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The Ultimate Loaded Question: What’s for Dinner?

The dinner table is where economics and class, education and upbringing, values and culture, all collide with oneu2019s time management skills and energy level.

Right now, my son is grinding stale Cheerios into a fine powder with the bottom of his sippy cup. He is also mushing banana into water he has poured on his tray to make a nice pudding that he will no doubt pour on the floor. Welcome to the toddler trattoria. In my dreams, I prepare him attractive, palate-expanding, age-appropriate (but slightly over the top) organic meals like mini spanakopitas and roasted carrot wedges, which he eats with gusto and good hand-eye coordination.

The reality is a lot more prosaic and messy. It is 10:30 in the morning and we are on round two of breakfast. The detritus of round one still covers the floor underneath and around his high chair — bits of cheerios, banana, plum, bagel and cheese litter the floor. The almost constant mess on the floor is the one reason I wish for a dog or an unfinicky cat. Some of this food mush, which we sweep and wipe and mop, must end up in his body because he eliminates regularly and happily. But looking at the floor and the dustpan, I am never completely convinced.

Seamus is 13 and a half months old now, but I am still getting used to my son, the eater. Once I mastered breast feeding, I was in no hurry to start solids. It just seemed messy, tedious and a lot of work. Despite this, many parents are feeding their kids way too early, say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a national survey of 1,334 mothers published in March, 40 percent of parents told the CDC that they gave their baby solid food before they were 4 months old, with 9 percent starting as early as four weeks.

Pediatricians recommend starting babies on solid food at 6 months or when they can sit up on their own. We started, somewhat reluctantly, at 8 or 9 months, but he was ready. Although he makes a terrible mess every time he sits in the high chair, Seamus the eater is also pretty hilarious and full of minor breakthroughs. We are trying to teach him rudimentary sign language, and the high-chair is where we see our somewhat uneven efforts pay off. He uses motions that tell us he wants more, that he is done and that he wants to get down — even a clumsy “please” thrown in there on occasion. It is magical.

But if the high chair is where we see some of the most concrete evidence of growth and maturation, it is also the site of the most angst and worry.

He loves hot dogs and fish sticks. Am I a terrible mother, even though the dogs are Hebrew National all beef and the sticks are Dr. Praeger’s? Can a baby live by Cheerios, bagels, rolls and tortillas alone? Because other times, starch is all he will eat. Is he getting enough calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin, protein, roughage, etc? He seems healthy, but what if he is missing some essential nutrient?

How many times is it okay for me to pick up a piece of banana off the floor and give it back to him? He is not consuming a pure organic diet. Is he going to grow a horn? Did I remember to wash the plum before I handed it to him? And, oops, is he eating the fruit sticker?

These questions and so many more. The dinner table is where economics and class, education and upbringing, values and culture, all collide with one’s time management skills and energy level. What’s for dinner? It’s a loaded question and a costly one.

The CDC found that most of those parents feeding their babies too early have lower incomes. According to Dr. T.J. Gold, a pediatrician interviewed after the study came out, “The formula gets really expensive, especially in the four-to-six-month window. And if you have more than one child and you’re already preparing food for the whole family, it’s much easier to just start sweeping things off your plate.”

Nearly 10 million women and children are enrolled in Women, Infants and Children, or WIC — a federally funded supplemental nutrition program. Many of them are just getting by with the help of this program and food stamps. The free jars of baby food, milk and formula mean that babies and kids don’t go hungry. The biggest concern of families relying on WIC is probably not whether the food is organic or local, but rather if the food is enough or if buying it means not buying something else almost as necessary.

There was a flurry of news articles recently about how parents are unable to afford diapers, which now cost nearly $1,000 a year per child. Parents make choices between food and diapers at the grocery store. They scoop out excrement from diapers and put them back on their kids, let the kids hang out in their birthday suits at home, and employ other creative means to extend the life of these essential and expensive bundles of paper and plastic. Unlike lots of low-income people, we have a washer and dryer, and use cloth diapers except when we are on the road.

Just across town, moms pay out top dollar on organic brand names like Elmo’s Pasta ’n Sauce and Plum Organic’s Blueberry, Parsnip & Buckwheat, and make homemade applesauce from fruit they picked last weekend at their country home. There was an article in an Australian paper not too long ago about a study that found toddlers down under are eating better than their parents — organic quinoa, sushi, acai. Nothing is too good for our kids and it all comes at a cost. I am sure that same study could be done here.

I fret over what Seamus eats, but I try not to get too bent out of shape. We are onWIC. We get coupons for milk, eggs, cheese, vegetables and fruits, juice and cereal, baby food, beans, bread, and peanut butter every month. It is not enough to fully stock our refrigerator, but it certainly helps our family food dollars go further.

Seamus — and our whole family — eats lots of local produce. We belong to the local food coop and subscribe to the local community-supported agriculture program, which gets us a bag of organic, locally grown vegetables each week throughout the growing season. But since we do not have unlimited resources, we do most of our shopping at the grocery store — especially the produce aisle’s “get-rid-of-it bin.” Fruits and veggies that are a little bruised or wrinkled, bananas and peaches just past their prime, grapes that don’t stick to the vine any more, tomatoes with a few too many spots, and no-longer-perfect mangoes are all placed on Styrofoam plates, shrink-wrapped and sold at greatly reduced prices.

I like shopping at the reduced price cart. It is like a cooking-show challenge in every grocery trip. What can you make with a pound of fingerling potatoes, some about-to-burst heirloom tomatoes and two wrinkled eggplants? Aloo baingan bharta, of course. It reminds me of dumpster diving with my dad as a kid and the massive fruit salads and “must-go” casseroles that we would make afterwards.

It is intense and scary to be in charge of another human being’s nutrition and physical well-being — to say nothing of being the steward of their emotions, the font from which they develop their morality and bulk that keeps them from pitching themselves down the stairs on a daily basis. I get, and share, the fear and feelings of inadequacy. But I am glad that we are not rich enough to think that we can spend our way out of those feelings and grateful we are not so poor that we have to choose between food and diapers. No one should have to make that choice.

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