“It sits as lightly on a heavy meal as it does on your conscience.”

We ended up owning a vast cooler full of fruit pursuant to an under-attended neighborhood function recently, and the poor fridge was jammed to the rafters with watermelon and bowls of grapes and such. This highly non-local windfall was begging to have its volume consolidated, since the arrival of fruit fly season meant that keeping any of it outside the fridge for any length of time was a non-starter. I figured that the quickest way to compact it all would be to purée it (juicing not being an option since we haven’t replaced the broken juicer yet). And then there was all that gelatin in the cupboard.

Post-blending, I stirred the mixture through a strainer and tasted it. Out-of-season fruit from far away lacks a certain… what’s the word… flavor, so I augmented it with honey and some mango lemonade that also came in the cooler. And then I bloomed a bunch of sheets of gelatin, wrung them out, melted them into a small amount of the mixture, and then poured that into the rest of it in a pyrex dish. Then into the newly capacious fridge it went to chill and set up nice and wiggly-like. There was (is) a fair amount of it, and it’s seen service in a few forms over the ensuing days: with mango lemonade granita on top (we grated a popsicle we had made on the microplane), with coconut milk “ice cream” (that vegan stuff from the store) and last–my favorite–with homemade yogurt mixed with homemade maple syrup and strawberries from the garden. The currants are blushing, and we got a couple of raspberries yesterday, so I’m thinking of this as a rehearsal for treats to come in the ensuing weeks as fruit season gets into high gear.

We don’t have dessert most nights, but with a child that can be a struggle. Sugar makes kids into little relentless crackhead lawyers; life becomes consumed with incessant negotiations about when, and how much, and what the minimum requirements will be to get the next sweet, sweet hit. The billions of dollars spent on finding more and better ways to sell crap to our kids have drastically altered the food landscape. We’ve managed to keep him pretty well insulated from most advertising–he only learned what McDonald’s is a few months ago and has never eaten there–and not having TV has been a huge factor in retaining our positions as curators of his media exposure. But every time a gap, however small, opens up, there’s some branded piece of garbage right there to imprint itself permanently on his brain. Today he went to the doctor, and they drew some blood, and so after he got an Oreo cookie from the drugstore near the office for being such a good sport. Now he’ll never forget that name, ever.

I’m not some strident hippie killjoy who only uses brown rice syrup in everything. Far from it. I do try to use honey and maple syrup as much as I can, because they’re locally produced and contain many beneficial compounds, and they taste wonderful to boot. But we have and use sugar, too, when needed, and we buy chocolate and baked things from time to time. What I resent, though, is that so much of parenting today feels like playing defense. As long as we stay home, we eat healthy, whole food, with much of it made from scratch. The minute we step out, there’s a whole universe of seductive shite aimed specifically at kids’ vulnerable little minds and bodies; the candy is all two feet off the floor, the ads are all bouncy cartoon hijinks, and every holiday is now principally about thematic sweets and related shopping. It was right around the Mad Men era when those agencies first began experimenting with tie-ins between toys and shows. Now it’s a given, and every company knows to aim their message at the kids and let their incessant badgering and whining do the heavy lifting.

I accept that living in the world requires exposure to all manner of things, and I remember my own childhood pretty well so I’m not really worried about his long-term prospects. I ate my share of sweets. But my Mom also had a big garden and baked bread and cooked dinner from scratch every night, so the counterweight was there and her investment of time and effort is now paying off with interest. In Europe, there are laws against advertising directly to children; studies have proved that kids younger than eight are unable to understand that an advertiser may not have their best interest at heart. The lack of any similar regulation here–and the zero percent chance such a law would have of passing any time soon, let’s be realistic–says a lot about our profits before people culture.

Sweets are about pleasure, and joy, and sharing, and marking special occasions. They shouldn’t be a pitched battle between parents and giant corporations. The good news is that it’s forcing me to innovate; as with churning smoothies in the ice cream machine, gelling is an excellent way to turn something completely healthy and nutritious into something that any kid will agree is a dessert. Getting Milo to eat fruit is no problem at all (he loves it all) but tricking him into eating nothing but for dessert is a small victory nonetheless.

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  1. Andrew
    June 23

    You couldn’t have said that better, Peter. As parents of two children, we struggle with this daily. Birthday parties (with the de rigeur pizza, cake, and ice cream, and often more) and social gatherings are hard enough, but the biggest problems for us are the schools. We prepare from scratch lunches and snacks for our girls so they don’t get the pretzels, goldfish, waffles, and other junk that the schools keep on hand to feed them. We talk to their teachers to make sure that outside snacks brought in by other parents are not offered to our children (one parent actually thought ring pops would be appropriate treats for a class of two year olds). Every minor occasion (“It’s Tuesday, so I thought I’d bring in brownies for the whole class!”) is viewed by many as an opportunity to feed crap to our children. At one of our daughter’s camps, we have to decide what she should do when it’s time for the daily popsicle (we send in healthier versions so she’s not left out, yet not overdosing on high fructose corn syrup) and Friday ice cream (we make our own from local cream and milk and fruit and she gets that instead). It’s a constant battle as you said. My wife has been very active with the local Nutrition in the Schools group, where we’ve had to deal with sugared, flavored milks and funnel cakes as an entree (not even a dessert) at the school cafeteria. WTF!!!


    And we talk to our 5 year old (and will do the same with our little one when she’s old enough) all the time about how to make healthy food choices. Hopefully our daughters’ seeing us make healthy food from scratch every day, and helping us do it, will leave an imprint that will guide them to make the right choices when they’re in control of what they eat. Like you, we’re not anti-sweets. We use lots of local honey and maple syrup, and even sugar. But we use it in combination with real foods in our cooking, and we keep it under control. It’s not the centerpiece. And our girls are just as happy with a bowl of local strawberries with homemade yogurt for dessert as they are with a bowl of ice cream.

  2. Peter
    June 23

    I always enjoy your comments, Andrew, and none more than this one. I’m glad to have you as a reader, and I applaud your parallel struggles to do the right thing in an inhospitable world. Our kids will thank us for our work, I think, in the same way I thank my Mother regularly here and with the things I feed and teach her Grandson.

  3. June 23

    Fuckin A for effort on you! I mean it.
    I am often amazed at the parents who book kids cooking classes with us and rather than choose the nice options like sushi and fresh pasta they choose 1-2-3 bake and cupcake decorating.
    When parents request a healthy cooking series and we offer it, they don’t register or if they do they wonder why they aren’t getting a dessert every night. It seems ok to them to make a stripped down version of brownies or cookies or cupcakes ala cooking light and they consider that healthy. Make sure you save room for dessert, who needs the vegetables
    In our 3-5 year old classes they chastise us when we do eat your rainbow series and include zucchini in the muffins or carrot in the cookie (also without the loads of vegetable oil fats to make up for it) by asking if they can omit the zucchini or the carrot. HELLO! What is the point of taking this class WITH YOUR CHILD even you aren’t even WILLING TO EAT IT.
    Oh how is makes me nuts. I could tell you so many tales of the parents bad eating habits and then wondering why on earth THEIR child won’t eat X,Y or Z.

  4. June 24

    Five years ago, another mother and I took over the school-wide mid-morning snack, calling it Slow Snack instead, doing it from-scratch with whole foods only (it was Chex Mix before that). I don’t toot my horn about it much but it has been a success, and a draw for the school. We have a routine per weekday and we have classroom cooking on Friday and one kid per classroom takes a pre-mixed bag of muffin mix home for Wednesday muffins (just add oil, water and eggs…and fruit of your choice). Yes, we make the muffin mix too. And yes, we spend the summers picking fruit, canning jam and salsa. Our international student body means it could be dal one day, tabbouleh another and ceviche (seriously) on a third day, depending on the work of the parent volunteers.

    I am not naive. My kid’s school is private, and its philosophy (Montessori) is hand’s-on so cooking and gardening is part of the curriculum as part of Practical Life, Science and Mathematics. But: it is a lot of flipping work. And encouraging and cajoling the parents that “whole” does not mean “box mix” is likewise a lot of work…and of course how many 5 year olds willingly eat ceviche? A lot more than you would think is the answer.

    My philosophy: teach a kid to can and bake and manage a garden and they’ll remember it forever. Even if they don’t ever do it, it won’t be scary to them.

  5. June 24

    This is my hope for my picky eating son. Until about 2 1/2 years old, he ate everything I gave him – and all of it from scratch. I have no idea what made him not want to try stuff and be selective about what he “likes”. It sure wasn’t me and the way I cooked, and I know it wasn’t Media.

    I am not much of a TV watcher (I watch an episode of Cheers every nite before reading, I can’t help it…), and he watches very little and what he does has very little commercial thanks to DVR. I try not to give up, make everything from scratch, and allow him little sweets after dinner. Any processed stuff comes from the (inlaw) grandfolks and I try not to stress out about that. When I read about your son eating shellfish, my heart aches. Someday, I hope. Meanwhile, like El mentioned, he does enjoy helping me (he’s nearly 5 now) make stuff, rolling out sourdough pizza crust (tho all he puts on it is sauce) and other things if I ask him. I have a feeling that helping in the kitchen is akin to wanting to try something, and I try to have him help more often…

  6. Peter
    June 25

    Jo: It really all begins with eating together and eating the same good food. We have never made separate kid food, so he eats what we eat and he sees us eating tons of vegetables so he eats them too. I think a lot of parents would like other people to teach their kids how to eat properly.

    El: I think that’s true. I grew up in the garden helping to plant and pick things, and it was formative. Milo helped me wax some cheese today, and he loves the homemade yogurt and vinegar so much that he specifies them when asking for certain things.

    Rebecca: I have no doubt that over time he’ll become a lot more curious. Kids go through phases, and their culinary open-mindedness expands and contracts. What matters is that you’re doing it, and doing it together.

  7. June 28

    Following your blog is a real pleasure and for sure the whole point of cooking and eating from scratch is totaly valid and should be propagated unconditionally. But on a lighter tone can I just say that I really love (as in luurrvvvv) the combination of the engraved round glass bowl and your own square black ceramic container. All this being said by an European, hardly ever dessert-eating nonparent.

  8. Peter
    June 28

    That’s very nice of you to say, Maria. The glass bowl was my Grandfather’s–he collected etched glass–and it does work well in the black dish. Thanks for your comment; it’s always nice to meet my readers.

  9. You’re right, it does feel like playing defense. I’d never noticed it until Sofía started to walk in the grocery store, and suddenly it became apparent that everything I did NOT want her to have was at her eye level – it made me really mad because it was so obviously deliberate! And boy, is she good at spotting the cookies or candy that have her favorite Toy Story characters on them. She hasn’t made the connection yet to ask to buy the cookies, but she always begs me to stop so she can look at the box. Sigh.

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