Friday, March 16, 2007

Golden Arches

The following endorsement is going to shock the hell out of anyone who knows me in real life.

In general, I am a healthy eater. In the past few years I realized that my weight is more determined by exercise than by diet, so I eat well for longevity, and not the scale. Since becoming a mom to a daughter, I know longer scoop out bagels or ask for things "on the side", but I do opt for grilled over fried and whole wheat over white, when I can.

But lately, you'll find me at McDonald's.

Let me explain. As a kid, McDonald's was rarely a part of the repetoire. My father is a health fanatic, and would never set foot in an establishment that did not offer a fruit plate (and in those days, McD's didn't). Mom would take us once in a while when Dad wasn't around, but that was it. My friends did not eat there, and it was not a pit stop routine on long car trips. I watched "Super Size Me" with the requisite disgust and probably entered the golden arches only once or twice in my adult life.

And I never, ever imagined taking my child there, with her pristine body and unmarred digestive tract. I condemned things like fast food and television when I was pregnant, swearing that I would be grinding up organic meals and reading endless books.

As I write this two years later, my daughter is sitting in an unblinking stare, fixated on Curious George, a belly full of nuggets.

When Chloe started eating solids, it became clear that she would rather do anything else. Always something more alluring beckoned, like crayons or crawling or clapping. She would first shake her head from side to side, lips clamped in indignation. When she learned to talk, it became "no!!" and "out!!" and me picking up linty pasta off the floor, tossed in a mini revolt.

We tried every trick in the book. Eating together. Reading while eating. Having her help in the kitchen, pick out which egg she wanted scrambled. Bribery. Nothing worked. And my chubby infant was evolving into a spindly toddler.

My generally nonplussed doctor was concerned, especially as she began to lose weight. "Try milkshakes" he offered. "And hot dogs". Buttered bagels. Sauteeing in oil. Nothing was working.

I should insert here that even the slightest concern from my doctor lead me into a tailspin. My child was starving!! As a mother, much less a Jewish one, it was my job to feed. I had spent a whole year sacrificing my breasts and independance to do just that. I watched other children in restaurants and playgrounds, opening their mouths like baby birds in response to a rubber tipped spoon, filled with anything. Chloe would study each morsel presented to her with the eye of a scientist, rendering many specimens unacceptable to taste.

Being a Manhattan mom, I sought the advice of a specialist -- a feeding expert, catering (no pun intended) to children with varying degrees of dysfunction in the areas of feeding and speech. Her office was a studio apartment with a small kitchen, a table, and oodles of toys. Much like the car you take to the mechanic, Chloe offered no troubling "noise" as she dutifully consumed her hot dog. The doctor watched Chloe eat and play and asked a million questions. Finally, she told me that she was normal, but may have some sensory preferences that were keeping her from trying certain things. For $100 a session, she could do things like squeeze flavored gels into Chloe's mouth to desensitize her. And as much fun as THAT sounded, and as strongly as I believe in early intervention, I had to believe something else would work, once a developmental delay had been ruled out.

"Have you tried McDonald's" a friend asked, likely tired of hearing me complain about this problem. I regarded her as if she had suggested shock therapy, or poison. This friend is a more experienced mom, who I often disagree with. But her daughter was a picky eater, so I could not totally disregard her comment. "Chloe would never eat there. I make her nuggets at home, and the last time I put ketchup on her plate she dissolved into tears." "She'll like it. All kids do". A few days later, while my mother was babysitting, she called me at work. "I want to take her to McDonald's", she said. "Fine." I acquiesced. "But no meat." Just then, the McDonald's pushing friend came into my office. "It's FINE" she said, pooh-poohing my mumbling about Ecoli. I gave my mother the green light for the happy meal and sat back, smugly anticipating the frustrated call I would receive after Chloe would spread ketchup on the table and eat half a fry before declaring "Bye!". The phone rang two hours later. "She ate everything!" my mother declared. "What?!" "Everything. The nuggets, the fries, everything. It took two hours, but she ate it all.

I had to see for myself. And I did, every Wednesday, after her gym class (how appropriate). I should mention here that part of my McDonalds digust was based on the physical space. Manhattan McD's are not like the suburban ones -- here they are dilapidated and almost embarassing when you consider the top cuisine offered in this city. And the one closest to my home is on a particularly busy and grimy street, surrounded by construction. Still, once I entered, I had to admit that I found it somewhat intoxicating. It was warm -- and I am not sure if it was due to the heat, the deep frying, or the bright yellow walls. It was cheap. And the happy meal was pretty damn happy. McDonald's has perfected the lukewarm temperature which is perfect for toddler food, limiting the time spent blowing on plates. It came with a toy that I was able to withhold until all food was completed. And it was. Not only that, Chloe was upbeat, attentive and patient, a combination never seen at mealtime.

I tried to infuse some depth to the experience, goading Chloe to count all the "M"s that she saw, admiring the animals on the Happy meal sac (it's no longer the cardboard box of years gone by). But I had to succumb to the lowbrow decor, the salty, greasy offerings and the unsophisticated clientele. It was all worth it, as her face filled out, and she proved that she did not have a problem eating - she just wanted the "good" stuff.

And I know McDonald's is not the good stuff. Sanctimommies who read this are likely to throw stones, and that's ok -- I was one of them. I know that the food is less than vitamin-packed, that the grease makes Chloe's face break out, and that the dining companions are often unsavory (like the one who announced mid-cheeseburger "I just lost my tooth!"). And I also know that to really work, I need to partake as well, shunning my own concerns about what this food will do to my thighs. But here's what McDonald's does have, which works for my kid. It has ambience. It has other kids, toys, and fun. This is hard to find in Manhattan restaurants. And the food, whatever they put in there, works for a kid's palate. At Burger King, the nuggets are too spicy and Wendy's uses Hunt's ketchup, not Heinz. So there is something magical within those amber walls, and despite my usual Type A brand of parenting, we indulge. And since then, her eating has gotten better, not just at McDonald's but everywhere.

I have found that the most important attribute of good parenting (for me), is flexibility. It's learning when to stay on course and not to give in, and when to let go. When I have been too strict, too scheduled, I have found myself ignoring my gut and generalizing my very specific kid. And sometimes we need that helping hand. And even if mine is wearing a yellow glove and attached to a creepy clown, I'll still take it.


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