Why Is There So Much Judgment About How We Feed Our Kids?

At a routine checkup for Priya Fielding-Singh’s newborn daughter, a well-meaning nurse put the child on a scale and said, “Let’s see how good of a job Mom is doing,” which was another way of asking whether the baby had gained weight from drinking Fielding-Singh’s breast milk.

“My daughter’s body, I now understood, was feedback about my parenting,” she writes — and that is one of the central observations in her illuminating new book, “How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America.”

Fielding-Singh, a sociologist who spent years with Bay Area families studying how and what they eat — and why — approaches all of her subjects attuned to the understanding that mothers, in particular, are judged according to their children’s healthy growth. Among other reasons, that’s because on any given day, “moms spend, on average, triple the amount of time preparing meals that dads do,” she notes.

While she includes the stories of many families in her book, she focuses on four women: Nyah, a Black single mom whose family lives below the federal poverty line; Dana, a white single mom living just above the federal poverty line; Renata, a Mexican American married mom who is middle class; and Julie, a white married mom who is affluent. Fielding-Singh acknowledges her own place on this spectrum, as a biracial woman who has never struggled to afford food but who was raised with foster siblings who came from less secure circumstances.

In the following condensed and edited discussion, I spoke to Fielding-Singh, who is an assistant professor at the University of Utah, about why it sometimes feels there are “only wrong answers” when it comes to feeding our kids.

What inspired you to do the research in the first place, and how did you end up choosing the four families?

Back in 2014, when I was starting to design this study, I was really interested in nutritional inequality. I knew that I wanted to do interviews with families and that I wanted to interview both parents and kids within families because of how social and dynamic and interactional our food choices are.

After doing so many interviews, I realized that I really needed some embedded ethnographic data to make sense of what people were saying. I knew that I wanted to spend time with families who had wildly different resources. And I had interviewed Nyah, Dana, Renata and Julie, and these were all mothers that I had a really great rapport with.

I had no idea that the book was going to be about motherhood and about parenting and about the challenges and binds and discomforts of trying to raise kids in this country with so little support and so much judgment. That really emerged organically from the work that I was doing and shaped the end product.

I was particularly moved by reading about Nyah and the way that food insecurity affected the choices that she made. She thought more about the way that food could bring her children joy than perhaps some of the other mothers did. I would love to hear you expand on that a little bit.

If you put Nyah and Julie next to each other, you can just see how having financial resources impacts what food means to you as a parent. For parents like Nyah, who were raising their children in context of extreme scarcity, making ends meet was completely dependent on saying “no” to her children.

Food is one of the few things that Nyah could say “yes” to on a daily basis. It was one of the few things that she had at her disposal to bring a smile to her kids’ faces. And it not only gave her kids that joy, but it did something so profound for Nyah, too, and made Nyah feel like she was a loving and competent and capable caregiver.

If you look at Julie on the other end of the spectrum — as much as I watched Nyah say “no” repeatedly, I saw Julie say “yes.” At times explicitly but other times just by seeing what she was able to give her kids, like dance lessons, volleyball camp, cross-country, weekend trips to visit family.

There was so much that Julie had at her disposal that could make her feel like a good mom that saying “no” to food was not as emotionally distressing. Julie didn’t really wonder if, by saying “no,” she was depriving her kids or they were going without.

I’ve thought a lot about one of your overarching points, which is that how we feed our children is so intensely wrapped up in our ideas of what being a good mother is.

I don’t think there’s a more quintessential gendered parenting task than feeding. For mothers, that responsibility to feed and nourish children begins so early. For mothers who give birth to biological children, it begins in utero, and it just grows and grows and grows over time.

It becomes so difficult to navigate a world where there is so much advice, so much prescriptive guidance about the right way to feed, sometimes it feels like there are only wrong answers. There’s still little room for error. And any variation from the expert guidance is an indictment of your worth and your devotion to your kids as a caregiver.

When I was doing the interviews and observations, I was not yet a mother myself. I was pregnant when I was writing the book proposal, and I signed my book deal right before my daughter was born. I gave birth, and I was fortunate to have some parental leave. Then I came back, and I remember thinking, “How am I going to write this book while I have this little baby?”

But I don’t think I could have written the same book without having her, because I felt so acutely, so painfully how responsible I was for my daughter’s intake and how accountable I was to the outside world for her body.

I think in many aspects of parenting, not just feeding, there’s this false notion that we can control everything that our children do and that if we just do all the right at things, we will have a good outcome, and our children will be superficially the way that society expects them to be.

The other point that I make in the book is that it’s an impossible undertaking to begin with. When it comes to food, kids have so much exposure to marketing for junk food everywhere that they go that it’s even more of a losing battle than it would’ve been.

Baseline: Kids can be picky. They can be stubborn. They’re exerting their independence through their food choices. But then you layer onto that this food system that’s just saturated in salty, sweet, cheap junk food that is designed to be extremely appealing to children. And parents just don’t have a chance. It can be really hard for them to accept.

Want More on Kids and Food?

  • Last year, Virginia Sole-Smith wrote about how to encourage your kids to have a healthy body image and relationship to food, even if yours isn’t always the best.

  • Chaunie Brusie wrote an essay about growing up without a big budget for food and equating a bountiful family table with happiness — except that her kids won’t eat her home cooking. It has one of my all-time favorite titles: “If Food Is Love, My Kids Must Hate Me.”

  • Alex Van Buren is a food writer who used to “breezily tell people to make a three-course meal in 30 minutes.” Then she had a baby, and she wants to apologize.

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