To say my paternal grandmother loved food would be an understatement; she didn’t shed a tear the day my sister became a woman in the eyes of the Jewish religion at her bat mitzvah -- until she saw the beauty of the whipped cream swans on the sweet table. And while some grandmas collect music boxes or antiques, my grandma collected menus.
In the era when she grew up, people didn’t read nutrition labels; all they cared about was taste and price. As a result, my dad ate cupcakes for breakfast and developed a love of all the major food groups -- sugar, salt, butter, grease and bacon.
My mom was very different from my grandmother. She was ahead of her time when it came to eating healthy. Before Whole Foods even existed, she was sneaking wheat germ into my Cheerios. Since none of the common brands offered baby food without sugar, my mom made everything. And while she did her best to lay a foundation for a healthy life, as a kid, I was not at all interested. Here is how a typical dinner went in my household:
My parents gave me one pea, one carrot, and one tiny piece of chicken and told me I couldn’t have dessert until I ate all three. I’d beg and plead, like a prisoner being tortured, not to make me do it. Finally, I’d plug my nose, close my eyes, and force it down, dramatically coughing, chugging water, and in the end, filling up on my small, hard-earned scoop of ice-cream. I certainly didn’t earn any brownie points with my grandma with a steady diet of mostly nothing.
“Eat, Tatala, eat,” she encouraged with her chopped liver and brisket, to which I’d scrunch up my nose.
College was the first time I got to make my own food choices; I was like a kid with no limits in a candy store. Lucky Charms tasted so good -- with milk for breakfast, dry as an afternoon snack, and drenched in soft serve yogurt for dinner. The freshman 30 was totally worth it.
Until I realized all the skinny girls were getting the hot guys.
That summer, I transformed, running five miles a day, eating salads, and counting calories. I encouraged my dad, who had gained the mid-life 50, to join me, but he was happier watching from the sidelines, snacking on ribs and onion rings, and washing it down with pop.
It’s so hard when someone you love finds so much joy in something that can be so harmful, because while you want them to be happy, you also want them to be around.
And so when it came to my dad and me, food signaled conflict.
My family remembers the time I picked up McDonald’s and came back with a chicken sandwich and side salad for my father.
“What’s this?” he asked, wondering what happened to his Big Mac and fries.
“Guess they got the order wrong,” I said.
My mom, siblings and I cracked up. My dad, however, was not laughing. To this day, he suffers from PTSD, always reminding me, “Don’t mess with my food,” anytime I’m in charge of ordering.
When it was time for my daughter, Autumn, to start eating solid food, I decided to try Baby Led Weaning, BLW, where you skip the purees and go straight to the real stuff. We’ve been staying with my parents since she was born, so my dad witnessed her first meal; a typical Shabbat dinner with chicken, challah, and steamed vegetables.
My parents are old school and were horrified watching her feed herself in the beginning. They acted like I was trying to kill my child by giving her such dangerous things -- pieces of food -- to put in her mouth. I declared myself an expert in BLW because I had done the ultimate -- read a book -- and I knew all. And then I made sure they were in another room when I kept referencing said book because I really had no idea what I was doing and was equally nervous.
It took a few weeks, but tension at the dinner table -- “Are you sure it’s okay for her to eat that?” -- turned to excitement.
It must be her donor genes, or very likely those from my dad, because in her baby book under hobbies, eating now comes first. Peapods and hummus, waffles and nut butter, my daughter not only eats, but eats with gusto. The other moms marvel.
“Does she really eat an apple whole like that?” they ask at play group. Yes. Yes, she does.
And back at home, my dad cheers her on from across the table as if she’s playing in the soccer championships. “Look at her go!” he says as she pops blueberries in her mouth faster than I can smoosh them.
Then it’s like he’s in the audience of the Price Is Right, but instead of shouting bids to the contestants, he’s offering food suggestions to the baby.
“Give her some garlic bread! What about sausage? Bet she’d love Swedish fish!” He takes photos of her diving into watermelon wedges, polishing off three corn cobs, and beaming behind her now empty plate.
And six days out of seven, he remarks the same thing:
“Your great grandma would’ve loved you.”
It is Sunday morning and I serve my daughter low sodium wheat bread with 100% fruit jam. She wants out of her high chair and into Grandpa’s lap, where she inhales his white english muffin with all sugar preserves. It’s not the first time my father lets her steal his coveted food, nor will it be the last.
Before I was a parent, I thought food was just a means to survive. I promised myself my daughter would eat super healthy. Why give her junk when she’s too young to know the difference? And then I had Autumn, and I saw that yes, calories and fat matter, but there are so many other things that matter, too.
I realize now there’s a happy medium I’m still working to find -- for the benefit of both my daughter and myself -- between eating organic homemade dishes to stay physically healthy, and indulging in less nutritious restaurant fare, birthday cakes, and Sunday pizza nights. Because while those foods are filled with saturated fats and refined sugars, they are served at gatherings that are filled with laughter and love. And the more I think about it, the more I value the nourishment that’s not coming from the food itself, but from the act of sharing.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and my father wants to give a piece of his partially hydrogenated scone to my daughter. I nod as he lifts her onto his lap and hands her a chunk. The two of them sit and munch, crumbs everywhere, goofy grins on their faces. In between bites, my dad offers her water and brushes morsels off her shirt.
And I am beyond grateful my daughter is getting exactly what she needs.