When the Food of Convenience Fits Your Needs, but the Guilt Feels Heavy

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Ayumi Takahashi)

Every Wednesday morning at 6:15, my son and I pile into the Subaru for the slog north in Seattle traffic to his weekly vision therapy appointment. It’s fun for no one, but it’s something we have to do. Which is why around 6:23 on Wednesdays, when we’ve stopped sweating from the rush out the door, we reliably pull into our local Starbucks drive-thru and I order him a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich and a boxed chocolate milk. I get myself a coffee and those little sous-vide egg bites. We eat in the dark, under stoplights, usually in silence.

It’s no kind of sexy breakfast — especially in a family that prides itself on sitting down together with hot food most mornings. I don’t like the habit of eating in the car, where no one can look at each other or actually see what they’re eating, and I don’t like the mysteriousness of meat I don’t choose myself. (My husband subscribes to the theory that Starbucks is just McDonald’s for Subarus, and I can’t really argue.) I usually spend the first five or 10 minutes of our drive wondering whether it’s okay to feed my kid less nutritious food when it both motivates him to leave the house early and lends extreme convenience to our morning process. The food fits our needs, but the guilt feels heavy.

How can you feed this to your child every week? asks my conscience. You are a professional recipe developer. Figure out a way to make the exact same thing at home ahead of time. It won’t take that long. Then I look at the clock; it’s really early. I look in the back seat; my 8-year-old is happily hogging down hot sausage and egg, with the muffin cast aside, as it is every time. More thoughts: Am I killing my child with our Wednesday morning breakfast? (From the back seat: chew, chew, chew, slurp.) Do our egg pucks taste delicious, or just deliciously convenient?

Ultimately — and I don’t think it matters whether it’s Starbucks or McDonald’s or Sally’s Big Sandwiches — I don’t think a weekly fast food routine can destroy my child’s body, provided that at other meals I demonstrate that it’s lovely to eat while in direct conversation with other humans, that it’s good to know the difference between foods that help our bodies and those that don’t, and that one can derive joy from the cooking process. So every week, I talk myself off the parenting-freakout ledge, and feel generally okay about feeding my sushi- and asparagus-eating kid something not quite so virtuous on Wednesday mornings. It’s fast and easy, and when you’re a parent very few things are fast and easy. Sometimes I just take what I can get.

“It’s fast and easy, and when you’re a parent very few things are fast and easy. Sometimes I just take what I can get.”

But here’s the rub: All that changes if I’m not the one feeding my kid fast food. Recently, my in-laws took the boy to his weekly swimming lesson. On the way home, he announced he wanted fried chicken for dinner, in lieu of their planned Mexican takeout. Ever eager to please — and not about to start a fried chicken project at home at 7 p.m. — they looped by a conveniently located KFC on their way home, and looked appropriately sheepish when they announced where they’d stopped.

I was livid. Someone would certainly take away my right to write about food if they knew my kid had eaten dinner at KFC. “They can’t even call it Kentucky Fried Chicken anymore,” I reminded my husband when they’d left, not caring whether the urban legend about what kind of protein the company uses was true or not. But really, I wasn’t mad that my kid ate fried chicken. I wasn’t mad they’d chosen fast food, because I essentially make the same choice on Wednesday mornings. I was mad that I hadn’t gotten to capitalize on the convenience of a quick-but-crappy dinner when necessary; I was frustrated that I felt uncomfortable committing the same nutritional crime.

The high-minded me says that I’m justified in trying to control the frequency of my child’s intake of “bad foods”; when other people feed him junk, I have to take it into account, so his diet stays balanced. The jealous me knows I just want to be the one to get Mom Points for buying Cheetos, since I’m also the one who gets glared at when I harp on him to eat his vegetables every night. The more solemn me reminds me that I have very few years left in which I have any control over his food choices anyway.

For now, our Wednesday pattern remains. Because honestly, I do like going to Starbucks for breakfast. It’s early, you know? And we’re in a rush.