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Bad Mom Meals

The COVID Granny Diaries

"Teach them to use the microwave," said the distinguished psychologist when I told him I was cooking a balanced meal every night for my two young daughters. "Buy some frozen burritos and let them make their own dinner," he continued, "They will love it and that's one time-consuming thing off your list."

That was in 1992. I was an assistant professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I was also a divorced mother of two and working hard to get tenure. Their father lived on the East Coast; I was on my own with young children.

I was stressed enough to be in therapy. My job was important to me, but also to my children, who needed food on the table and a roof over their heads. I also wanted to provide for their future in a way that, in those days, only a man could do. I was determined that my daughters would never want for anything just because I was a single mom. Nevertheless, I was also resolved they would have all the good stuff associated with good mothers, including balanced meals.

And now my therapist had told me to feed them frozen burritos! And to have them "cook" for themselves in the microwave! I was appalled, but I wistfully wondered just how bad it would be if I did teach them to punch buttons for food.

Well, the girls loved it, just as he predicted. They felt so grown up. As I have already confessed, I am not much of a cook, so it is entirely possible that frozen meals tasted better than whatever I was feeding them. And there was no apparent damage: neither of them grew horns or anything. I confess, though, that, right through her early twenties, Liza would yell out, "I'll eat anything with more packaging than food!" whenever I went out to get groceries.

When I was a child, chemicals and preservatives were the sixth food group. We didn't know any better. Oh, my mother was a great cook and loved to make things out of her hardbound Gourmet Magazine recipe books (three leather volumes with gilt print, a real point of pride). My three siblings and I did not like what came out of those cookbooks, however, and would pitch a fit if we even saw one of them open in the kitchen. There were many horrible evenings when we refused to eat and, after the "no dessert" trick failed, were spanked. (Sometimes they lost control. Those memories still live with me, which is yet another reason why I absolutely refuse to force food on children)

Anyway, about the time I was nine or ten, my mother decided, much like I did in the frozen burrito era, to let the children feed themselves. She and my father began having lovely, but later, dinners, and I cooked for the kids.

My mother had taught me only what was necessary to earn the Girl Scout badge for cooking. I picked up the finer points on my own: arranging fish sticks on a baking sheet, opening a can of SpaghettiOs, and the ever-popular "just add hot water and stir." So that's the kind of stuff we ate. And we loved it. We sat around the kitchen table by ourselves and mostly felt relief.

No, I did not buy Lucky Charms, not even to photograph for this blog. Even I draw a line. Anyway, I can't have them in the house because I will eat the whole box. Like, all in one sitting.

When I found myself with a four-year-old to feed during a pandemic, I went back to the balanced meal mentality. This was mostly because I felt the eyes of her parents, as well as their friends and her teachers, boring through the back of my head. Nova goes to this hipster-parent pre-K where they cook a full meal for the kids at lunch, all of it GMO- and gluten-free, all natural, organic, free-range, vegan, no sugar, and no nuts. And the meals are delicious, apparently. So I felt very much on the spot.

I don't cook anything imaginative or complex. I wish I did, but let's just say I have other skills. I got Nova breakfast and lunch the same way I do it myself, mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, all of it raw, as well as eggs, cheese, yogurt, and nuts. I try to do whole grain cereals and breads. All that went fine.

The problems occurred at dinner. The first few nights, she politely ate whatever I gave her, but then when I would serve her something a second time—which happened often because of my limited repertoire—she would announce that she didn't like it anymore. I finally took the hint. She was going to starve if I didn't revert to a lesson learned early in life: kids will eat anything that goes with ketchup.

Success on the left; failure on the right.

When the pandemic hit, I had just started a ten-week Jenny Craig package (you laugh, but I lost the Quarantine 15, instead of gaining it), so it worked great to put Nova on packaged-food cuisine. Two microwave-safe dishes and dinner was on the table. It also offered a quick clean-up, at a time when I felt like I was spending hours each day just loading and unloading my one-person dishwasher.

You know how this ends. She loved it. Nova could eat Kraft Mac and Cheese til it came out her ears. Fish sticks, Tater Tots, Jello—all a big hit. I did learn one thing that put a different spin on the foodstuffs of my childhood, however. One day I let Nova have two granola bars after lunch. OMG. She was so sugar-high, it was nuts the rest of the afternoon. When I was a kid, everything was sugared and no one thought anything of it. We are the Lucky Charms generation, after all.

Watching Nova bouncing off the walls, I suddenly realized what it must have been like for my mother to be alone with four kids freaking out on sugar all the time. Jesus. No wonder she was so grouchy. (When I reached adulthood, I learned that my mother was actually a lovely person.) So I restricted Nova to sweets only after dinner to avoid the hysteria. I learned that Nova really isn't much about sweets, anyway. One special case: Skittles. Nova can be bought with Skittles. (They became a kind of currency.)

I make one exception to my "buy the real thing" advice on fake food: Cheetos puffs made with white cheese and no artificial flavors or colorings. Now, anyone who thinks Cheetos and "pure" belong in the same sentence is self-delusional. But these are really really yummy. Highly recommended.

I did try to soften the impact of frozen and canned goods on the poor child by trying the ostensibly wholesome versions like gluten-free potato bites and meatless chicken fingers. Every one of them was absolutely disgusting. Sometimes I threw them away without even trying to serve them to her. Not even with ketchup, I'm telling you. My advice in this time of contagion: if you're going to cave in to feeding your children fake food, get the real thing.

To me, a glass of milk is like church: kids need to have both. I have no reasons for either prejudice, but those are my rules. I kept pushing milk at every meal, also thinking it might make up for the chemicals and preservatives, but Nova resisted drinking any. So, I pulled out Granny's sweet trick and put a maraschino cherry at the bottom of the glass. She said, "The cherry was good, can I have another one?" I said, "You drank the milk, right?" "No."

There is no universe in which I would have done that to my grandmother. I wouldn't have thought of it, to be honest, but if I had, I would not have wanted to face the consequences. However, we know that Nova's grandmother is a soft touch, especially when it comes to food. "Oh well," I shrugged to myself, "I'll make Manhattans."

There was a warm spell in the spring. When I boiled an egg for breakfast, the kitchen temperature went from 85F to 89F. If I turned on the oven, it was like the last level of hell. I complained about this to Liza. "Mom," she shrieked, "Do you not have a toaster oven?" I hadn't thought of it. Essential equipment for feeding kids, to be sure. I immediately ordered one from amazon and now it lives on my kitchen cabinet. I never thought I would be that sort of person again.

Another mid-century sin was that Nova and I ate dinner in front of the TV. I tried to have evening meals at the table in my dining room. Nova didn't want to sit there, so she wiggled and dawdled. It took so long that my attention span couldn't cover it. I would inevitably pick up the phone. This is not what eating together is supposed to be.

Our ritual was to watch a movie together every night, something we both loved. It gave us something to share. We talked about the movies and the characters all the time. We asked Alexa to play the songs and sang along with great gusto. Out in the garden, we acted out the stories. So, faced with the dinnertime stalemate, I gave up and moved everything to the TV room. The meal was more pleasant after that. So sue me.

OK, I know this is not the right kind of cherry to put in a Manhattan, but hey there's a pandemic on.

I managed to get my work done by making compromises like these. I figure there are women everywhere at this moment who are doing the same. We are all feeling guilty, including me, even though we are holding the world together right now.

If you are one of those women, let me try to offer some comfort. Your kids will not grow horns, no matter what your friends and their teachers say. My frozen-burrito kids are awesome; my siblings survived their formative years eating toxins. Whether you give perfect food to your kids is not even near the top of the list of very big things to worry about right now. Much better for them to see you survive this with a modicum of calm (grouchy, but not wild-eyed). They will learn to be survivors by watching you. That is worth more than all the GMO- and gluten-free meals you could ever make.

Don't discount how important your work is, even to your children. Don't think of it as something that detracts from your parenting. I guess it's an obvious thing to say now, but I did get tenure while my kids were becoming microwave foodies. Later, I was able to send them to college, with help from their father and grandmother. On my own, I have paid for two master's degrees and am now working on a third. I threw two beautiful weddings. I even paid medical school tuition (she writes, strangling at the mere memory). These are things my mother could not have done, nor my grandmother.

In the grand scheme of things, parenting isn't just about organic food and gender-neutral toys.

If you go down the frozen burrito path as I did, your adult children will make jokes about it at holiday gatherings. My kids do it. It's OK. Telling funny stories about the past is one of the best things about being a family.

But the way you pulled them through one of the worst plagues in history is something your kids will respect forever. Keep your eyes on that.


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