Post Nuclear Book Review #1: Secrets Of Feeding A Healthy Family

This week(ish), we have not one but two book reviews to get to. They are the first ever Post Nuclear Book Reviews, and I want to do them in the same week because they’re on similar topics. I’m excited to be talking about books, but don’t worry, there’ll still be plenty of other content (like the rants you’ve all grown so accustomed to!) on this here blog.

But this week we’re talking about books. We’re talking about books about food. We’re talking about feeding, eating, and cooking, and how we do those things, and where they intersect, and why it matters. I had typed up a whole long introduction, but truthfully, this is going to get too long no matter what I do, so let’s just dive in.

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Post Nuclear Book Review Number One

Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family

by Ellyn Satter

Post Nuclear Rating: 4/5
I loved: the division of responsibility in eating, “health at every size” type attitude, loose definition of “family”
I liked: equal use of gendered pronouns for children, real life stories
I strongly disliked*: really awful recipes, lack of social analysis

CONTENT NOTE FOR THE BOOK AND THE REVIEW: discussion of dieting and disordered eating, classism, cultural appropriation

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By way of a preface to the uh, meat, of my review, I will say that I went into this book wanting to like it. Years and years before I had a kid, a friend sent me some of Ellyn Satter’s work, and I was very taken with it. It might seem weird that a childless twenty-something would get excited about the work of a nutritionist primarily known for her work with children, but it made perfect sense in my life. For one thing, I’m a huge nerd, known for geeking out about things that seem odd to others, and for another, I had been, as a child, one of the pickiest kids you can imagine. I was so picky, there were so many foods that I just loathed to eat, that at the age of ten I actually wondered if there was something broken in me, maybe I just didn’t like food.

I knew that I wanted to have kid/s one day, and I didn’t want to pass on that horrible experience to the next generation. Nor, frankly, did I have any interest in dealing with it from the parental side of the equation. So anyone who had something to say about how to feed the choosiest of children, well, I was listening.

But I didn’t go out and buy one of her books until my kid was eating solid foods. In fact, I didn’t get the book until he had been eating solid foods for a good six months or more, and was finally starting to show some preferences. Suddenly I felt like I needed backup, guidance, I got the book.

Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family, or as Satter refers to her own book in the text, just Secrets, is broken into three sections: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eatings, and How to Cook. There’s some repetition between the three sections, and they certainly play off each other and affect one and other. Of course you can’t totally overhaul the way you feed your kids/family without also changing the way that you, yourself, eat to some degree! Right at the beginning, she encourages you to read the book in the order that you are most interested in, so I started with the “feeding” section, then jumped to “eating,” finishing up with “cooking.”

I was a little concerned that all she had to say about child feeding in the book would be repetition of what I already knew about her approach, but I actually found it to be helpful and enjoyable to read about in book form.

This big takeaway here is the division of responsibility in feeding (link goes to author’s website). I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s all about identifying who is responsible for what in the feeding relationship. In general, parents do the what and the when (we set the mealtimes, do the shopping, prepare the meals, and put them in front of kids), and kids get to decide how much to eat and even whether or not to eat. This idea is the backbone of most of Satter’s work, and honestly it’s the basis on which I feed my own child. It’s also sort of, especially when it comes to very young children, deceptively radical. Most American parents, I have found, participate in a certain amount of micromanaging of their children’s eating. Ellyn Satter is telling you not to do that. Just do your part, and then let it go. Stop asking for “three more bites” or telling the kid they can only have dessert if they finish their peas. It is nail-bitingly unfamiliar to sit back and watch your child eat an entire meal composed entirely of salsa (I did that last night). But yes, that it what she is saying you should do.
The idea is that your child has a biological drive to survive, so if you offer enough variety, your kid will get curious, nutrition will work itself out. Remember, she’s not getting these ideas from nowhere, she’s worked as a nutritionist. She says that when you look at a child’s diet over a week (rather than a day, or a meal) all those weirdo meals balance out into.

Oh, and you have to have structured meals and snacks. Apparently kids need it, and she’s super against grazing. So that probably kind of blows for people who are used to handing their kids a snack and letting them go do whatever, but we already only feed our toddler in his high chair, so it’s no big.

Her goal, in all of this, is not to produce a child who will eat their vegetables tonight necessarily, but rather to develop what she calls “eating competency.” Eating competency isn’t just cheerfully eating whatever is put in front of you, it’s being comfortable around unfamiliar foods, being willing to work up to trying them (even if you have to work up to it really slowly) and eating a wide variety of foods overall. There’s a lot of focus on this in terms of feeding children, but it’s also what she’s talking about when she gets into teaching adults how to eat, as well.

What I loved about her writing on child feeding was that, on top of that theory (some of which I already had) she offers a ton of examples and anecdotes. It’s all well and good to just say “offer the food and let them eat what they will” but what happens when your child is older? You may think you’ve set up your kid not to be obsessed with sweets by simply never allowing them to have them, but eventually they’re going to go to the corner store with their little friends, and when that happens they’re going to gorge themselves on oreos because they’re special and forbidden. Ellyn Satter recommends incorporating “forbidden foods” into your meals and snacks occasionally, to neutralize their weird power. I have an issue with sweets (more on that later) that I do not want to pass on to my kid, but without even realizing what I was doing I was trying to keep them completely out of his life. Since then, I’ve learned that I can actually give my child a cookie with dinner. Usually he’ll eat a bite of it right away, then focus on his other food. Most of the time, when the meal is done, half of the cookie is still sitting on the table.

If the section on feeding kids was helpful and informative, the section on eating was a mini existential crisis. I’d never thought of my own eating as disordered before, but now I’m realizing that I’ve adopted some pretty unhealthy patterns. Satter recommends a very similar thing for adults as she does for children, it’s still a balance of discipline (meals) and freedom (eat as much as you want) the difference is adults provide both parts of the equation. And of course, adults have had a lot longer to develop baggage and hangups with our food.

For me, it’s all about sweets. When I was a kid, my mother hated grocery shopping, and would put it off. We always had food, but it was a lot of pantry staples. Then, when she went grocery shopping, she would be hungry, and all the sweets would come home with her. One glorious day there would suddenly be icecream, cookies, snack cakes, you name it, all in the house at once. You’d be overwhelmed trying to figure out what to eat first. And then we would all descend upon it, and then it would be gone. If you complained that you never got any of the swiss cake rolls or whatever, you’d just be told that you should have gotten one while you had the chance. So I learned to eat my favorite foods (sweets) as quickly as possible. As an adult, this pattern has persisted. If I buy icecream, I eat all the icecream the same day. My “solution” has been to just not keep sweet foods in the house, but in reality that just makes my adult household even more like my childhood one. The sweets only come in once in a great while, and then they are instantly gone.

And then I silently hate myself for not having “self control.” Even though I don’t actually think there’s anything morally wrong with eating a lot of icecream, I still emotionally punish myself when I do it.

Satter recommends eating foods you like (you actually absorb more nutrients from foods that are familiar and enjoyable, apparently) and eating until you feel satisfied and just, well, done. She refers to this as “finding your stopping place” and the emphasis is that it has to be intuitive, you cannot impose a stopping place on yourself. I could probably write five blog posts about all of the nuts and bolts of these ideas, and all of the horrible and wonderful “aha!” moments I had reading them, but suffice to say that most of us have been restricting our own eating for so long that we don’t know how to eat without restrictions (even if we aren’t dieters) and then we look for ways to cheat, because you really can’t expect yourself to go hungry for the rest of your life, it turns out.

She comes right up to embracing the idea of health at every size, but doesn’t use the actual language. In fact, now that I mention it, a lot of her language use in the book feels just a tiny bit weird and… out of date? She says that you should eat a variety of foods, and eat as much as you want, and your body will be whatever size it will be, but she seems unaware of the body positivity and health at every size movements. The book was written in 2008, and she mentions “food fads” more than once, but she never once mentions kale. She adamantly sticks to some of her own definitions for things (a picky eater is normal, a finicky eater is a problem) and while her research seems sound and her ideas seem good, she seems very stuck in the role of white midwestern grandmother.

We are about to get into the reasons that I gave this book four out of five stars. Bear in mind, that it is always more interesting to talk about the things you don’t like as opposed to the things you do. I loved this book. It’s not an overstatement to say it has already changed my life for the better. If you have children, I am evangelizing to you right now, I want you to read this book. I will happily lend you my copy.

The final section of the book is called How to Cook, and it is the reason I had to give the book four out of five. No matter how great the rest of the book was, no matter how many lovely things the other two sections offered up, they could not make How to Cook go away.

Unlike in the prior sections, wherein she assumes you have some experience with putting food in front of a child and/or into your own face, How to Cook starts off with the premise that you really having no goddamn clue what you are doing in the kitchen. Maybe that’s handy for some people, but I found the “you CAN boil pasta!” attitude more than a little condescending and off-putting. Plus, there are recipes, and the recipes are bad.

In the introduction, Satter says that a reviewer of the first addition of Secrets said “There are better cookbooks out there, but there isn’t a better book on feeding yourself or your family.” Satter then cheerfully adds that she is “not entering any cookbook competitions.” Which is fine, but I guess I kind of feel like if you know your recipes are not that good maybe try to write slightly better ones?”

Which I guess betrays my bias, but the first recipe is literally for tuna noodle casserole, and the second recipe is for a sort of DIY hamburger helper. The rest are all in a similar vein. There are no vegetarian recipes for main dishes (those that seem like they would be vegetarian all include bacon). It’s fine you if want to eat these foods and learn how to cook them, but the fact that they are all that Satter imagines begins to feel like she’s writing this book specifically for one demographic, and I’m not part of it. Then, digging deeper in, when we get to her second tier of recipes, there’s one for black beans (with bacon, naturally). At the top of the recipe, is this little gem:

…June came back from several years in Brazil with a craving for black beans and rice and a conviction that this to-me-exotic dish was to Brazilian children simply a familiar and well-liked food. Comfort food, you might say. It has since occurred to me that gourmet cooking is, in many cases, our attempt to duplicate some other country’s everyday cuisine.

…”The darker the beans, the greater the flavor,” says June. If June says it, it must be so. However, these beans and the liquid they cook in are really black, so they might be challenging for your eaters at first, especially in the variations I suggest. Black bean tacos are a little strange. To make this recipe more accessible, try it with red beans or pinto beans instead.

Awe, look, she discovered cultural appropriation!

And that, for me, is where the dam broke, and I realized what the problem with Secrets that I was having such a hard time putting my finger on actually was. There is literally no social analysis. She says time and time again that eating and cooking are social things, but she fails to recognize or grapple with the social realities that we all live in. She is well aware that you have to have enough to eat before you can have the energy to try to expand your palette, but she has zero interest in talking about or acknowledging that many adults and children simply don’t have enough to eat. She’s aware that different cultures eat different foods, but she’s not interested in expanding her perspective to make her work more accessible to more people. No, Satter is writing for primarily white, working or middle class people, with enough money to feed themselves decently and consistently, and a culinary background similar to her own. That is consistent throughout the book, but it is never more clear than it is when she gets into the specifics of what to eat. And while she’s able to editorialize about her feelings about school nutrition programs (she doesn’t like them, no surprise there) for some reason she has nothing to say on things like food stamps programs, which could make her feeding methods accessible to many more families.

Also, I’m sorry, but this edition was written in 2008. Chipotle had 500 locations in 2006. But Ellyn Satter still thinks your children might faint if they see a black bean?

After slogging through the recipes, there are some helpful tips as far as shopping and meal planning go, but it took me forever to get to them because I mostly just wanted to throw the book (which again, I LOVED) across the room in frustration. Her section on nutrition is somewhat helpful, and definitely evidence based, though there again she betrays her own biases. Popular ideas and attitudes about foods are all “fads,” which might largely be true, but when her answer is to eat like it’s 1955, it sounds a little bit too “back in the good old days” for me.

***

In conclusion, I mostly think this is a great book and everyone should read it immediately, but I also think that if you don’t like bland American casseroles, you should skip the recipe section altogether so you don’t end up screaming into your book, and taking two weeks off reading it while your toddler chews the pages, which is what I did.

I have a lot more to say, but this is already one zillion words, and anyways I have to go make sure I have five thousand side dishes to go with this pasta I’m serving my family for dinner.

 

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