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How to Develop Unhealthy Eating Habits (Rant of the Week)

(Uneaten) Goldfish crackers, Ottawa, April 2017

When they were kids, my parents remember being told to finish everything on their plates because there were “starving kids in China.” In China, Feng was guilt-tripped for leaving two grains of rice because “North Korean kids are hungry.” As for me, apparently I could save Africa if I ate broccoli in the 1980s.

I’m not sure what threat is trending these days. “Eat, otherwise Trump will teach you democracy”? “If you don’t finish your carrot stick, I’ll build a wall between your toys and you”?

Let me forget for a minute that the world is doomed. I’m ODing on what-the-fuck moments this week—French are bullied into voting for a neo-liberal to avoid a fascist government, Trump wants to renegotiate NAFTA and Saudi Arabia has just been put on the UN commission to promote gender equality.

Let’s face it, I have zero power over world politics—I had a voice, I used it. So back to basics. I need to rant about a minor issue.

Here is the problem: the lunchbox. Why? Because it comes back uneaten.

You’re rolling your eyes. It’s a minor issue, I warned you! But I’m pissed off because at the heart of the problem are the education system and big food companies.

Mark’s diet became an issue the minute I stepped into the doctor office suspecting I was pregnant. As soon as it was confirmed I was, my diet became everybody’s business—there were foods to avoid and foods to eat, a long list of seemingly arbitrary recommendations, most of them not making much sense to me. Towards the end of the pregnancy, when my mother-to-be status was obvious, I had to deal with unwelcome comments from strangers for just being at Starbucks because a pregnant woman is public property—never mind I wasn’t even drinking coffee back then. “Caffeine is bad for your baby!” a woman warned once. “I’m waiting for a friend,” I replied, completely baffled and feeling strangely self-conscious, as if I was in a back alley buying meth.

I wasn’t off the hook after Mark was born. My diet was still his diet since I was breastfeeding, so a similar list of “foods to avoid” was issued. Then, when I stopped breastfeeding after a couple of months I didn’t correct strangers who assumed I did—the pressure to breastfeed for years is intense in North America.

When he was old enough to make the transition to pureed food and then to solid food, the holier-than-thou battle started—good (emphasis here) mothers feed healthy, organic, homemade and prepared by a unicorn food to their kids. I remember feeling ashamed when buying applesauce pouches—surely, a loving mother would grow apples in the backyard, right?

At Mark’s first daycare, meals and snacks were provided and the centre had a chef on site. I remembered how impressed Feng and I were when reading notes—“two bites of vegetarian lasagna, one piece of beetroot, half a whole-grain slice of bread with organic jam.” “Gee,” I noted. “I don’t even eat beetroots!”

The daycare centre declared bankruptcy. His second daycare also provided meals, but they were less elaborate—more mac’n’cheese than wild salmon. When this daycare also declared bankruptcy, we were almost relieved to learn the new centre wasn’t providing meals, thus keeping fees lower (and hopefully, avoid bankruptcy). This is when I was introduced to the world of lunchboxes.

I was proud of my lunches. Mark had a healthy, balanced diet and there were few foods he really didn’t like.

When he started school last September, I quickly realized my usual lunchboxes wouldn’t work—there was no fridge, no microwave and a long list of banned ingredients including eggs and all nut products. At first, I used a thermos to keep his meal hot but he wasn’t even opening it. This is when I understood why the “snack” aisles of the supermarket were packed with kid-friendly products—goldfish crackers, string cheese, pudding cups and peanut-free cookies for lunchboxes. Bastard. Giant food companies are fucking evil. They know their market.

Yet, I hadn’t suspected the biggest issue wouldn’t be the food, but the schedule.

Mark’s school adopted the “Balanced School Day”:

The Balanced School Day is different because it includes two breaks that are each 40-45 minutes long, with one break in the morning and one in the afternoon. There is no one hour break for lunch. 

So four-year-old kids are supposed to grab their lunchbox and eat whenever they want during these two breaks. Problem is, the signal isn’t clear for kids because they eat in the classroom (there is no cafeteria) and at this age, they have zero concept of time.

Mark doesn’t eat anything but the occasional applesauce pouch or piece of cheese.

“Why didn’t you eat your lunch?” I ask.

“I didn’t have time. When I wanted to eat, the teacher said it’s time to go home soon.”

“I was building a tower.”

“My friend wasn’t eating.”

If given the choice between sitting down and eating lunch or playing, what do you think a four-year-old does? That’s right, they play.

Every day, I stuff the lunchbox with easy-to-eat finger foods that I hope Mark will gobble down while playing. Every day, I hate myself for doing so because it goes against all my (French) principles—enjoy the food, take your time, sit down and relax, don’t constantly snack.

In four years, we went from a huge pressure for breastfeeding to homemade food, from healthy eating habits to a diversified diet. And now, thanks to big food corporations and the Ontario education system, we are at this pathetic stage: “can you at least eat the Goldfish crackers? Pizza taste? Cheddar taste?”

Fuck, I’m pissed. Food matters.

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