Don’t tell anyone, but there is refined white sugar in my kitchen. On my honor, I have never, ever allowed a speck of it to cross the threshold of my child’s cooperative nursery school.
It would upset the delicate balance of philosophies that keeps our little Eden humming along in harmony. Here at our beautiful school beneath the pine trees -- and at lots of others like it -- fake food is not allowed. And sugar, with its out-of-control mega-hyper effects, is about as welcome as a BB gun.
To share expenses and widen our children’s exposure to diverse cuisines, a different family is responsible for providing a 10 a.m. snack each day for up to 20 usually cranky preschoolers, five parent volunteers and two teachers who are blissfully cuisine-neutral. With way too much ego invested in the project, I start planning for my monthly snack fest weeks in advance.
There are rules -- guidelines, actually. Please make the snack organic and vegetarian; exclude choking hazards such as whole grapes; include nondairy alternatives; include protein, a grain and a vegetable; read the labels on cereal and juice to be sure that sugar or high-fructose corn syrup is not a top ingredient. The list of don’ts isn’t intimidating, really. It’s the prospect of feeding that kind of food to the discriminating, shrewd and disdainful palates of 3- and 4-year-olds.
I can manage cutting four bunches of grapes in half to prevent choking. If a kid is allergic to peanut butter or oranges, no sweat. I can fake a reasonable vegetarian-almost-vegan menu. I even test-drive some of the odder options on my boy (mangoes, yes; black bean hummus, yuck). I know that somewhere, in some aisle of Trader Joe’s or on some ethnic cookbook page, there’s an irresistible meal. However, it eludes me. No matter what, my kid and most of his pals still like Cheetos better than Ma’s home cookin’ -- and way better than organic soy cheese.
At school, we keep a list of each day’s fare to prevent repetition and to track adverse reactions -- of the hives and rashes variety, not the “I hate this” kind. I’m thinking we might need the other kind of list too.
Eli, my theatrical 4-year-old, has bitten into a wheat- and sugar-free cookie, grabbed my hand and spit the masticated mess into my palm. He’s picked every single boiled garbanzo bean from his bowl and thrown it onto the ground. He’s rinsed the soy yogurt from his mouth, crushed the rice cakes in his hands like so much Styrofoam and marched his plate of tofu nuggets straight to the trashcan. Most days, he pretends that snack time exists only for kids who can’t wheedle something better from the nanny later.
He has never asked for more of my fabulous porcini mushroom risotto or for extra servings of four-cheese macaroni or baby purple Peruvian potatoes roasted with $28-a-bottle olive oil. He’s a smart little guy. He retains the names of every exploding candy, greasy chip or new movie tie-in toy after seeing a commercial just once. He can spot an Oreo at 200 feet.
Challenged, not defeated, I have stayed up late cutting peeled apples into the shape of French fries and doused them with lemon juice to keep them potato-white. The kids loved them. I have stirred organic raisins into organic cream cheese sweetened with organic honey and a dab of creme fraiche to make mock cheesecake spread for baby bagels cut to resemble butterflies.
But it was the homemade bagel chips that finally elicited awe and respect from the other parents, the kids and, at last, even the nanny. (I was so flattered and grateful, I bought her an Italian oil mister.)
While I confessed that my usual oversupply of bagels going stale inspired the chips, I hadn’t the heart to reveal that I pinch off the moldy spots before I slice them. Won’t 200 degrees for 45 minutes kill the stuff?
The school’s food rules are enforced mostly at snack time; the lunch break allows more latitude (eyes furtively glance around the lunchboxes to see who’s sneaking Fritos and Gummi Bears). Still, our Silver Lake school has asked me to hide my chocolate-coated energy bar that resembled candy. And although I once made like a Tyrannosaurus rex and chomped my child’s verboten empty ice-cream cone out of existence, I’d have to say our school’s rules aren’t exactly extreme. There’s a Venice co-op that asks parents to remove any packaging that looks like a candy wrapper. Spider-Man and superhero lunchboxes and T-shirts aren’t allowed at others. But get this: Some schools actually give the kids a cookie for lunch -- every day.
One toddler at a time, schools like ours are making the world unsafe for murky blue applesauce, microwaved color-change pizza sauce and cotton-candy flavored yogurt with two sets of sugar sprinkles.
There’s just one enormous problem. There is no middle ground between the convenient, precooked cartoonish kid food sold in supermarkets and the kind of healthful, fresh and flavorful fare that only a wealthy, stay-at-home, master chef mom can provide. I am searching for a diet that’s balanced in fat, calories, sugar and philosophy.
I have asked the city’s top chefs. I’ve read the proofs of chef Joachim Splichal’s new cookbook for children. I’ve dutifully strolled my child through countless farmers markets to introduce him to the joy of a truly fresh strawberry.
My boy still prefers the market’s sugared kettle corn. I’m not alone in my struggles. Some chefs’ kids won’t touch anything green, some restaurateur parents have to limit the French fries, and some stay-at-home moms have a dirty little secret: Dinosaur nuggets.
Open their Sub-Zeroes and there they are -- bought frozen by the dozens at Costco, heated in the microwave and served slathered with high-fructose-corn syrup ketchup. If textured protein nuggets couldn’t be molded into cute little characters,we’d have an epidemic of malnourished toddlers.
But when you see the kids eating sand, drinking from the garden hose and chewing the craft clay, it’s hard to be outraged if the snack apples aren’t organic. Just to be safe, I’m doing a little experiment of my own. I’m working on a recipe for modeling clay that uses organic whole-wheat flour.