This morning for breakfast Alice had chocolate milk and an individual container of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Hugh had grape juice and two cups of strawberry banana yogurt. When I was testing ledes for this newsletter, I went back and forth between a few and ultimately decided I had to go with the one that I was most embarrassed to share with anyone else, and that was this one, the chocolate-milk-and-grape-juice, blowing-past-the-daily-sugar-recommendation-before-9-am-on-a-weekday one.
Toward the end of last year, Cambridge Public Schools made breakfast free for all students. The goal was, A, to make sure that kids start the day having eaten, and, B, to make school breakfast easy and stigma-free. Everybody was encouraged to take advantage of it. So we do. There is a hot, healthy breakfast option every day that usually looks delicious (breakfast burritos, zucchini bread, yogurt parfaits), along with big baskets of whole fresh fruit; there’s plenty of sugar-free and low-sugar cereal; there’s definitely plain milk.
But it’s Alice’s school cafeteria and it’s her school breakfast and I decided early on that I needed to back the fuck off because it has got to be embarrassing even for a kindergartener for her mom to be hovering over her shoulder nagging her to “take the white milk,” plus if she rode the bus to school I wouldn’t be there to even see what she was eating in the first place. So I go sit down at a long table while Alice goes and gets food, which she shares with Hugh. (For the record, yes I have tried to pay for him and no they never let me, so I donate monthly to the Weekend Backpack program instead, let’s just get that out of the way right now.) And then I sit with her and usually several other kids and occasionally some parents, and we have a very pleasant and even somewhat leisurely meal. I can ask the kids mommish questions like “what were you for Halloween” and do mommish things like open their milk and peel their oranges for them and help them put the right things in the compost.
Ultimately, though, the reason this meal is so nice is that I can mostly just sit with my coffee (brought from home) and, like, enjoy being with people who are enjoying eating food that I did not have to cook, while they tell me terrible and not-funny jokes and talk in “penguin voice” and occasionally ask questions (“Alice said you’re having a baby. Well, how do you know?”) Hugh is usually the only three-year-old there and clearly feels like a very cool big kid, to the extent that it is slightly heartbreaking when he occasionally does an uncool three-year-old thing like falling off a bench or spilling a lot of juice on his pants.
I’ve been thinking about our pleasant school breakfasts amid the sure-took-long-enough family-dinner backlash, which is still a somewhat niche backlash at this point but which seemed to appear around the time that people started talking about emotional labor.
Of course it’s possible — likely, even — that debate about this has always existed and I just didn’t start noticing it or caring about until I had kids who were old enough to conceivably be my dinner companions, at which point I identified an obligation that mothers have suffered under for generations (my own mother wrote a cookbook about feeding picky kids, which I’ll write about in the next newsletter) and decided it was new and unique to my generation. But I think it’s become better defined now and more nuanced. There’s this piece by Zoe Fenson that came out last month and was passed, enthusiastically and angrily, around my moms’ cooking group, where most of us found Fenson had put into words concepts that had been driving us crazy but that we hadn’t quite defined until then.
There was also a book that came out this year, Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, by three sociologists who spent years interviewing women from low- and middle-income families about home cooking. All of these women had internalized the idea that family dinners and homemade meals were incredibly important; many of them were also faced with financial and space constraints that made home cooking even more burdensome than it is for the people who bemoan it online like my friends and me. “Women have found lots of happiness and joy and creativity through cooking over the years. It’s certainly a rewarding experience to feed your family and have them enjoy that, but there’s another side of that coin. That is the day-to-day slog of making meals, and feeding people, and dealing with different food preferences. That’s not easy, and that’s the story that just never seems to get told about women of any era,” coauthor Joslyn Brenton told Vox (in an interview that is worth reading in full and also includes some Michael Pollan bashing, see below!)
My parents and brother and I ate homemade meals, together, pretty much every night while I was growing up. My mother-in-law, who also worked full-time, did it for seven kids every night. But my family doesn’t do this now. The kids and I get home around six, Kevin usually doesn’t get home until at least a couple hours later, and I let the kids watch an episode and try to throw some fruits and vegetables in front of them while I as fast as I can fix them a dinner that they will probably eat, which is some rotation of mac and cheese, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, peanut butter sandwiches, or breakfast for dinner. It needs to be something that takes twenty minutes or fewer to make because if they hit the next episode while I’m still cooking the evening tends to fall apart. They tend to be (act?) staggeringly hungry when they get home but sometimes still eat almost nothing, which on the one hand seems like a reason not to even bother making food they like but on the other hand it seems even more depressing to spend the weeknight time we already don’t have cooking something more elaborate that they still won’t eat. I usually read to the kids while they eat or play a podcast for them, and then I eat dinner after they’re in bed, either with Kevin or, if he’s not home yet, by myself, while reading a book. We’ll eat leftovers of stuff we made on the weekend, or some thrown-together not-kid food, or I’ll eat my cozy single girl dinner of a broccoli and cheese melt or cheese and crackers or just a large dessert or whatever. I hope I’m not making this sound sad, because let me be clear: It’s so nice. It’s so relaxing.
“Eat alone. On a couch. Mostly carbs,” as Michael Pollan never wrote. I let Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman set these rules in my head for so long, and I don’t know why except that they were the food people I was reading as I was growing up and starting to think about the food I’d cook as an adult. Mark Bittman’s column began running in The New York Times in 1997, when I was 13 and first getting really interested in cooking. I’d read the Dining section of the paper when I got home from school. How to Cook Everything was the first general reference cookbook I owned. And then there was Michael Pollan, whose book The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out in 2006, the year I graduated from college. Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle came out a year later, and I devoured that one too and rhapsodized about it to my mother, who told me she found it “a little preachy,” which made no sense to me. I read these books at a time when I had many bossy ideas about how I would live as a grownup and how I’d cook for my hypothetical kids who obviously would eat everything placed in front of them; I read them at a time when I had a lot of time, period.
Today, I do not cook Bittman’s recipes ever. His watermelon burgers are a subject of ridicule in my moms’ group. I don’t actually remember any part of Pollan’s whole spiel besides the “Eat food…” thing; I mostly think of him as the person who took tiny amounts of LSD in a book I didn’t read. But somehow it was those men who I was imagining hovering over my shoulder as I heated up the dinosaur nuggets, saying, “You know, in the 15 minutes it takes to bake those nuggets, you could make a pretty decent pot of weeknight beans in broth.”
Mark Bittman is 69. 69! He’s older than my dad. The daughter he writes about here is older than me. In the lede of that piece he brags about how his daughter ate broccoli as a six-month-old. “I recognize how unusual it was then and remains now,” he writes. SPOILER ALERT MARK IT’S NOT UNUSUAL! BABIES UNDER 1 WILL EAT ANYTHING IT’S NOT UNTIL THEY ARE OLDER THAT THEY GET PICKY BUT WHY WOULD YOU REMEMBER THIS YOU ARE A 69 YEAR OLD MAN, ALTHOUGH COME TO THINK OF IT MAYBE THAT MEANS YOU SHOULDN’T BE WRITING AUTHORITATIVE OP-EDS ABOUT FEEDING LITTLE KIDS? Michael Pollan is 64 and has one son who is, according to my Googling, in his mid-twenties. Again, these men are not my peers and it took literally five minutes of internet searching to break whatever weird spell they somehow still had over me. I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner.
A 60-something man’s food rules have no power over me nor should they! I tell it to myself and I’ve started to actually hear it although it doesn’t mean I don’t still have imaginary conversations with them. Take the school cafeteria breakfast. There is a lot of sugar in this, I tell Michael and Mark, waving an individual serving container of Cinnamon Toast Crunch at them. Your grandmothers wouldn’t recognize this! I mean, mine would but yours wouldn’t, you guys are too old. But look, here I am, sitting at a table, eating, surrounded by other children who are eating. We’re eating breakfast together and I didn’t even have to cook anything. What about your food rules now, hmmmm?
Though ironically I often sit breakfast now with a first-grade boy who literally recites rules to me. In this case, however, I find it charming. When Alice and Hugh and I are sitting eating, he comes over and sits down with us. (“Aw, he likes me!” I found myself thinking the other day, then realized no, duh, it is Alice he likes.) He tells us the reasons that we should not use straws. “Reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reduce is first,” he explained to us the other day. And today: “When an ‘I’ announces itself, an ‘E’ comes along for the ride.” That’s the rule for silent E’s. A rule kids can follow until they start finding exceptions to it.