Here’s a fairly gentle, super middle-class, and yet very real lament from parents trying to feed their young kids in 2021: My child’s berries are bankrupting me—send help! “One thing you quickly learn as a parent of a toddler is that you now need to budget for daily fresh berries and whatever number you have budgeted for is now wrong,” wrote @wdgilson on Twitter earlier this year. More recently, @jeffalanmiller joked: “My retirement plan is my kids getting to an age where I don’t have to spend ruinous sums of money each week on milk and berries.”
I greatly resemble this remark: My own child can take down one of those $4 boxes of cardboard-y supermarket raspberries in about five minutes flat. And while I’ve managed to cut back on buying them in recent years, after I started tracking grocery spending and realized what havoc the toddler berry habit was wreaking on our budget, I’ll still get her expensive out-of-season fruit I wouldn’t purchase for myself. And she’ll absolutely house it.
Why would we who can afford it—but not really—put ourselves through this? As year-round strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries have become absolutely ubiquitous on kid-food Instagram—that pleasing Technicolor world of carefully arranged fruit rainbows and nicely packed PlanetBox Rovers—some parents are beginning to push back on the fruits’ dominance. “Can I complain about the overuse of fresh berries in baby/kid food media?” wrote a commenter on a post by Amy Palanjian, whose account is @yummytoddlerfood. “They’re in most meals that I see on Instagram, and in my neck of the woods they’re very expensive most of the year and don’t last long.”
A compounding issue is that if your kids are berry vacuums and you decide to provide what they want, there’s follow-up coercion to make sure to pick out the organic stuff. “I was in a store and some older guy pointed out where the organic blueberries were,” wrote a commenter on one of the popular Instagram account @kids.eat.in.color’s posts. “I told him thank you, but I’m not looking for organic. He pointedly looked at my kids and then shot me the judgiest, dirtiest look.” Palanjian’s post about the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list (she’s not a fan, for reasons Slate has previously explored) soon hosted several comments from people who had been feeling guilty about buying conventionally grown berries and were so relieved to feel some of the pressure lift.
The prices that middle-class parents moan about, others have recently pointed out on the social network where berries are king, put fresh berries totally out of reach for others. Dalina Soto, whose Instagram account is @your.latina.nutritionist, recently described going to the supermarket with her child, who “LOVES berries,” and grabbing a mixed 2-pound container of blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. At the checkout counter, she realized that it was $18.25. “I can afford this but WTF,” she wrote. “I just heard my mom’s voice in my head: ‘Tu ta loca, pon eso pa’tra!’ [‘You’re crazy, put that back!’]” She got a 2-pound container of blueberries instead for $7.99—still, she wrote, “more than what a worker at that store probably makes” in an hour.
I wondered whether the people who put berries on Instagram think about their price. “I’m going to be honest and admit that I often show berries in photos because they are beautiful, but I do try to work in other types of fruit (like apples and bananas, plus canned fruit) to show a mix,” wrote Amy Palanjian in an email. Palanjian, whose Instagram presence is less aspirational and more down-to-earth, tries to think about access when she posts. Like Jennifer Anderson of @kids.eat.in.color, she often includes posts about the merits of frozen and canned fruits, “which are often more reliable as far as taste goes, and they’ll never get mold before you can eat them—which is really helpful with little kids who may change their preferences on a whim!” (Boy, do they!)
“Class mobility for me has definitely meant copious berries,” wrote Stephanie Hershinow, who has a baby and a 3-year-old, in a recent tweet. “I was well cared for, but never this level of berries. Spoiled kids.” I asked her to elaborate, and she said that she buys “a couple of quarts” of berries per week, depending on the season, and also stocks “these enormous bags of Costco frozen berries” for smoothies. “My son is a strawberry fiend and would gladly eat them every day,” wrote Hershinow in an email. “My baby is 10 months and will eat literally as many blueberries as you’re willing to smoosh for her. She looks like Lucy eating chocolates off the conveyor belt.”
Hershinow remembered her grandparents growing strawberries and blackberries in their backyard. “I have a June birthday, and we would have strawberry shortcake, so they always seemed special and summery to me,” she wrote. “Otherwise, I don’t remember getting them from the store. I’m not saying we never did, but they certainly weren’t a grocery list mainstay in my working-class, rural-ish Virginia life.” That’s something like what I recall from my own middle-class, rural-ish New Hampshire childhood: occasional grocery store purchases, a summer glut and binge, sometimes a bowl of thawed-out frozen strawberries with Cool Whip for a treat. I could go back to that model with my own child. Why don’t I?
The berry trap is a dilemma symbolic of many in 21st century American middle-class parenting. In a 2017 New Yorker piece on the omnipresent berry brand Driscoll’s (the company that has pursued an “all four berries, all year round” mission since the 1980s, to total market—and child—dominance), Dana Goodyear spoke to a global brand strategist who pointed out that berries were the kind of produce most often associated with happiness. Those strawberries in their pristine clamshells seem like pure goodness, a perfect match for children; eating them, our kids rise to meet the occasion, for once getting true enjoyment out of food that’s nutritious. That this joy isn’t for everyone, that it’ll run up our credit cards, that it’s produced at human cost? These are the facts we try hard to forget.