I Used To Cook. Now I ‘Assemble’

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The food pyramid: we made models of it in middle school. In high school, it took up a week of our health curriculum. Anyone who’s ever picked up a magazine while having a pedicure knows that three to five daily servings of fruits and vegetables are the minimum that you can eat now if you don’t want to be obese, diabetic and riddled with cancer tomorrow. French fries, ketchup – those aren’t vegetables! Everyone knows that. Chicken nuggets? Well, they’re not really meat. White flour is poison. Spaghetti makes you fat. And sugar, they’re now saying, probably gives you cancer.

So, you might be justified if you feel like calling social services after I tell you what my kids had for dinner last night. No, really: cheese quesadilla for the Big Girl . The Little Girl had pasta. Both had carrots (yay, me!). But Big is still working on her commitment to peeing in the toilet, so after dinner it was M&M’s straight on ’til bedtime.

Now, I don’t keep a lot of junk in the house. And we have some solidly wholesome habits: my kids drink water instead of juice. Our milk and cheese are organic. Our bread is even whole grain, and so is our cereal. But, still, I am haunted, daily – even hourly – by the meals I’m not making. I am constantly aware of all the great, healthful, cancer-fighting, bone-building, brain-boosting ingredients I just can’t seem to cram into every meal. They mock me at the grocery store: I see the silky tofu I should puree and mix with bulgur and chickpeas. I see the local apricots I should make into an inspiring whole-grain tart sprinkled with flax seed meal. I see the curly kale that would surely get both Big and Small into Harvard, if only they would eat it. As I load my cart with strawberry jam, string cheese and frozen fish sticks, all those superior ingredients (and the superior moms, loitering by the fair trade buckwheat groats) point and jeer. They judge me.

When Big turned from a beet and berry-eating toddler into a seriously picky pre-schooler with food allergies and a stubborn streak, I bought Jessica Seinfeld’s book, Deliciously Deceptive, about how to hide vegetables in everything. Several of her recipes did, in fact, become staples in our house. Did you know that you can mix pureed squash into just about any kind of cheesy-tomato combination and instantly feel like a better mom? That helps. But, lately, even Jessica’s pink-plaid book seems to shake a finger at me from the shelf, because even though now I know how to do it, I don’t actually hide avocado in chocolate pudding and chopped spinach in oatmeal bars. Indeed, this knowledge might have even made my already simmering issues into a roiling moral dilemma: If you know how to hide veggies, stash vitamins and boost protein, aren’t you obligated to do so?

I used to talk about this angst with other moms, thinking I would find sympathy. Instead, too often, I found myself cringing, listening to long lists of astonishingly healthy foods that other kids eat with gusto, and fielding suggestions – the kind of suggestions that implied both urgency and pity. As if I might not have considered, say, adding oregano or cheese. Or just serving spinach every night for a month. Nutrition seems to be the latest competitive sport for preschoolers. Tonight, we might just forfeit the game and have ice cream for dinner. If your kid hates quinoa, come on over!

(Photo: iStockphoto)