Perla Farias in her backyard
Credit: Cassidy Araiza
The Way We Eat

Meet Perla Farias, the Xicana Mom of 4 Striking a Balance Between Spirulina Smoothies and Chicken Nuggets

published Aug 8, 2021
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Name: Perla Farias
Location: Buckeye, Arizona
Number of people who eat together in her home: Nine (Perla; her husband, David “DJ” Portugal; their daughter, Yaretzi, 7; son, Kabil, 4; and twin girls, Soona and Citlali, 2.5; plus David’s parents, David Portugal Sr. and Lamar Portugal, and his 95-year-old grandmother, Dolores Oliva)
Avoidances: Sugary junk foods and soda

To say Perla Farias has her hands full might be the understatement of the year. The talented portrait photographer and stay-at-home mother of four runs nonstop from morning until night — feeding her brood, overseeing schoolwork for her eldest daughter, gardening with her son, entertaining twin toddlers, supporting her husband in his taxing job as a youth social worker, and squeezing in the occasional creative side project. She talks candidly on social media (@xicana_mama) about how tough it is to balance everything, as well as her never-ending struggle to get her kids to eat right. To call her relatable might be the other understatement of the year.

We caught up with Perla at her home in suburban Phoenix to chat about cooking with her mom, the unrealistic expectations of social media, and the cleverest way to hide cookies from kids.

Credit: Cassidy Araiza

You have quite the big family! How long has everyone been living under one roof?
Since 2018, when I was pregnant with my twins. My in-laws had extra space in their home, our family was expanding, and they said they could help us out — so we moved in. We have our own little space in the house, my in-laws have their space, and then we have our common areas. It’s been great. We’re all very mindful of how we coexist. 

Do you have more than one kitchen in the house? 
Oh, no. Just one kitchen, but it’s much bigger than the one we had previously. Here I have my side of the pantry and my own storage space for kids’ plates and cups. When I cook meals, it’s usually just for my little unit; my in-laws take care of themselves. But sometimes they bring food into the house that the kids want but aren’t allowed to have, so it can be a bit of a battle. Grandma loves cookies, but I don’t want the kids eating them all the time. So now my mother-in-law hides those in her closet. [Laughs]

Credit: Cassidy Araiza

That’s so funny. Are they locked in a safe?
Pretty much! Or she’ll keep them on a really high shelf. 

So what’s a typical day like for you? Has it changed significantly since the pandemic?
Pre-pandemic was kind of a blur. I was a new mom of four. I felt like I was just hanging in there, trying to figure things out. I lacked structure. I might have also been struggling with postpartum anxiety and maybe depression. I was a stay-at-home mom, but when the pandemic hit and I really couldn’t go anywhere, that fueled my anxiety even more. That’s when I realized I had to address my internal childhood trauma and the things that were making it difficult for me to parent. So last summer, I really honed in on my mom life. I took a break from social media, even though that was the one place I felt like I could connect to the outside world, because my kids needed my full attention. I timed everything out: what we were doing each hour, from breakfast to story-time to laundry. I felt like I was running a daycare, whereas before everything was free-flowing. The pandemic helped me find that structure. Now that we’re going back into the world again, I feel like I’m struggling to find a balance. I can’t catch a break!

Credit: Cassidy Araiza

It’s amazing you have any time left for yourself. Do you take care of your in-laws too?
No. My in-laws both work full-time jobs. My mother-in-law is a nurse consultant, so she works from home and usually takes care of Grandma. But when she’s unavailable, I’m the one supporting her. Grandma doesn’t take too much work; she just wants her coffee in the morning and her cookies. And because of her age, she can’t eat regular food anymore — everything has to be puréed into some kind of smoothie. So I’ll help out with that when I can. 

When the extended family does eat together, what’s for dinner?
My mother-in-law makes a lot of spaghetti. My father-in-law loves steak. He’ll make it with some kind of guacamole or salsa or A.1. sauce. But when it’s just us, pasta with olive oil and sea salt is one of our go-tos; sweet potato or chicken tacos is the other.

Credit: Cassidy Araiza

When your family goes out to eat, where do you go?
Honestly, I have a very hard time with this because it so does not fit what I envisioned for myself as a parent. The reality is, my husband will stop at Jack in the Box or we’ll eat at Culver’s or Carl’s Jr. The kids get chicken nuggets, fries, or cheeseburgers. If not that, then it’s pizza: simple cheese or pepperoni from Pizza Hut or Domino’s. It’s just what’s closest to us. But if it’s just me and my husband, we might go to sushi or something healthy. 

Credit: Cassidy Araiza

What is a typical breakfast for your family unit?
If I’m up early and have time, I’ll make pancakes with strawberries or blueberries. But my kids are currently obsessed with Life cereal. They also like Chex and Cheerios.

Do you use regular milk?
Our current milks are oat and soy. I was avoiding soy because a lot of things were saying it wasn’t the best option. Being a family of six on my husband’s income, we qualify for WIC [The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children]. I used almond milk for the longest time but WIC offers soy as their only dairy alternative.

Why do you avoid dairy?
I used to drink dairy a lot growing up but later realized it gave me issues. I was pretty sure I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I don’t know if I’m lactose-intolerant, but I figured it was best to stay away and keep the kids away from it, too. 

Credit: Cassidy Araiza

Are there any other WIC restrictions that compelled your family to purchase new or otherwise different groceries than you might have otherwise?
Yeah, WIC has definitely played a role in what I choose for the kids now. I no longer buy the organic, whole-grain options of things, but if our budget allows then that’s when I’ll add more of those specialty foods. Otherwise, it’s the WIC-approved items. Things that have been impacted are peanut butter (although they do sometimes allow better options away from the hydrogenated oils), bread for PB&Js, and we get the regular standard eggs. I get cage-free every now and then if I can. The kids also consume a lot more dairy with the cheese and yogurt options. Thankfully [WIC] bumped up the fruits and veggie budget the last couple of months, so the kids have been eating lots of fresh fruit and I’ll squeeze the greens into the smoothies. That gives me peace of mind. 

Do you eat breakfast as well, or are you too busy getting everyone else fed?
Lately food has been an afterthought. If the kids have leftovers, I’ll eat those because I don’t want to toss them. If they don’t have leftovers, I’ll make myself toast. 

What about DJ? Does he eat breakfast with you? 
Now that he’s back in the office, he takes care of himself. Sometimes he’ll make a smoothie or pick one up if he’s in a rush. 

Credit: Cassidy Araiza

What’s lunch?
Corndogs have been the go-to lately. That’s one of those things my mother-in-law introduced into the home and now the kids are obsessed. It’s just so easy. But sometimes I’ll make them eggs or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or quesadillas with mozzarella or Monterey Jack cheese. I’ll give them that with a helping of fruit — usually mandarin oranges, berries, peaches, bananas, or grapes — and a side of yogurt. But honestly? I was a little hesitant to do this interview with you.

How come?
Because I feel like I’ve really been struggling with the kids’ eating habits. All they want to eat is carbs and cheese! It feels like it’s always a battle. My husband and I broke down the food groups and talked about micronutrients and how we want to feed our kids. I wrote it all down on a piece of paper — what’s breakfast, lunch, dinner, even snack times — as a kind of guide. But there are so many days where we fall off the schedule. Now I feel like our food is mostly cheese and carbs with a lot of fruit and very little veggies. I’m working on it, but it’s hard to get your kids to eat those foods. Sometimes I think they don’t eat them because they don’t see me eating them. So lately, I’ve been sitting down with them at lunch so they can see my plate. I’ll make myself a salad or avocado toast with tomatoes and pumpkin seeds or pine nuts. Something to set a healthier example.

Credit: Cassidy Araiza

As I’m listening to you, I can’t help but feel you’re a little hard on yourself. Do you think that’s fueled by social media and this idea that some moms don’t struggle at all to get their toddlers eating gluten-free, super-healthy everything?
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am pretty hard on myself — and my husband has definitely pointed it out. He’s like, “Are the kids eating?” Yes. “OK!” For me, social media is a mix. When everyone first started sharing how they feed their kids, I felt kind of self-conscious. Like I wasn’t able to fully commit to baby-led weaning, or my kids don’t eat a full color wheel, you know? 

That said, I’ve seen a lot of accounts on social media in the last year that have shared things like “It’s OK if your baby eats puréed foods” and “It’s OK if your kid eats chicken nuggets.” Two accounts that I love are @feedinglittles and @kids.eat.in.color. Both have shared examples of expectation versus reality. They say, “It’s OK if your kid eats fast food,” and “It’s OK if you can’t always afford the fancy, healthy stuff.” Those accounts have helped me feel better about the fact that my kids eat corn dogs and chicken nuggets. I ate those things growing up too and developed a more diverse palate later. It’s not the end of the world. 

What were your family meals like growing up?
We ate a lot of simple Mexican food and hardly ever ate out. Going to Burger King on the weekend was considered nice. But at home, my mom would make eggs, beans, and rice in the morning or sopa de fideo, a noodle soup with tomato broth and onions. At family gatherings, it’d be salad, grilled chicken, and grilled veggies. By high school, I ate like a typical teenager: burgers and fries. In college, I started to look into the vegetarian lifestyle. I wasn’t just concerned about the mistreatment of animals; I worried about the hormones they were pumping in and the effect it was having on our bodies. So I went vegan for some time, then raw foodist, and then I did a juice cleanse. I think that’s when I was really able to reset my palate and start enjoying new types of foods like kale. Now I crave healthier foods but often don’t have time to make them. One, because I’m a tired and overwhelmed mom. And two, because I don’t want to cook multiple meals a day. It’s easier to just cater to the kids and then scrap for myself. 

Credit: Cassidy Araiza

Is cooking an intuitive thing for you?
No. My mom would always kick me out of the kitchen, so I never really learned how to cook. I didn’t even know how to make rice for the longest time. But now I find myself calling my mom and asking her how to make this stuff from scratch, because I don’t want to be looking it up on Pinterest from people who don’t even come from my culture. My mom’s recipes have been handed down for generations. 

Why do you think your mom kicked you out of the kitchen?
Because she was a busy, tired immigrant mom! She was just living day to day, trying to survive. She didn’t have time to sit there and teach me and let me make mistakes. She had 30 minutes or less to make a meal — that’s it. And now that I’m a mom of four, I completely empathize with her. As a kid, I always thought she was mean; now I know she just needed a break from us and never got one. The kitchen was her space to have that break. But you know, it’s always weighed on me. I have a lot of Xicana friends who know how to make tamales and all this stuff. At least now she takes my calls and tries to give me the best direction she can.

I assume she doesn’t have any written recipes?
She doesn’t write anything down; it’s very much from the heart and requires you to be fully present in the kitchen. Sometimes I make a recipe and the food is the bomb; other times, it’s not so great. Where did I go wrong? I didn’t listen to the food when it spoke to me. That’s one of my biggest struggles and why I want to start a vlog with my mom where she teaches me all of her home-cooked meals. I want to feel more confident in the kitchen and get my kids to try a wider variety of foods too.

Credit: Cassidy Araiza

Are there any dishes you’re particularly excited to learn?
Her traditional indigenous tamales — they’re just ground-up corn with a little bit of salt. But it’s such a long process, so I need to learn from her how to pick good corn, how to grind it, how much salt to add, and how long to cook it. That’s going to be one of our priority videos. Also, her flan and enchiladas. 

Have you thought about whether you want to teach your own kids how to cook? 
I think about this a lot. The times I’ve invited them into the kitchen, I have felt very overwhelmed. Once I had them help me make tortillas from scratch. They were intrigued because the dough looks like Play-Doh. They loved pressing it and I didn’t mind the extra time it took because I was fascinated with them wanting to do it. But there have been other times where I’ve invited them to, like, bake hojarascas, or traditional Mexican sugar cookies, with me, and the twins just wanted to throw flour everywhere. With two of them, they’re like each other’s hype woman. It was a lot. That was one of the last times I did something with them in the kitchen because it was not a fun experience. And if it’s not fun for them, they’re not going to want to be there. I need to get myself comfortable in the kitchen first, then I’ll be able to invite them in.

Have you figured out a way to introduce your kids to more challenging foods, like a new vegetable or a cuisine they haven’t tried?
My method is to introduce it to my son first, because he’s more open-minded. Kabil loves carrots. He loves cashew butter. He’s open to broccoli. He’ll say, “Ooh, I like this, Mom,” and everyone else just watches. Sometimes they’ll ask to try it too. One time I made myself a salad with raw spinach and accidentally left the box out. Next thing I knew, they were asking for raw spinach. I was like, “Uh, are you sure?” They were loving it, eating it like chips! But then that was that; no more spinach. This happens like 15 times — they love it, they hate it, they love it, they hate it. When it works, I am screaming with joy.

Credit: Cassidy Araiza

I think you should lock the spinach in Grandma’s cookie cabinet. Then pull it out at random and be like, “Grandma really doesn’t want you to have this.” Use that reverse psychology.
[Laughs] Oh, that’s hilarious. You know, I do try to sneak food. Like when I make mac & cheese, I add puréed sweet potato. I brew them nettle or raspberry leaf iced tea. They love it and they’re getting something healthy. I also add spirulina powder to their fruit smoothies. It doesn’t taste or smell like anything but they love the blue color and always ask for the “blue smoothies.” 

Maybe you just need to feed everything to Kabil first — let him take the lead.
[Laughs] Kabil, especially, is intrigued by our backyard; I think that’s why he is more open to eating healthier foods. My dad has a luscious garden in Avondale [Arizona]. The kids are always picking his plants, eating whatever is edible. So recently my mother-in-law and I set up a little garden in our own backyard here in Buckeye. We planted tomatoes and squash; the corn and beans weren’t successful. Still, we try to get out there with the kids just to get them to physically make a connection with the food and see where it’s grown. It’s a start.

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families. We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.