Something we get a lot of questions, suggestions, and criticisms about is Maren’s food habits– which always catches me off guard, because it’s one of those things that just makes sense to me.
When Maren was four months old, we started making her food at home (which you may remember). I can count on one hand the number of baby food jars we bought for her, and we never ever bought a box of that rice flake stuff (yes– we even made our own cereal AND our own yogurt). We loved it, and she loved it. We started out doing this mostly as a way to save money (and it did– bundles of it) but after we started making our own food we started being more conscious about what other ‘foods’ have in them. Those Gerber Baby TV dinners, for example. There are so many un-pronounceable ingredients in one of those boxes. It made me feel really good, whenever someone asked me what Maren was eating, to be able to say, “Broccoli and salmon.” And those really were the only two ingredients.
When she started doing solid food, her daycare (and most daycares) required that she be moved to the food program, along with all of the other kids. In our particular case, we were able to work it out and they made an exception for Maren. But when we moved daycares, we had to go through the whole process all over again.
For ease of reading, I’ll define ‘food program’ as I understand it. The USDA puts out rules about what kids (and adults) that are in care should be eating every day. I honestly don’t know what all the requirements are for toddlers, but I know there are two categories. One is food quantity, and one is food types. So like, for example, at breakfast Maren would have to have 3/4 cups of grains, accompanied by either juice or fruit, and a glass of milk. So, fruit loops, milk, and orange juice, or a breakfast fruit bar and milk. For lunch, she needs to also have a meat and vegetable component (each with respective required quantities), in addition to starch, fruit, and milk. The people who make the food fulfill these requirements in a variety of ways. For example, potatoes count as both a vegetable and a starch, but they can’t count as both in one day. But spuds are cheap. This is why, if you look at your child’s daycare menu, you will see them eating potatoes three to four times a week. Additionally, if they eat something like…. corn dogs or chicken fried steak… the breading on the meat counts as their starch. That might make perfect sense to some of you out there…… but not to me. Oh yeah, AND the fruit? Ever see a can of fruit cocktail, packed in either water or syrup? The water and syrup COUNT as part of a portion. So when they measure 3/4 of a cup, it doesn’t necessarily have to be all fruit.
Also notice: the requirements are food types and quantity….. not quality.
Additionally, there are no rules about food preparation. There are no rules about how much salt, butter, sugar, or preservatives can be added to any food. As long as food isn’t expired, it doesn’t matter how long ago it was prepared before it was served.
In order to be sure that their rules are followed– and, to be clear, I don’t really think there’s a problem with the USDA’s rules, per se– the government reimburses child cares for the amount of money that they spend on food. Then the schools go out and buy the food from outside companies– which is why we all had the same rectangle shaped pizza at school when we were kids. There are bunches of school food catering companies.
Here’s the thing: I don’t really think that schools are the enemy. With childhood obesity being such a hot topic right now, schools are getting handed a lot of crap for the food that they are providing the kids. I don’t really think that’s fair. I’ve never, ever met a public school administrator, kitchen worker, or teacher who discourages the kids from bringing their own food from home– but no one wants hungry kids, either. So if they aren’t sent with food, they need to eat something. The school does their best to keep costs down– for everyone. So they do what they can.
But day cares– for whatever reason– don’t have the same feelings, in most cases. Nearly every child care we toured for Maren required that she be on the food program. Required.
This did not make any sense to us, and we wanted to know why. We were told that if Maren had her own food, the other kids would try to steal it, and vice versa. We were also told that if we kept ‘coddling’ her she would grow up spoiled. We were even told that if we didn’t do the food program, she could get food allergies– which almost made me laugh out loud.
We were given a menu, but that didn’t make us feel better– because as an ex-child care employee and observer of school lunches by and large, I know for a fact that the meat balls they serve at lunch were NOT THE SAME as the meat balls that I made at home. The ‘salad’ was often a handful of shredded iceberg lettuce, often with ranch dressing mixed right in. There were never other vegetables in the ‘salad.’ The mac and cheese was so thick with cheese that you could shingle a roof with it– and when I asked about whole grain noodles, people wrinkled their noses and felt sorry for Maren.
Fresh fruit is almost nonexistent. Usually, bananas, apples, and oranges are it. Fresh vegetables are represented a little bit better….. but it kind of depends on your definition of ‘fresh.’
We observed a lot of lunches at a lot of child cares. We looked at our beautiful baby, who had only ever eaten food that I had made with my own hands, knowing every ingredient and exactly how it was prepared. In the end, we just couldn’t do it. So we refused.
Luckily, Maren’s in a daycare now where we can bring her food and no one says a word. It took some searching. In most places, when we mentioned that being able to bring our own food was a deal-breaker, the daycare agreed, and sent us on our way. This is shocking to me– really shocking. I can’t believe that the loss of tuition is worth participation in the food program.
We’ve been at this now for a year and a half, and like I said, we get lots of questions about our choice and our method. So I am here to tell you– you can do it! and its worth it! And your healthy happy adult child will thank you someday!
1) The hardest part: You have to actually make the food.
This was a hard adjustment for us, I won’t lie. When she was a little baby and just ate baby food, it was very easy. But once she got older and into solid foods, we had to change our eating habits, too. We’ve gotten used to that now. The hardest adjustment, I think, was switching to whole wheat pasta, and not adding salt and butter to everything (and for the record: I now completely prefer whole wheat pasta over white pasta. Sooooo much better tasting, so much more filling, and I need a lot less added stuff to make it tasty).
Every Saturday I plan our menu for the week. I have a few cookbooks that I love– my most favorite is the slow cooker book. We eat from the slow cooker at least once a week, sometimes twice, depending on our schedule. For the rest of the meals, I thumb through the books and seriously pick things that have the least amount of ingredients. I’ve gotten better at cooking this last year– but that doesn’t mean I like it.
The other night, we had tilapia baked with dill, salt and pepper. I mashed potatoes with real butter. I also steamed some broccoli without adding anything to it.
When I was dishing up, I got out a little lunch box we use for Maren. It has three compartments and a lid. We bought it at Target for like three dollars. I took out a portion of potatoes and broccoli right away for Maren to eat the next day. I baked an extra fillet of fish, and packed that up, too. So before we even sat down to dinner, Maren’s lunch for tomorrow was packed. Doing it this way means that it’s done, for one thing, but also that we won’t accidentally eat all the food and then be stuck having to find something else for Maren— which has happened before. Usually on spaghetti night.
For breakfast, we have three options. Oatmeal, which we make the morning of (takes about ten minutes on stove top), an egg with toast, or cereal. Maren loves her some generic brand organic Honey-Nut Cheerios. In the past, I used to make a loaf of banana bread (with applesauce instead of butter), or something like that, and send a piece for breakfast, but Maren didn’t eat it very well. She’s not much into sweets, I guess. Weirdo.
We also pack an afternoon snack. Maren’s favorite is a stick of string cheese and some fresh fruit– which takes zero time. Zero. We’ve also packed cottage cheese with fruit, veggie sticks (with no dressing. I’m a mean mom), or a sandwich. She also loves soy yogurt. Sometimes I pack something sweet…. but again, she’s not a big fan. Basically, we want to use things we would all ready have around the house for her.
People make a lot of different food choices for their kid– some do vegetarian, or limit carbs, limit dairy, what-have-you. For Maren, we basically just want to emphasize whole foods, organic whenever we can, local whenever we can, and prepared in a way that will keep as many nutrients intact as possible. I kind of try to alternate her proteins– so we don’t have cow eight times in a row– and try to have fish twice a week at a minimum. Mitch doesn’t like fish…. so… we do what we can. We don’t limit her calories, her sugar intake (although she is not allowed to have high fructose corn syrup), or anything like that.
Mostly we just want her to eat something real.
2) Be nice.
Having been a child care worker for many years, I know what its like to be on the other side of things. Especially in Maren’s age group, the kids are HUNGRY at lunch time. They stand at your feet and cry while you try to put their lunch together as quickly as you can. Lunch happens so quickly that by the time you have the last kid fed the first kid is done– and usually you need to get them ready for nap right away. The majority of the kids are all eating the same lunch– it’s frustrating to have to stop and remember one special lunch, especially if you have to microwave or open containers or put something together.
If you have to, pack a lunch that can just be kept cold– like a sandwich, yogurt, and fresh fruit. Get it into one container if you can. Do not demand or expect that the container will be washed before its sent home. And ask them how its working for them. Would it be better if we brought in a gallon of milk, or three sippy cups? Would it be better if we labeled the food? Would it work better if the food was as close to the other kids’ menu possible?
Try to be flexible. As long as Maren is presented with her food at the same time as the other kids, I try not to worry too much about the details. Maren has never cried for the other kid’s food, to my knowledge, or vice versa. And even if she did…. well… tough titties. She’ll thank us later. But when you’re nice and polite to the staff, they are a lot more willing to make exceptions and do the extra work for your baby.
3. Stand your ground.
Mitch is better about this than I am (shocking, I know). We try to be as courteous as we can be, but we don’t give an inch. Many people have tried to make us feel like this choice is not very important (it is). Most people have tried to convince us by saying that we’d save money (we wouldn’t).
Remember the bit about being nice? The nicer you are, the less ammunition they have. When I put Maren’s cold lunch into one container and tell them they don’t have to microwave anything, they don’t have to open anything else, they don’t have to put it on a plate, etc, then there really is no excuse. I haven’t made their job all that very difficult. And I’ve called them out, too. I’ve stayed professional, done my best to keep a cool head, but I’ve asked them, point blank– what’s the problem here? All I’m asking you to do is open a container for my kid. Is that really so hard?
Keep your eye on the prize. Remember what’s at stake here. Remember what’s at risk. Don’t let them talk you out of it.
Food is an issue that Mitch and I have kind of chosen to be our cross to crawl up on and die. Mitch and I are both overweight, and have been all our lives. Maren has never been overweight, in fact, she’s only slightly above average for her age group. She’s a very healthy toddler, and we’re hoping that these choices will train her taste buds so that she makes healthy decisions even after she’s started making some of her own choices.
Keep at it. If enough of us do this, eventually something will have to change. The reason that the food program is able to get away with making such terrible, cheap food for our kids is because we continue to eat it and pay for it. Don’t do it. Make a different choice.