Friday, April 20, 2012

Family meals

I recently started having my kids, who are 8 and 10, each take responsibility for cooking the family meal one night a week. I stole the idea from the New York Times:

The writer there says she started having her sons cook because she was tired of having them bug her about dinner as soon as she got home from work, or complain about the meal. My reasons were different. Until recently, I didn't do any of the cooking in my home. My husband did. He is a more intuitive cook than I am. I am a recipe girl. So we had a oddly gendered break down in which he cooked meats and mains, and I did salad, desserts and baked goods. But I started cooking more in recent years. In part, this was because he started doing some more childcare, and it seemed like we had to balance chores. In part, it was because I needed to take hold of my diet as my metabolism slowed and my body started wanting to pack on fat. So, I started cooking a few nights a week, building more meatless meals into our schedule, as well as more fish, more chicken, more veggies.

I decided to have the kids cook not because I resented cooking at all. Instead, I thought it would be a good way to have them take ownership of something, to learn more about food, to prepare them for the future and to find a new activity to share (as they grow up and away from me). Also, I realize that nobody taught me to cook and I wish they had. My mom was of the generation that had discovered canned and frozen food as a godsend. She wanted to escape the kitchen, but never did. Even though she worked full time, she cooked every meal, and still does. To this day, at almost 80- years old, if my mother left my father he would have to survive on peanut butter sandwiches. I don't even think I have seen him open a can of soup! So, while she cooked many foods from scratch, she cooked more using ready at hand ingredients and mixes. I helped a little but was never shown how to chop an onion, how to store veggies, how to recognize cuts of meat. Instead, I heated fish sticks, heated sauce from a jar, boiled frozen vegetables, and poured pancake batter from a carton. Like many of my generation, I have been finding out about food as an adult as part of a return to the kitchen, and to whole foods.

My kids are growing up in a very different world. Most of our male friends do cook, and are generally the dominant cook in the house (in line with the gendering of cooking as male when it is gourmet and female when it is functional). Many of our friends have vegetable gardens or belong to CSAs. All shop at Farmer's Markets and eat at farm to table restaurants. Some have chickens! So, the kids have some knowledge of food, certainly greater than I did. And they have been helping in the kitchen sine they were little -- mixing muffins and granola bars and cakes, making salad dressing.

But the experiment was to have them think about a dinner, and make it as much by themselves as possible. I usually suggest a few things and they pick or they suggest something and I find a recipe. It has to be something the grown ups will like, not "kid food," whatever that is. We usually work with recipes from Cooking Light or Weight Watchers but they don't notice that they are less caloric or lower in fat because they have never made them any other way.

It has been a success. My son, who is a bit of a foodie, is the most enthusiastic. He likes to do everything himself. Seeing an eight year old chopping onions is a little nerve wracking, but he has now done it every week. He has made turkey sloppy joes, lemon pasta, pasta with sausage and spinach, fish tacos, French onion soup, pecan chicken, chicken pot pie, and more. We have made sides of sweet potatoes, butternut squash, spinach, rice, and beans. My daughter is trickier. Until recently, she only ate food that had melted cheese or peanut butter in it. She might be what they call a super taster which means she tastes things more intensely than others, but whatever the cause, she is picky (she finds "bitter" tastes in the oddest places). She has started eating some meat -- steak, ribs, bacon -- but no chicken, fish, or recognizable vegetables. So, with her I nudge slightly. We have made a cheesy potato soup, french bread pizzas, a creamy pasta which was served with peas for her brother, peas and asparagus for the adults, and plain for her. This week, we made cream of tomato soup and cheesy toasts, a recipe form Epicurious (the toasts were great, the soup so so). She lets me chop more than her brother does and gets a little bored, but she does a good amount of work and takes pride in the result.

At the end of the day, it is a nice way for us to spend time together and have a shared project. I hope it also prepares them to be independent and healthy adults, hosts, dates, and partners.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Romney Wars

I am a bit late on this, but wanted to jump in. When Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life, she misspoke. She meant, clearly, that Romney never had a paid position outside the home. Her point, that Romney would not understand family economics because of that, was not really fair or accurate. Homemakers, of course, understand what feeding a family and running a house costs and they are often responsible for dealing with family budgets and finances.

There are two points here. One, that Ann Romney would not understand the problems of ORDINARY women, because of her privilege and wealth. Has she ever had a dilemma about whether she can take a day off to take care of a sick kid because she can't afford child care and can't afford to lose a day of work? Doubtful. Does she worry about how to feed her kids nutritious food when there are no good grocery stores nearby and she does not have money for fresh whole foods? Unlikely. Put simply, her budget is not my budget, or yours. But then, neither is Michelle Obama's.

The second point, and this, to me is what is really disturbing, is that Ann Romney should not be called upon to be the voice of women at all, neither by Hilary Rosen nor by Mitt Romney. Rosen's longer comment about the Romneys began with her saying that whenever Mitt is asked about women's issues, he says "My wife tells me women are really concerned about the economy" (more than whatever women's issue you want me to talk about). So, Mitt Romney's entire policy on women and his understanding of women's issues, boils down to what his wife tells him? Really? Of course, Ann Romney is just as insular. She says that she knows how valuable her work as a homemaker is because Mitt tells her everyday that she has the hardest job in the world. Uh huh. I am sure he will continue to tell her that when, god forbid, he is in the White House. "I may be killing Planned Parenthood, decimating health care, bombing Iran, and pardoning George Zimmerman today, honey, but you have the hardest job in the world."

Anyway, my point is that no president's knowledge of women should be only what his wife tells him. If Romney had a black friend and used him to explain race relations ("Well, Bob at the gym tells me that black people are really worried that millionaires might have to pay higher taxes") we could accuse him of egregious tokenism. Talking to your wife, who is white, rich, married, and a Mormon, and assuming that means you know anything about what American women want, is worse.

Women care about lots and lots of things in this election. The economy? Hell yes, especially as women are increasingly bearing the brunt of cutbacks. Equal pay? Yup, we want it. Health care? Yes, because the war on health care is a war on women's wellness as much as anything else. Abortion? Yes, because the Republicans have put it on the table front and center and tell us daily that job #1 is to kill Planned Parenthood. Immigration? Yes, there are lots of female immigrants with American born children fearing their status and the sundering of their families? Gay Marriage? Yes, for themselves, their gay sons, and all their allies. Schools? Absolutely. Most women can't afford to send their kids to private schools.

But Romney denies any of these "social" issues as having any bearing on women's lives. He claims we only care about the economy. But I doubt that he or his wife knows what unemployment, high gas prices, low wages, and other economic issues mean to most American women.

I know I do not speak for all women. And I know that I am privileged in many ways. No one woman is the American woman. But if the Romneys want us to imagine that they care about the American woman, they'd better start listening to the multitude of voices and viewpoints out there, instead of claiming that pillow talk is sufficient politics.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Vogue for kids

I read this article in Vogue at the dentist. I was not totally horrified at the story itself. I actually sympathized with aspects of it: namely, that kids can be overweight, that being "positive" about their weight does not teach them good habits, that sometimes you have to retrain them, and that society (schools, other moms, grandmas, etc) can be an obstacle. A few years back, we had to explicitly talk to my son about portions because he, like the girl in the story, did not have an automatic stop. We did not call him fat or call it a diet but we expressed a concern and dealt with it. And we continue to deal with it, to figure out how to encourage his wonderful interest in food while helping him think about food in terms of health as well as pleasure.

The author was aware of the gender politics of her story-- concerns that she might be imposing a beauty ideal rather than a health ideal, concerns about creating anxiety around food which, with girls especially, can contribute to eating disorders.

In the context of debates about obesity among kids, an honest essay about how kids get fat and what has to be done to change their habits and societal habits to fix it serves a real purpose. This article did not necessarily deal with larger issues such as how class or race figure in obesity rates, but it raised some issues to which many parents could probably relate.

Okay, fine. The problem was not the content per se, but its placement in Vogue!

Not only does the story's juxtaposition with fashion spreads featuring rail thin models send a deeply mixed message about the mandate to lose weight, but the story also participated in this double message by including photos of the girl and her mom. Thankfully, they did not subject the girl to a before/after spread. But they included two photos of her now, at her "good"weight, wearing high end clothing, looking like, well, a model. These photos function to render thin beautiful, not healthy. And they make a nine year old girl into a fashion figure, literally a role model. But they do not emphasize fitness, as the story claims to do. They do not show the girl being active, but passively lounging. They do not show her in her karate uniform, though karate was supposedly key to her weight loss and newfound fitness. The pictures include her mom, who admits in the article to her own history with eating issues, if not eating disorders. So what are these pictures of her about? What value do they serve?

Why photograph the girl or her mom her at all? Do we, as readers, need proof of her weight loss? Do we need to see the mom, to know whether she is fat or thin? Would the story mean less without pictures? I do not think so. In fact, the potentially positive information in the article is undercut by the images. The daughter, experiencing a very private pain (and the article makes clear how painful and potentially damaging this diet was) is exposed first to doctors, friends and family as an overeater, then to readers as an overeater/dieter, and again, in photos, as a "successfully thin" girl, an image to which few, including her, should have to aspire.