Strap On The Feed Bag

Until last night, I hadn’t been out to eat since dining at an upscale Asian restaurant with hubs at the very beginning of this experiment. That night, I was mostly focused on how to wrestle the biggest share of our “shared” chocolate dessert. Last night, however, hubs and I and the kids went to one of the kids’ favorite restaurants to celebrate the completion of ice skating lessons. It was a “family restaurant,” one that serves breakfast all day, which means my little guy can get a heap of pancakes and my especially picky daughter can at least find some grilled cheese and French fries. And they can both color the placemats.

The whole experience made me sad, in a much bigger way than when we ate at the same place several months ago. I couldn’t find anything I wanted to eat, though the menu was huge. Stacks of pancakes and waffles leave me uncomfortably full, especially for an evening meal. I’m a vegetarian, so that left out 90% of the menu right there. I ended up with a spinach salad with apples and nuts (hold the chicken). It was fine, but certainly not something the restaurant is known for, and thus not especially tasty.

What the restaurant is known for, as are so many others, is providing the largest quantity of food imaginable at the lowest price. This is what really made me sad because I know that our fast-food culture teaches us to value exactly this: Sub-par food in vast quantities at cheap prices. And then in the headlines this morning, a new Gallup poll finding: In the U.S., 27.1% of adults were obese in 2013. This is the highest rate in Gallup’s six-year tracking history, and it includes a new high among those who are “morbidly obese.”

When I was a kid, going out to eat was a rare treat. We ate quite sensibly at home, but when we went out, my mom would bring her coupons, and we’d “save up” by not eating much during the day, knowing we would absolutely stuff ourselves in order to “get our money’s worth.” My family didn’t have a lot of money, so I can sympathize with the impulse, but honestly, we were paying to give ourselves stomachaches. We were paying to line up at a trough, covered by a sneeze guard. It’s the kind of place where my husband will mutter under his breath, strap on the feed bag, like we’re all beasts of burden.

This is absolutely not the message about food I want to give to my own children. When we were out last night, I kept thinking of a little bistro in our town, which I haven’t been to in many months, and really longing for it. It’s expensive, so it’s not a place we can frequent, but eating there is an experience. The food is locally grown, sustainably farmed, artfully prepared, expertly served. Every single step, from the planting of the seed that grew into the wheat that made the flour for the bread, which is heaven in the mouth, seems to be done mindfully. It’s a place where you eat slowly, appreciating the presentation on the plate, the aromas, the complex flavors.

I realized last night at the family restaurant that a real change had happened to me this month. Do you know that when I looked at the cardboard stand-up on the table, featuring a dessert that amounted to a bowlful of broken brownie bits covered in chocolate sauce…I felt…nothing at all. I didn’t want it. I couldn’t believe what my mind was telling me, but it was true. All the cues in that place that are meant to get a person to over-eat had the opposite effect on me. I left still hungry. And I decided that, when I do go out, I’m really going to try to make sure it’s something special.

That said, I’m a busy, working parent, and I know not every one of our family’s meals can be a special experience. But we do eat together. And we do cook our own food, though it’s usually nothing fancy by any means. Most days, I’m just trying to get a couple food groups into my kids before the table conversation turns to poop jokes. Still, I’m working on getting us all to slow down, to appreciate our food a little more, to listen to the cues our bodies are giving us (about what tastes we enjoy, about whether we’re full) and keep foremost in mind that eating can, and should be, a pleasurable experience for the body and the soul.

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