Confessions of a Failed Parent

To comply with the recommended vegetable portion, my boys would have to get up at dawn and eat green beans nonstop until dusk. What fiends had devised this guilt-inducing polyhedron?
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It's no longer enough to build nests and bring worms -- not in the era of raised expectations. The bar is set sky-high. We need Ph.D.'s in scheduling, dating, Facebook, lacrosse, nutrition. Add the onus of guilt, and it's a miracle we survive. But confession is good for the soul. Bear with me. To begin with...

I brought donuts for soccer snack.

Why do kids even need a snack after soccer? Playing a game is supposed to be its own reward. You don't see professional sports teams racing to the sidelines after a hard-fought contest and grabbing orange segments and health food bars. If anything, the boys and girls should snack before the game -- for energy. Drink some water after. Get pats on the back. Go home.

I blame soccer snack on the wily marketers who stock shelves with 12-packs of Gritz, Nutter-butters, Ritz Cheese-its, all within drooling distance of the register. They've conditioned us to think in bite-sized portions and to dole out snacks for any occasion. Take a snack for the car ride. Take one for the test prep. Have a snack after school.

My parents warned me, "Don't spoil your appetite." When I say that, my kids look at me like I'm insane. If they're hungry, shouldn't they eat?

I've sunk even further. Better parents than I pack their children's school lunch box with pita sandwiches filled with sprouts and cucumbers and organic no-fat cheese. I tried this route -- only to find a soggy untouched mess when I unzipped their lunch box the morning after. So I folded. I slapped together a PB&J. I smeared cream cheese on raisin bread. The battle lost, I added a six-pack of tiny Oreos and packets of goldfish.

It was one thing to sneak these horrors into their private lunch box -- quite another to suffer public calumny on the soccer sidelines. And so early one crisp October morning, while the boys were looking for their cleats, my wife and I sliced cut-up apples and apportioned raisins in baggies. It was a heart-wrenching sight then to witness their excited post-game faces, streaked with sweat and dirt, collapse in disappointment when we opened the cooler. Even the coach peered in, puzzled. I watched the flustered parents march their dejected boys toward the car with a reassuring, "Don't worry, we'll stop for pizza on the way home."

The next time we compromised -- loading the cooler with chocolate chip granola bars (cookies or health food? We ignored this fine line). Our third season we were in full retreat. But how pleased we were to see them bolt for the sidelines in their grass-stained shorts, their grubby hands cramming powdered sugar donut holes into happy mouths all dusted in white!

Caving in on soccer snack mirrored other nutritional lapses. When the boys were small, our pediatrician advised us about their meals: "Just make sure the food is balanced and looks attractive on the plate."

I did as he suggested. I arranged artful plays of color and texture. I served Sloppy Joe's (brown) with rice (white) and beans (green). I laid out arcs of cut red tomatoes next to sauteed chicken breasts and added pools of apple sauce. We rented Fast Food Nation and one of my sons was so appalled he swore off McDonald's and became a Subway convert.

We were home free.

That was before I started reading the annual food-pyramid updates from the FDA. Every year, there were new dire warnings -- and new "suggested" servings. To comply with the vegetable portion, my boys would have to get up at dawn and eat green beans nonstop until dusk. There wasn't enough fruit in Florida to satisfy the citrus czars. What fiends had devised this guilt-inducing polyhedron?

On closer examination, I noticed peas were included under starch; the six required portions of vegetables included a hamburger topping of onions. Taking their lead, I ticked off a margarita frozen pizza under "fruits" -- for the tomato -- and peanut butter swirl ice cream went into the "nuts" group. I defended Goldfish as "dairy" (cheddar cheese).

But who was I kidding? To find out, I got hold of Connie Martz, founder of 24 Carrot Press and a kids' nutrition expert.

"Only three percent of Americans actually follow the FDA's 2005 food pyramid," she told me, "and those that do are probably dieticians. When the fruits and vegetable were five servings, only 20 percent complied. Now it's 9-13 servings. So you can imagine."

I didn't have to imagine. I was there. I liked her even more when she described her childhood on a Nebraska farm -- "The good old days that weren't"-- eating buttery pastries her grandmother baked and drinking whole milk from the cows.

But soon our camaraderie went south. "Kids eat what they see," she said, and described what greeted them inside the Martz refrigerator door. It was not, needless to say, what my kids faced. She talked about brown rice and whole grain bread and lots of yogurt. She told me about her 17-year son, 6'5", a lineman being eyed by the NFL. I asked what her bruiser ate after practice, and several minutes later, she added, sheepishly, "and donuts, if I'm not around."

I told her I sympathized. Nobody was perfect.

This is the first in a series, Confessions of a Failed Parent, by Jonathan Black.

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