Last year something magical happened—I became a first-time auntie to my adorable niece, Elsie. Yep, that’s right, I’m obsessed! I’ve had the privilege of watching her grow into an incoherently babbling 9-month-old who likes her naps short, her walks long and her veggies mushy. Speaking of food, I had the chance to chat with my social worker sister, Leah, about raising Elsie and the important food-related questions she and her rabbi husband, Philip, are navigating—hint: vegetarianism and keeping kosher—as their baby gets her tiny little hands sticky with solids.
I love feeding Elsie and seeing the different expressions on her face as she tries different foods. What’s your food philosophy when it comes to feeding her, at least so far?
I want Elsie to have positive associations with food and healthy eating habits, so one thing that’s important to me when feeding her is paying attention to her cues. I read that it takes seven or more introductions to a new food to develop a taste for it, so I respect when she doesn’t want something and I don’t force it on her. If I prepare a certain amount of food and she doesn’t eat the whole amount, it’s OK because I trust her to know when she’s full. It’s amazing how we’re born with such strong instincts of when we’re satiated and yet how easily we can lose that because we’ve been told to clear our plates. I want Elsie to know that I trust her body and instincts.
Our pediatrician feels strongly—and so do we—that we should be giving her organic foods, but this can be hard on the budget, so we stick to the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” for produce. I also want to avoid feeding Elsie overly processed foods and things with a lot of added sugar. But as you know, I have a huge sweet tooth and love to bake, so I want her to learn that treats are OK in moderation.
You and Philip keep kosher, but you’re a vegetarian and he eats meat. How will these different food choices impact what you feed Elsie?
We’ve had a lot of thoughtful conversations about whether Elsie will be raised as a vegetarian, particularly when I was pregnant and being so conscious about feeding myself and the baby. We agreed we are both comfortable letting her decide, but obviously it will be several years before she can make an informed decision. In the meantime, because Philip doesn’t prepare meat that often, it’s just easier for her to eat vegetarian.
It sounds like you’ve decided, for the time being, to raise Elsie as a vegetarian. Was this a difficult parenting decision for you and Philip?
I wouldn’t say it was difficult, but we definitely had a lot of intentional conversations, and we’re still not a hundred percent sure about it. Sometimes we’ll have a shared meal with two different proteins. Philip will grill chicken for himself and tofu for me, and we realize that at some point Elsie will recognize that Mom and Dad are eating two different foods, and that will be hard to explain. We’ll probably have to reevaluate and maybe decide that everyone in the family eats vegetarian, or that Elsie can try what Mom and Dad are each eating. I wouldn’t feel comfortable having my husband eat something but telling my daughter she can’t have it. We both love to eat and want to share that with her, so it might be a little tricky when she figures it out.
Do you think you would be disappointed if Elsie one day chooses to eat meat?
I think as long as she makes an informed choice, whatever she wants to do is OK with me.
Imagine that she’s older and comes home one day asking why her friend’s family eats chicken fingers but she doesn’t. How do you think you would respond?
This is a difficult one for me because of the vegetarianism and the kashrut (keeping kosher). We didn’t keep kosher growing up, but Philip did, and this is something I’ve wondered about. Obviously not all of Elsie’s friends will keep kosher, and most likely they won’t be vegetarian either. One thing Philip said recently is that maybe just having open communication with Elsie’s friends’ parents will be enough. Growing up there were plenty of times when I was at friends’ houses and they were eating pepperoni pizza or chicken, but they were happy to accommodate me, even if it meant I just ate the side dishes.
The thing I’m most concerned about is explaining kashrut—why she could have chicken fingers that we prepare at home but she couldn’t eat them at someone else’s home if they don’t keep kosher. We plan to give her age-appropriate explanations for what it means to be kosher and vegetarian. I think it will be less confusing if she can grasp why these eating practices are important to our family.
For as long as I can remember, you’ve always been very into the process of selecting foods and then prepping and cooking them. How do you plan to get Elsie involved in the kitchen so she, too, develops a lifelong love of food and cooking?
I do spend a lot of time selecting and preparing food, and so far Elsie has been a part of that process. I’m a big fan of baby wearing, so I’ve always worn her through the grocery store and in the kitchen. Now that she’s bigger, we bring her ExerSaucer into the kitchen when we’re cooking and she’ll just hang out and watch whatever we’re doing. She especially loves going to Russo’s—she gets all excited looking around at the colorful produce, and the past couple of trips there she kept trying to grab familiar things, like cucumbers and apples. I think it’s important for kids to see the process of how food is prepared, rather than just seeing the final result.
What are some of Elsie’s current favorite foods? What’s the next food coming her way?
I think her all-time favorite food right now is oatmeal with cinnamon. She will literally start panting when she sees me spooning some out of the pot for her, and she smacks her lips through the entire bowl! She’s also loving all the fresh summer fruits, especially watermelon. She’s had yogurt but now we’re starting other dairy foods, like cheese and cottage cheese. Next up is beans!
How will you introduce Elsie to Shabbat and the family meal you have on Fridays?
That’s a good question! Shabbat dinner is hard because if we wait until services at Temple Beth Elohim—where Philip is an assistant rabbi—are over, she’s already gone to bed. This week we had a really nice Shabbat lunch as a family, which is a good alternative for when we can’t do dinner early enough. I think she already realizes Shabbat meals are a little more special.
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