One of my mom-mandates is that I’m easy when it comes to food. My job is to put out nutritious items; the kids’ job is to eat what they like. Having survived a bout of anorexia as a teenager, I have zero tolerance for pressuring kids to eat or not eat. I have a loose definition of “nutritious.”
Over the years, this has translated into lots of fruits and veggies, plus lots of chicken nuggets, tater tots and ketchup. Milk, water and Gatorade are the only beverages available in my kitchen.
I have never served a brussel sprout. I seek a strange kind of balance that makes sense, maybe only to me.
My theory is that some kids’ palates are sensitive until they are teenagers, naturally opposed to green leafy vegetables, spicy foods and anything tart. I’ve seen in my own family that around age 12 or 13, some humans who had despised anything but hot dogs and Cheerios start to enjoy lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, sushi, chicken tikka masala and other less-than-sweet foods.
So I read with curiosity the recent New York Times food section article, At Camp, It’s Not Food, It’s Cuisine. The piece examined how nutritious, gourmet, and costly summer camp food has become. At first, it seemed another expose on helicopter parents and their spoiled spawn. But beneath the hype, there was a great message: Summer camp is an amazing time for kids to try new, more nutritious foods than the ones they are served at home.
I remember the day my taste buds turned. Until my 13th summer, the following foods made me gag: Green beans, artichokes, cauliflower, eggplant, lettuce, lima beans, onions and mushrooms. I love these foods today, but when my mom served these atrocities, they ended up on the dining room floor under my chair, or swallowed with a copious gulp of milk to disguise the disgusting flavor. When Mom pushed, I pushed back – I hated vegetables precisely because she wanted me to like them.
There was no vegetable I hated more than the tomato, her personal favorite.
Then I went to summer camp. For six weeks, I lived in a tent on a beautiful farm in Perry County, Pennsylvania. I learned to thresh wheat, drive a tractor, cook a turkey dinner for 70 and feed 100 chickens in 10 minutes.
One hot summer afternoon I was sent to pick vegetables for the camp meal. I had two huge bushel baskets I needed to fill with ripe tomatoes. I spent an hour among the green vines and loamy soil, loading up the baskets. I gradually realized something smelled oddly enticing. Before I could stop myself, I grabbed a warm, juicy red tomato and ate it in three bites, like a candy bar. The juice ran down my neck.
I can still taste that tomato today. I went back home a changed person, much to my mother’s delight. Ever since, I’ve eaten a huge salad at least once a day. With lots of tomatoes. With my own three kids, I’ve bided my time, setting out baby carrots, sliced cukes and sweet cherry tomatoes, hoping one day they’d try them, never forcing anything.
My 13-year-old daughter now spends her summer at the same camp, Longacre Farm. She drives a tractor, bales hay, and takes care of the chickens. Like me 30 years before, she has learned to tell a weed from a tomato plant. But I wondered if she’d try any of the organic, farm-grown vegetables I knew they were still serving every night.
This is a girl who never met a potato she didn’t like – baked, roasted, mashed. She once tried to argue that potato chips were a good source of protein. But other vegetables never passed her lips. There were two fruits she deigned to eat: Blueberries (they had to be large and firm, never small or mushy) and mango. Go figure.
After a few weeks at the Farm, she called to tell me about her new favorite food. It was something she had never heard of before, much less ever tried to eat. On kitchen crew, the camp director had shown her how to make it, and convinced her to taste it. She said it had a funny name, but tasted as amazing as French fries.
I held my breath.
“Kale! Mom, it is so delicious. Can we buy some when I get home?”