Food Values

Jeremy wants to allow Nora to eat whatever she wants outside of the house once she gets old enough to have opinions. I’m inclined to agree, but with complications.

We both agreed that one of the benefits of becoming a vegetarian was that it made for an easy line in the sand. It was easy to resist pressure from well-meaning friends and family to eat meat because vegetarianism is so well-defined. (I’m sorry, but chicken is not a vegetable.) And it was easy to resist unhealthy drive-through options like McDonalds because it was categorically off limits. The line in the sand gets blurred if the family rule becomes “vegetarian in restaurants, eat sustainably at home.” What if grass-fed beef or wild-caught fish is on the menu? Or what if friends are having a barbecue – isn’t it a bit of an insult to say, we won’t eat your food because our meat is better than your? Also, it really does become easier to say “just this once” when you’re really craving restaurant steak of factory-farmed origin. Losing the vegetarian line in the sand opens the door to hair-splitting and temptation.

I guess what it boils down to is that I have several values I want to instill in Nora, not all of which are necessarily compatible with each other or easy to explain to a young child.

Food is love. Not fuel. First and foremost, I want Nora to enjoy eating. It’s so deeply engrained in Chinese culture to show love by preparing good food. I can’t imagine destroying this fundamental relationship with food by putting tasty food off limits or making a virtue out of resisting tasty food.

Eat real food. Not garbage. My hope is that if I put enough healthy, satisfying, home-cooked meals in front of Nora, I won’t be stuck with a kid who only eats Mac and Cheese and chicken nuggets out of a box. Treats are fine, but in moderation.

Enjoy eating local. Jeremy and I love farmer’s markets and CSA boxes. A good part of the enjoyment comes from enjoying the outdoor shopping experience and admiring the gorgeous produce. Food is more than what ends up on the table. It’s also the purchasing and the preparation. If those elements are enjoyable, real food is much more likely to make it to the table.

Sustainability matters, even when it’s invisible. I wish I had a sophisticated enough palate to distinguish between factory-farmed meat and fish vs. grassfed, pastured, wild-caught meat and fish, but I honestly don’t. I can’t even taste the difference between supermarket eggs and pastured eggs. So Nora will eventually have to learn to trust her brain as well as her taste buds when it comes to finding the most sustainably sourced food. (I will say that farmer’s market produce is hands down more delicious than your average supermarket produce, and garden veggies are probably even tastier.)

Temptation is everywhere. Learn to resist temptation. I hate the way Americans’ relationship with food seems to revolve entirely around resisting temptation, to the point where “healthy” food no longer even tastes good. But the reality is that there’s a lot of garbage masquerading as food out there and Nora will eventually have to learn to resist temptation. It would have been easier with a line in the sand like vegetarianism. I don’t know what we will teach without such a line in the sand.

Food is an adventure. Be omnivorous. Jeremy, bless his soul, is the least picky eater I know and I’m sure that’s a good part of the reason I married him. As a vegetarian, he was willing to try thousand-year old eggs and would have been happy to try stinky tofu and durian if any of my family members other than my deceased grandmother actually liked that stuff. Once I started eating meat and fish again after becoming pregnant, he was happy to accompany me. I made liver and onions and badly overcooked the liver, but he still ate it and said it wasn’t bad (I thought it was disgusting). Life is just too short to be picky. Delicious adventures await for those who are willing to try new cuisines and new ingredients. I admit, I’ll be very sad if my little girl doesn’t grow up to be adventurous.

Hospitality trumps special diets. This is a tough one. As a host, I’d want to accommodate someone who was vegetarian for religious reasons or gluten-free for health reasons. But as a guest, I think it’s extremely rude to show up with demands. The value I want to teach Nora is that when someone extends their hospitality, you eat what you’re served whether you like it or not, and you do your best to like it. Breaking bread is about friendship and a common roof. I want Nora to understand that sharing food with others serves not just the purpose of nourishment, but also community.

Preach judiciously. This is another tough one. Jeremy was never one to rub vegetarianism in other peoples’ faces. He just wanted to live and let live. I’ve always been more vocal about whatever food topics interested me, but even I never saw the point in guilt-tripping others for eating supermarket meat. At some level, I think we all know the system is twisted and disgusting (as Mark Bittman says, he believes that it is ethical to eat animals but not ethical to torture them). People face it when they’re ready to face it. I want Nora to be brave enough to be an activist, but tempered enough to know what battles are worth picking. I’m not sure Jeremy and I set the best examples here. We vote with our feet by buying local, but we don’t do a lot of face-to-face (or social media) advocacy.