I went gluten-free 11(ish?) years ago. I’m not allergic, I just feel better when I don’t eat it — less bloated, no cystic acne, etc. I have been eating it while pregnant, because…I’m pregnant? And anything goes right now.
One of the things that C and I have always had in common is a desire to eat as healthy as we can. He’s a gym owner and personal trainer, and I work at lululemon, so we are always surrounded by pretty fit people who like to take care of themselves. (That said, I often find myself in the position of managing 20 year-olds, and a lot of what they like to eat is horrifying. Have you all heard of these Nerd clusters things?!)
We also don’t eat a ton of sugar. I did fall in love with baking and baked a LOT in the peak pandemic years — so we do have sugar in the house; it’s not like we’re psycho about it, but it’s just how we choose to live and we treat these things like treats. It annoys some family members quite a bit. I get it, people feel like they need to make special accommodations just for us, which is annoying. But I don’t preach to anyone that they need to eat a certain way; I’ve come a long way in that regard. I’ve actually come a long way in my food journey, because there were days that I used to weigh my spinach. Seriously.
V has always eaten this way, because we do. And she’s often a very picky eater, so at first during the school year everything was totally fine and she never had snack envy. But over time, as I knew she would, she grew curious about the snacks given out during her after school program and began to be upset when she couldn’t try them. The woman who runs the program doesn’t really make it a priority to stock healthy snacks for the kids (she actually rolled her eyes when I first brought up that C is a personal trainer and that we’re gluten and sugar free by choice), and so what was happening was that at snack time, Cheetos and Oreos and whatever else were getting passed out, V would see the kids getting really excited, and she started to feel left out.
At first, C and I took the approach of, “Hey, we don’t eat that stuff. There aren’t good ingredients in it, it’s not good for your body, etc.” But the after school director eventually said, “She’s really starting to react when she can’t have this stuff; I think we need to institute a ‘sometimes’ rule versus a ‘never’ rule.” (I happen to know that a ‘sometimes’ rule was already happening, because V would sometimes say things like, “Well I don’t like the chocolate Oreos but the golden ones are good.” Ugh.)
So we instituted the ‘sometimes’ rule. Like I said, V is picky, so often she would tell me she tried something but didn’t like it. Or she would ask me if a specific item had a lot of sugar in it, or was “gluden-free” (lol).
I can always tell the days she has sugar. This kid is almost six years-old; she only started school this year and was always home before that. I know her. So sometimes when she’s extra wacky on a day I pick her up, I’ll simply ask if she had sugar that day. She’ll usually tell me.
Today, though, she shook her head and said “No I didn’t,” but I saw a strange look in her eye.
“Are you sure?” I asked her. “You seem to have a lot of extra energy after such a long day!”
She burst into tears.
“Whoa whoa whoa, what’s going on?” I asked gently, surprised by her emotion.
“I think you’re going to be so mad at me and think I made a big mistake!” she wailed as big tears appeared from nowhere and fell down her cheeks. “I think you and Dad are going to be so angry!”
“Hey, I’m not angry,” I said in my most soothing and trying-to-mask-my-surprise-to-this-big-reaction voice. “You can tell me anything. I don’t think you made a mistake. It’s not a mistake to try something.”
“Well I had an Oreo,” she sobbed, “but it was the lemon one and Mom I really didn’t like it, I don’t like lemon stuff! But I’m so scared you’ll be so mad at me!”
In my mind, I saw a big red STOP sign flash in front of my eyes. I knew right away that whatever subtle (or perhaps not subtle at ALL) messages about food we were transmitting to V were not working. And beyond that, our opinions about food were making her feel guilty about wanting to try things, and the guilt was making her hide it from us.
This wasn’t the first untruth she told me this week. And kids lie — I get it. When faced with authoritative disapproval versus getting away with it, I always want to get away with it too! But this is uncommon behavior for her. And while I know I can’t prevent all lying, I did know immediately that C and I had to change our approach to being more supportive and encouraging, ASAP.
I talked to C as soon as he got home and of course we’re both aligned in understanding that she should be able to have treat foods and not be excluded from the group. We immediately made a pact to be more supportive about food choices and also how we speak about food. Using “I” instead of “we;” for example, “I choose not to eat gluten because it doesn’t make me feel good, but lots of people eat it and it feels good for them. You can check in with your body and see if it feels good for you.”
But I would be dishonest if I said I wasn’t frustrated with this program director. I talked to the other parents, and some of them expressed similar frustration. One family who has a celiac member actually pulled their son out of this program for this exact reason.
Knowing we’re having another girl, and how much I’ve just been through with my OWN body these last 40 years, I’m so mindful about this precious formative time for V — wanting to feed her well and make good choices, but wanting her to feel free to try things and not feel judged by us. I myself am currently monitoring my blood sugar after every meal because I’m on the edge of gestational diabetes…me! Gluten-free, sugar-free me!
I have a friend whose mom raised her and her siblings super duper healthy. She would pour a splash of juice into carbonated water and call it “soda.” They never had fast food, never ate sugar. These kids grew up and my friend told me they all have different, disordered issues with food. Meanwhile, I grew up on fast food, probably eating it 4-5 times a week. In my teens I started to gain weight rapidly, and truthfully have never fully been able to be happy with my body since then. I also have issues with food.
This is not what I want for V or our younger daughter. The closest I’ve gotten to a healthy body image is letting myself eat what I want with good ingredients and mindful substitutes. I figured I was doing the right thing to raise our family this way. But am I?
And so I’m left thinking about: Do you let your kids eat shit snacks that are NOT good for them so they can fit in? So they don’t lie to you about it? So they don’t get teased about it? How far is too far re: healthy eating with kids? Shouldn’t an educator in a school system be inclusive about kids who eat differently?
What is even the right way to feed our kids?