Kiddo recently had a friend over for a sleepover.
Announcing a sleepover to a 9-year-old is pretty much akin to telling me I've won a trip to the Maldives. Only instead of preparing by shopping for bikinis, we go shopping for yummy and fun treats.
Much like my mom did for me, I normally try to maintain a fun but healthy diet at home. This mostly means staying away from processed foods (though the odd can of Campbell's soup does make a weekly appearance) and trying to loosely follow food pyramid guidelines. We make the obvious healthy switches, using non-stick spray or olive oil instead of vegetable oil, opting for almond or skim milk instead of full-fat, air-popping popcorn instead of reaching for a bag of potato chips. In honesty, eating well isn't that hard if you plan a bit and find a few simple go-to recipes (for me, these include omelettes with veggies, air-fried potato wedges with burgers served on English Muffins, spaghetti squash Bolognese, Shepherd's pie, ...).
But for sleepovers I tend to step away from the officially recognised food groups and embrace the salt and sugar - truly decadent kid-fun stuff like Cheetos, ice cream, and boxed macaroni and cheese. Until recently, this was working well for us.
But these days it seems my indulgence is casting a dark shadow over our household, tarnishing my ''responsible, healthy-living, clean-eating mom'' reputation.
I'm not sure when I first noticed the switch; I know it's been subtle, but there's no hiding the fact that we are now ''that family'', the one who sometimes serves full-fat chocolate milk to discerning young visiting palettes.
So it is that I most recently found myself excitedly offering up a packet of sour cream and onion potato chips to Kiddo and her guest as they settled in on the sofa to watch a movie.
''Sorry'', Little Guest said, ''I prefer not to eat packaged or fried foods''.
''Ok, how about some yogurt then?'' I asked, slightly shamefaced.
''Is it pre-mixed?'' the nutritionist friend asked. ''Because I don't do pre-mixed. You DO know it's mostly sugar, with very little actual fruit content.''
''I have plain if you prefer.''
''Ok, as long as it's soy-based, because my mom thinks I might be slightly lactose intolerant. So we're eliminating dairy this week. Oh, and if you have fresh organic fruit that's been picked during the last 24 hours to add to it, that would be great.''
Yikes. ''Sure,'' I lied as I pulled the full-fat dairy yogurt out of the fridge. ''Picked these raspberries myself just this morning.'' (Like we've got orchards just abounding out here in this barren desert.)
''You don't happen to have some agave nectar, do you, Mrs. Gypsy? I like a bit of sweetness, and these raspberries aren't very flavourful.''
''Sure,'' I mumbled as I expertly manoeuvered the corn syrup bottle while pouring so the label wouldn't show.
By now Kiddo had quite happily chomped her way through half the bag of potato chips.
Snacks sorted, I went about getting dinner ready. Normally, if I make macaroni and cheese for Kiddo, I use vegetable pasta and add in frozen vegetables to make sure she gets a good serving of daily dairy, grain and vegetable allowance. But for special occasions like a sleepover, I'll indulge her in a box of Kraft Dinner. When I was an expat child, Kraft Dinner was the ultimate gratification. Kiddo's much like me; she loves the occasional box of yummy naughtiness.
Little Friend's mom had assured me that her daughter was an excellent eater, with a grand appetite. I served them each a bowl of piping hot creamy goodness at the living room table.
''We don't eat in front of the TV in our house,'' said Little Friend. ''It's horribly bad for socialisation, and it's been scientifically proven that people who don't eat at the kitchen table consume at least 30% more calories per meal. Mindless eating is akin to protracted suicide.''
''Oh,'' replied Kiddo through a mouthful of macaroni, eyes fixed firmly on the 52-inch screen in front of her. I'm guessing my child had no clue what scientist/sociologist friend was on about, and was probably thinking socialisation was some kind of disease and protracted suicide was a stomach bug.
I went back to the kitchen ...
''Is this PROCESSED?'' came the nutritionist's voice from our living room. ''Because it tastes processed, like there's cardboard or plastic or something in it. My mom says I'm not supposed to eat processed foods.''
Kiddo: ''It's not processed. It's Kraft Dinner. It's so cool, it's made from POWDERED cheese. It's REALLY ORANGE powdered cheese; it kind of GLOWS. I LOVE IT!''
''I'm sorry Mrs. Gypsy, I don't think I can eat this. It just feels wrong. Chemically-enhanced food stunts brain growth.''
Me: ''No problem, what would you like? This is a sleepover, it's supposed to be FUN! What can I make you?'' I was hoping the shrill voice in my head wasn't projecting outward; the sound of it was making me a bit nervous, like I might all of a sudden pop a blood vessel or something. I tried to ignore the strong pulsing sensation in my temple.
Nutritionist kid: ''Do you have any free-range, organic, grass-fed chicken?''
Me: ''Yes. Yes, as a matter of fact I do,'' reaching for the frozen packet of halal Saudi chicken thighs hidden at the back of the freezer, figuring if I spiced it up enough she wouldn't be able to tell the difference.
The rest of the evening went on in this fashion, and by bedtime I was totally wiped. I felt like a failure. A mess of a mom who was feeding my child gloop and cardboard; and worse than that, my child LOVED me for it. How had I sunk to such depths of culinary depravity?
A night's sleep had me feeling slightly better equipped as I prepared to do battle with breakfast. ''Girls, how about some French-Canadian crepes made with free-range eggs, topped with fresh fruit and the butter I hand-churned this morning?''
''Well, Mrs. Gypsy, if it's all the same to you, I prefer to avoid gluten as much as possible. My mom's been reading Wheat Belly to us every night before bed, and that yucky stuff stays stuck to your guts forever. You might want to look into healthier alternatives yourself. It might earn you a few extra years, and it would do wonders for that waistline you've got hidden deep down under there somewhere.''
''Yes, well ....'' the flipping vein in my forehead seemed dangerously close to bursting. ''How about some buckwheat crepes then?''
''If it's all the same to you Mrs. Gypsy, I'll just have some fresh-pressed cucumber-kale juice. I've got an organic fruit carving class this afternoon, and the folates help me focus my creativity.''
I took out the juicer. And wondered if it would really be that bad if I were to fresh-press myself a glass of orange juice with vodka and light a cigarette at 9:00 a.m.
I am THAT mom. The one who doesn't deal so well with intolerance ...
My mom loved cooking when I was a little girl, and I grew up on homemade meals and healthy fare. But orange Tang, Hawaiian Punch, bologna sandwiches, fried chicken, ice cream drumsticks and Doritos weren't foreign or taboo in our household.
Obviously I've taken quite a few liberties above, slightly exaggerating and combining a number of little visitors into one.
But the fact remains that nowadays as a mom I have to be extremely vigilant when preparing for a sleepover. Expectations are high. Little visitors now come with forewarnings of allergies to dust, pollen, cat hair, nuts, fish; sensitivities to chocolate, eggs, furniture polish; gluten-lactose-protein intolerance; aversions to beef, pork, chicken; a commitment to vegetarianism, veganism, pescatarianism, lacto-ovo-pescatarianism ... you get the drift.
Allergies being the exception, I can't help but think the whole transference of eating restrictions to our children makes for quite a stressful existence and a rather unpleasant relationship with food. I'm a firm believer in healthy eating, but I also think obsession with food calories and content at such a young age sadly destroys the spontaneity of childhood. Awareness is obviously a good thing, but so is the ability to occasionally indulge guilt-free.
I've recently cut wheat out of my own diet in an effort to quell tummy troubles, but it's not something I feel the need to worry Kiddo about. In my mind extreme dietary restrictions are a necessary evil, not a preferred way of life. That having been said, Kiddo's made a conscious choice to not eat meat since she was six years old, without any influence from Smilin' Vic or me, who have made no such commitment. Go figure.
I'm not claiming to have all the answers, but some days it does all seem a bit radical. It's a subtle dance between healthy and obsessed, between influencing and controlling.
Surely there's a balance to be found?