids would go to a party and drink themselves into a stupor. They had no model to follow. Abstinence training doesn’t work for sex and alcohol; I can’t see that sugar and fat abstinence will be any more successful.
Another key to pleasurable foods is the pleasure we get in sharing them. It’s a rare dessert that gets made in our house without some of it being shared with others. I try to be sensitive to other families’ beliefs when I offer kids a cookie, but I feel a sense of relief when the parents say, “Homemade cookies? Can I have one, too?”

Posted in Parenting.

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