From the time my firstborn was aware of food, I kept up a deliberate façade. Every time we drove past those shining golden arches, I told him McDonald’s only sells drinks.
Then, early one morning on our way to a desert hiking weekend, I explained that on very special occasions, McDonald’s serves breakfast, and lucky us, one of those days coincided with our road trip! He was a very articulate 18-month-old at the time and kept saying, “Wow! We are so lucky!”
I was all about food lies.
I was trying to make sure that only the most pure, organic and smart foods went into my son’s stomach. I had attended more than one La Leche League meeting where dire warnings of the effects of processed foods had been issued by one member or another. I had been raised on vegetables from my parents’ own garden. I was a health and nutrition writer for crying out loud. I knew the benefits of healthy eating and the pitfalls of fast food. And my son would not, would NOT, I tell you, fall prey to its lures.
Fast forward to a day about 18 months later when I was at a loss for something to do. A realtor was showing my house, and I needed to make myself, my son and our dog scarce for an hour. It was cold and rainy, so I drove us through Mickey D’s for shakes and fries. My son, then three, kept calling out from the backseat, “These fries are delicious, where have they been all my life?”
I didn’t answer right away. I was too busy worrying what the preschool teachers would say when they learned from the source that he’d been fed “poison.” What would people think? Would I have my organic mama license taken away? My son, whose previous food-of-choice was tofu, had tainted intestines!
At a loss, I did what I always do in such moments. I dialed my mom. “I have to talk to you,” I said, in an urgent and unnecessarily hushed tone. “I gave Lance fast food.”
My mother’s response?
“You’re a genius!”
“But, Mom,” I said in a tone that was equal parts urgency and impatience. “It’s so bad for him!” Had she forgotten our garden? The buckets (and I do mean buckets) of wheat germ she’d sprinkled on everything?!
“Kid, your turn to wake up,” she said, suddenly sounding entirely lucid and not the least bit pre-recorded. “You ate at Burger King every Thursday night between Hebrew School and Gymnastics! And you’re FINE!”
Significantly, I stopped for a moment to recall the fast food meals of my childhood, the studiously collected and much fetishized Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back collectible glasses (some of which, if I remember correctly, were recalled for lead content in the decorative paint, but that’s definitely another story). The point my mom was making hit home: So earnest was I in my hand-made purees (which quickly gave way to organic jarred and frozen baby foods, thankyouverymuch), and in my organic produce and dairy products, that I forgot that a little bit of classic Americana, some fun in his diet, wasn’t a bad thing. My kid didn’t need a steady date with the Golden Arches, but allowing a little levity into his diet wasn’t at all a bad idea, especially if it meant I could continue the tradition my mom started – a McDonald’s milkshake followed every doctor’s visit that involved a shot.
My favorite diet mantra (everything in moderation, including moderation) came to the rescue, as did a noted nutritionist from the University of Michigan I heard at a nutrition conference. He spoke of having a cabinet full of empty-calorie food available for his young son. The single rule that applied to his son’s consumption of this food was: If you are going to eat something from this cabinet and it is close to a mealtime, please place the food on your plate with the rest of the meal. His son never abused the cabinet. Most days, he forgot about it. But his friends, visiting from junk-food-free zone households, managed to nearly empty the cabinet at every playdate. After which, the parents would good-naturedly restock and marvel at the success of their nothing-is-verboten, food-is-not-the-enemy plan.
So here’s the payoff for the philosophy I adopted after that revealing chat with my mom: My kids (there are two now, and the little guy refers to it as “Old McDonald”) know that going for fast food is a rare but fun thing. And my older boy wants to know: “Why do they make food that’s bad for you? How is that a good business?” I’ll save the macro-economics discussion, but say this: That very question – combined with the fact that I didn’t remember fast-food pitstops as a part of my mom’s fast-lane parenting strategy – makes me realize that it’s really not whether or not you let your kids eat fast food that determines their nutritional fate, it’s how you talk about all food, all the time, that leaves the strongest impression.