I embraced my 16-year-old daughter in front of the baggage claim at LaGuardia, taking in her tan, bug bitten body after she was away for four weeks on a wonderful, exciting hiking trip, before piling her and a backpack filled with smelly clothes into the car where she announced, “I’m hungry. What can you make me for breakfast?”
As soon as we got home, I attacked the kitchen with a passion, filling the table with waffles, French toast, sliced strawberries, cinnamon apples, various sides, whipped cream, milk, and orange juice. She ate heartily while beginning the debriefing, texting friends, catching up on the local news, and generally taking in the comforts of home.
When my older daughter returned from college, her belongings still scattered everywhere, I cooked her a welcome-home dinner of cheese fondue (a special favorite), and we all sat around poking a pot of melted cheese with bread speared on long forks as we heard her exam stories and summer plans.
Feeding my children, while often routine and a time suck, a chore that must be accomplished every day, one way or another, can also be elemental, somehow essential to my role as a parent and speaks to my most basic bonds with my kids, those of caring for them, keeping them safe, nurturing them.
The chow on the table is, at times, so much more that a collection of calories and nutrition. We celebrate with frosting and candles. My daughters bond when collaborating over a complicated recipe. The importance and power of the family dinner is documented in parenting handbooks.
This is a roundabout way to dip a toe (or a piece of bread) into the debates raging around childhood obesity, fast food, and oversized sugary drinks, among other food-related issues. There is an environment of orthodoxy around the act of feeding my children, embodied in part by the millions the city has spent on school cafeteria menus, laws and lawsuits, and the sideways glances of parents when cupcakes decorated to the nines show up in a classroom for a birthday.
At the grocery store I find myself scouring the labels to pick the most nutritious bread, or yogurt with the least sugar, and hiding frozen waffles or ice cream under some leafy greens to keep them from prying eyes.
What I sometimes forget is the simplicity of eating, that it can be fun, a pleasure, and symbolic of so much more than basic sustenance. For thousands of years, we mark the joy and sorrow of life’s passing by breaking bread with family and friends.
I’m not going to lay a feast in front of my daughters every day, but once in a while there will be popcorn at a movie, a stop for ice cream when we walk the dog together, a trip to Dumbo for our favorite pizza. We will talk about health and making good choices, but I will still make their favorite dishes when they are leaving or returning home. I don’t want to forget to teach the lesson that pleasure can be delicious and is best served without guilt.