Being a mom to be, and being someone who really likes food, I’ve become a little bit obsessed lately with the question of how to introduce children to a healthy lifestyle. It distresses me to read about school lunches these days, and I don’t have much confidence in the government’s ability to correct things.
I remember being in 2nd or 3rd grade when I decided to stop eating the “hot lunch” served daily and instead begin eating the sandwiches or salads traditionally served to teachers at my school. It wasn’t that salads weren’t available to children, but no one else did this and my friends definitely thought I was odd. Incidentally, this was my first experience with salad, and I distinctly remember thinking how interesting this idea of combined raw vegetables, boiled eggs, and cold cuts was. With French dressing! I thoroughly enjoyed crunching my way through what (to me) was a new and intriguing treat.
Not to say that I didn’t eat vegetables at home. Quite the opposite, actually. I grew up in an extremely veggie-centric household – not for reasons of health, but culture. When’s the last time you went to a Chinese restaurant and had a big hunkin’ slab of meat served to you? On occasion my mother would prepare steak, but that was about the only time meat was the centerpiece of the meal. We often had fish, steamed or sautéed, and sometimes my mom would make a stew of pork, eggs, and seaweed which I *loved*, but always the meat was more for flavor than anything else. When the dishes were cleared away, my mom would come to the table with a mango, oranges, or a pear to slice for dessert.
This did prove difficult when I started bringing lunch to school in middle school. Along with everything else that made me a painfully shy outcast at the time (starting at a new school in 6th grade is brutal!), I would be sent to school with leftover stir fry, rice, a boiled egg and an apple. While I readily ate these dinners at home, other students would complain about the smell when I brought them to school. I often ate lunch alone in a deserted corner of the school, or skipped it altogether.
I clearly remember the first time I ever ate fast food. My dad took me to a Wendy’s and I hated it. I didn’t go again for years. But, of course, my childhood wasn’t this idyllic ethnic food festival. I usually had enough lunch money for ice cream or a cookie, and in high school my eating habits took a definite turn for the worse. I became a huge fan of hot pockets, and usually had fries or a bag of chips for lunch. They were the cheap and fast alternatives, and I hadn’t gotten past my habit of skipping lunch from middle school. To be fair, I nearly failed trigonometry, the first class I had after lunch – probably because more often than not I didn’t have the energy to pay attention in class.
What strikes me the most throughout this is how rare healthy food choices were during school, and how easy it was to slip into unhealthy choices – if only because eating healthy wasn’t considered socially acceptable. What a contrast to the month I spent in grade school in Taiwan (though I could do an entire post on that and not just the food). Lunch there was served to students on trays in the classroom. I don’t remember meals distinctly, except that there was a main component of rice, some veggies, a small amount of meat, and a hot soup. What I remember most clearly was the “dessert” – a type of water chestnut, which we would dig out of its shell with toothpicks. I loved that water chestnut!
During recess, we could buy an after lunch treat – usually an ice or fruit pop of some sort. There were no french fries or potato chips, and definitely no sodas.
I know that the way I grew up is usually considered “weird” by today’s harsh childhood standards, and I am sad that these days when I cook, I prepare meat-centric meals in the American style. But what I am grateful for is I was never forced to eat *anything* – yet I grew to love all kinds of fruits and vegetables. What I struggle with is how to instill this in a child in a way that will last, without making them into a social outcast.
I’d love your thoughts… what’s the right balance?