Changing eating habits

It was burger night. Unlike everyone else, my son’s burger was plain; he wouldn’t let lettuce and tomato ruin his hamburger. The cousins sat together at the bar, boys to one side, the giggly girls to the other. Coughing and vomiting suddenly hushed all laughter and conversation. “Ewww! Gross,” the girls shrieked.

A cousin had pranked my son, hiding a small piece of lettuce in his burger. Everything in my kid’s stomach now decorated his once-plain burger. I caught my weary head in my hands. This scene was a vivid reminder that our son had issues with vegetables. He started rejecting fresh produce as a toddler but it wasn’t until he began gagging and throwing-up that I accepted his aversion wasn’t in his mind or a childish act of rebellion. With the exception of applesauce, he simply couldn’t tolerate the texture of produce.

Junk food aficionado

As he grew, he enjoyed junk food of every kind, like any kid. Candy. Ice cream. Cookies. Soda. Chips. When junior high arrived, energy drinks were the rage and my son’s friends introduced him to Monster and later, Red Bull. I felt helpless as a mom, trying to balance what I knew was ‘normal’ while also agonizing that, unlike most kids, my son refused carrots or grapes. He looked like the picture of health, but I worried that a lifetime of bad eating habits would dog him.

My admonitions that he re-try fruits and vegetables every so often— “Give them a second chance!”— didn’t only fall on deaf ears, they deepened his resistance. All things considered, I let go. I couldn’t fix this. Instead, I choose to prioritize my relationship with him. And then, one day, everything started changing. My son was required to read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma Young Readers Edition for his high school freshman English class. Using the question “What’s for dinner?” as a prompt, Pollan unpacks what is hidden in the everyday foods we consume. My teen son’s curiosity was whet. What he learned appalled him. “Do you actually know what we are eating, Mom?”

Changed, by the book

His reaction was pure disgust as he learned what comprises processed food. Frowning, he read food labels. Around the dinner table he singled out corn, but not in the way you may think.

“Corn-filler is slipped into just about everything we eat. It’s terrible for you!” I was being lectured, but I didn’t mind. Overnight, he had morphed into an advocate for health and wellness, urging me to quit buying white rice. White rice, he explained, was stripped of all its protein and minerals so it had a longer shelf life. “Brown rice is loaded with protein. Get that.” Nodding, I listened in silence. This book was teaching him in ways I couldn’t.

When he changed, I had to change, too. I had been regularly buying ice cream for my teens but suddenly it got freezer-burn. He quit asking me to buy Cool Whip, previously used to top whatever he fancied. He cut back on all of the processed foods I’d stocked in the pantry. Pretzels, Cheez-Its, unacceptable. Energy drinks? No way. He instead increased his water intake.

Healthy to a t(ea)

Now, on an ordinary school night, I tap on his bedroom door. “Tea.” He’s quit eating dessert and instead, ends the day with hot tea. Taking chamomile back to his room also gives me a chance to say good-night to my high schooler. In the morning, out of the corner of my eye, I see him remove a bag of Pringles I had placed into his brown-bag lunch.

“That’s junk, Mom. Empty calories.” He reaches instead for almonds and cashews.

“I’m still getting the hang of this!” Truly, I am. There may come a day when he reattempts a hamburger with lettuce. But even if he doesn’t, his foundational thinking about food and health no longer troubles me.

I know I can’t take any credit for this victory and honestly, it doesn’t matter. I long ago accepted that it takes a village to raise a child. And now I recognize that books are influential members of this community as well.