The XX Factor

Will You Eat Your Vegetables Today?

This is the story of Little Pea. Little Pea, to sum up the charming book from Amy Krouse Rosenthal, loved everything about his glorious Little Pea life except: candy. “Because that’s what you have to eat when you’re a pea. Candy. … Candy, Candy, Candy. Little Pea hated all of it.” Candy was what Little Pea ate to “grow up big and strong” and to earn a chance at his favorite dessert: “Mmmm! Spinach! My favorite!” Little Pea-being a pea himself-presumably did not eat peas, and neither, it turns out, do most Americans. Kids laugh at Little Pea because it’s just so silly that anyone would choose spinach over candy!

But it’s the adults who make Little Pea eat all that healthy candy, and it’s adults who push vegetables in every form on kids in, apparently, yet another great act of adult hypocrisy. We may demand that our kids eat their vegetables, but according to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (courtesy of the New York Times ), we aren’t eating them ourselves. Even with all the encouragement that’s been offered in recent  years: health promises, pre-prepped veggies, farmers markets, and a glut of attention to fresh, local, organic, and the like, we still aren’t cleaning our plates. In fact, most of us aren’t even putting the vegetables on our plates. Vegetables are complicated to prepare and rarely portable, and eating four or five real servings of them a day takes time, energy, and enthusiasm that most of us just don’t bring to the table.

It’s easy to see why: three meals a day. Who eats vegetables for breakfast? Brown bag lunch-sure, salad works, but how many times a week are you going to put one together, or carefully construct a sandwich of avocado and sprouts? That leaves dinner, and here, according to the NYT ‘s excellent Jane E. Brody, are your options: “half a cup of cut-up or cooked vegetables, one cup of fresh greens, half a cup of cooked dried beans, or, if you must, six ounces of vegetable juice.” Remember, you’ll need four or five of those. You can, if you can afford it and live near one, buy them cooked or prepared at Whole Foods, but otherwise, at the end of a long day, you’ll be cooking away before you eat up. Hope you remembered to soak those beans!

It’s a discouraging prospect, made all the more discouraging by the reality of most women’s lives: If you are going to eat all of those veggies, you are going to wash and prep and cook them. If your kids are going to eat them, you are going to wash and prep and cook some more. If you are going to put them in your lunch, or your kids’ lunches, guess what you get to do even more of? It’s a life well suited to Ma Ingalls, but tougher to achieve for the modern mortal working woman. But if you don’t, you’ll be fat, and your kids will be even fatter. And they’ll get cancer without all those lycopenes, et al. (never mind that another study, also reported in the NYT , found that “consuming lots of fruit and vegetables has little if any effect on preventing cancer “). The party line on vegetable consumption is that the health benefits are many and the risks nonexistent (except, of course, for listeria, e. coli , and salmonella), so eat a variety of them-a rainbow!-to get the full range of benefits.

It’s tough to create an argument “against” vegetables, and not really necessary. The green stuff is good stuff. But when we push the rainbow and the five-a-day etcetera, we fall into another of our bad national habits: that of thinking of food as either good or evil. Food is medicine, food is fuel, food is health, or food is bad. Food is never just food. The result is a world where parents like Bari Nan Cohen write essays defending their fast-food guilt and lauding the fabulous and mysterious practice of letting kids eat a little of everything instead of carefully monitoring every bite that passes their lips. We know we’ve gone crazy. But still, we worry–what about our five vegetables a day?

Go veggies and whatnot. But a day consisting of a yogurt breakfast, a peanut butter sandwich lunch and a cereal dinner isn’t a dietary failure, it’s just a day. With all due respect to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the parents of Little Pea, I think we do better when we don’t feel like we “have” to eat anything.