I walked down the damp hallway past the entrance to the visitors’ locker room just as my teenage daughter and her friends emerged. Fresh from the game, each held a bucket-sized frozen slushie the color of antifreeze. They stopped, startled. “Are you mad?”, one ventured, as their eyes met mine. Before I could answer, another replied softly, “No, she’s not mad. She’s just wondering if her life’s work was a waste.”
Barely stifling my laugh at her fabulously dramatic tone, I quickly assured them, “We’re all good! I just can’t get over how well you guys played today. Such a fun game!”
But as I walked away, and in the weeks since, I’ve thought a lot about whether the neon slushie bucket meant that my decades of work promoting healthful eating was indeed a waste. Certainly, it’s not the slushie itself – we’ve always included some “experiential eating” along with our sustainably-produced, nutrient-dense selections. The real question is probably just as much about parenting itself. How can we know if what we’ve taught them – what we’ve said, what we’ve done – will translate to the character and life skills that we’d hoped to impart?
As for food, it’s been a big deal to us. Even before kids, my husband and I saw our commitment to sustainable agriculture and fair trade as central to our family values. And then when our girls came along, the notion of thoughtfully nourishing their little minds and bodies became our primary focus. We taught them to eat a rainbow. We introduced them to local farmers. And, when they got to school, we fought for health-focused lunch service and comprehensive wellness policies.
So . . . was it worth it?
Upon reflection, I’m putting forth a tentative yes, based in part on the following observations:
1. They learned the fundamentals of decision-making.
Get information. From reliable sources. Consider associated factors. Weigh carefully. Yes, I originally meant to teach them to consult the Harvard School of Public Health nutrition guidelines to help make good choices for a balanced diet. But as they prepare to head off on their own – with so many important decisions to be made every day – I’m hoping they’ll see the connection.
2. They learned to cook.
Since my commitment to scratch cooking failed to magically change me into Mrs. Cleaver, this was actually a benefit for the whole family. From the youngest ages, I made my girls wash, chop, grind, grate, and peel – mostly to keep me company at first, but eventually they accumulated a large repertoire of delicious, nutrient-dense recipes (allowing me to sneak back out of the kitchen). In fact, as I write this, they’re whipping up a batch of banana muffins to freeze for this week’s breakfasts. Through trial and error, they’ve learned how much of my flax seed and/or chia can be added without making them embarrassing to share with friends.
3. They learned to budget.
Without delving too deeply into the sensitive discussion of whether nutritious food costs more, I’ll say that, for us, price has always been a factor. To make things work, we learned to buy in season, to comparison shop, and to seek out sales and coupons. We bought in bulk when possible and stocked up when we’d find staples on sale. We found resources like EWG’s Dirty Dozen guide to help us decide which items to buy organic. Eventually, the kids actually took the lead here, as they loved finding apps to support our efforts.
4. They learned to love their bodies.
Parents of teenagers will attest to what a huge victory this is – and one I’ll admit that I didn’t premeditate. In fact, only recently have I realized how differently they view their bodies than I did at their age. There’s a kindness – a caretaking – that seems to fly in the face of both the barrage of media images and, frankly, my own complicated relationship with my mirror self. I carefully raised the question of why it may be – I really don’t want to ruin this one! – to which my younger daughter replied thoughtfully, “I think maybe it’s just good that we know a lot about food. We know the facts. We know what our bodies need and which foods provide that. So when all the talk gets unhealthy and sad and emotional, we just force ourselves back to the facts.” Ok, I’m good with that.
5. They learned to stand up for what they believe.
Many years ago, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher flagged me down in the hallway to direct my attention to a circle of girls in the back of the classroom. Focused as could be, the happy five-year-olds were “playing Health and Wellness Committee.” In thinking of them modeling their mommies in those days, I love that they saw dedicated, informed women working together to advance a shared goal. We were noncompetitive and collaborative in a way I now know to be a rare treasure, and we leveraged the strengths of each individual in developing and implementing our strategic plan. Just as importantly, we faced strong opposition, some of which was brutally personal and painful. I love that the kids saw us persevere, stick together, and stay focused on our mission.
6. They learned the power of community.
This one might really be about me. Related to the previous observation, I enjoyed the immeasurable benefit of raising my kids in community with super-smart, super-funny, super-dedicated rockstar moms. Truly incredible women! In thinking of them, I’m reminded of the Harry Chapin, Pete Seeger observation of commitment – that in dedicating yourself to an important issue, you might never know if you’ve made a difference – but you will have spent your life with “the people with the live hearts, the live eyes, the live heads.” Truly worthwhile. (Thank you, ladies!)
7. They learned to appreciate good food.
They learned to garden. They learned a profound appreciation for nature. They learned about nutrition, politics, labeling laws, pesticides, GMOs, and food systems.
Of course growing up with a “food mom”, my daughters have a heightened awareness of the issues that have been my personal and profession focus throughout their lives. How much of that carries over into their own interests and values, though, remains to be seen.
Perhaps they’ll wander, as I did, from my mom’s amazing kitchen – did I mention that she was an alphafa-sprouting, wheat germ and carob mom in the early 70s? And despite my deep love affair with Captain Crunch when I first set out on my own, my mom had successfully instilled in me the notion that food matters. It matters to our health, to our environment, and to our economy. If I’ve done the same for my girls, I’ll say it was worth it.