My German husband, Jörg, makes breakfast for our children every morning. The more thick slices of vollkornbrot smeared with real butter and strawberry jam he manages to pack into them before they leave the house, washed down with tall glasses of whole milk, the happier he starts his day. He has been eating this exact breakfast himself for the past forty years or so and his belief in its nutritional value borders on the religious. The only other food that comes close to bread, in his mind, is potatoes. Well, pasta comes in a close third. And then there’s rice.
So imagine his confusion when our friends in New York told us that they try to make sure that their own kids never eat bread. And definitely not potatoes. And pasta? Rice? Uh, no way.
In Germany, you almost never see a fat child anywhere. Yet they’re all growing up on food that has come to terrify American parents. Apparently the average German eats about 67 lbs of sausage per year. My mother-in-law here is famous for such statements as “children only really need to eat potatoes” and my father-in-law has never consumed a green vegetable in his entire life. They are creatures of former times, it’s true; and there is some objective truth to the sway of nutritional fads. But these things are also cultural. As a friend of mine likes to say, one man’s yuck is another man’s yummy.
Poor Jörg’s beloved carbohydrates have become enemies in the minds of American parents. And don’t even mention the milk.
If carbs are to blame for obesity these days in the United States, milk seems to be to blame for just about everything else. Although there is no clear consensus about it, as far as I can tell. Good friends of ours, whose son has had severe eczema since he was a baby, make sure he never consumes milk. But they do allow him to eat butter. A pediatrician friend of mine says that non-organic milk has been linked conclusively to testicular cancer in young boys and recommends that, if you must give your children cow’s milk, you only buy organic. And in California, apparently goat dairy is the only way to go.
Are these luxury problems? Everywhere in the developing world, from sub-Saharan Africa to Nepal to Mexico, poor mothers do everything they can to get cow’s milk for their infants once their breast milk starts lessening around 6 months. And statistics show that those babies and toddlers who receive it are taller, heavier and healthier than those who do not.
My mother did a nutrition study for UNICEF in 1988 during the Contra war in the poorest barrios of Managua, Nicaragua. She says that the Sandanistas had a pretty efficient rationing program. The diet consisted of mostly of rice and beans, plus plenty of powdered milk for the children. My mother and the team she was working with there weighed and measured every child aged 0-36 months and, though the children were skinny, she says they found only one severely malnourished child, and her mother was suffering severe post-partum depression.
I personally don’t like milk, I never have, but you choose your battles: there is no fluoride in the water here so I am busy making sure my kids don’t rot their teeth with juice and soda. They both drink gallons of organic whole milk. Everyone else in Berlin does too, by the way—a typical coffee here involves a bucket of hot, whole milk plus a few drops of weak espresso (and then it’s topped by a shake of cocoa powder, but that’s another issue).
Are Americans more evolved in their knowledge of pediatric nutrition or more paranoid? In certain ways, Germany reminds me of what the United States was like when I was a child in the 70s, the Garden of Eden era of the USFDA food pyramid. Until I was in my mid-20s I had never heard of anyone being allergic to peanuts, or gluten, or lactose. Now, of course, these problems are widespread in America. But not here. It isn’t clear to me whether German children actually have fewer allergies and intestinal problems, or if their parents are simply clueless about it.
German parents have their obsessions too, though. The movement against genetically engineered produce here is nearly fanatic. And the reason there isn’t any fluoride in the water is because—despite the local predominance of weak, brown teeth—Germans think that this particular American practice is insane.
My mother says the healthiest-looking children she ever saw in her life were in rural Kenya and peri-urban Zambia where the kids were raised on cornmeal mush, leafy green vegetables and yogurt. Meat was much desired but scarce and although the health clinics recommended that mothers give their children eggs, few did. The biggest surprise is that these kids never ate any fruit—because there wasn’t any around.
Then again, those gorgeous babies were certainly absorbing plenty of vitamin D. Here in dark Berlin, where the sun goes down at 3:30 pm in winter, we are told by our pediatricians to dissolve vitamin D tablets under our babies’ tongues starting when they are 2 weeks old. For the same reason, my dad says his mother made him eat a spoonful of disgusting cod liver oil daily when he was a kid in Brooklyn in the 30s. But that fad had definitely faded out by my childhood. Do you know anyone in the United States who does that today?
The whole question of child nutrition has a mind-boggling and ever-evolving literature. My father says that his concern for our generation of American parents is that we are required to become scientists ourselves to make sense of it. Raising children, something our species has been doing for two million years, he points out, now requires the reading of two dozen books, and endless discussions with other parents, on-line and at school. And we still aren’t sure what to feed them.
On an off day when I am the one making our children’s breakfast, the truth is I tend to give them the same old cereal I grew up with. Quick and easy. I mean, those hard loaves of volkornbrot are tough to cut evenly if you haven’t been doing it all your life. So I guess we all default to childhood norms. But if Jörg catches me with the Corn Flakes he invariably launches into a rant worthy of any neurotic New York parent. Quoting Michael Pollan (yes, Das Omnivoren-Dilemma was huge here, too) he even suggests that I’m slowly poisoning our children. Right, I retort: Just as my own parents poisoned me.
So Jörg just shakes his head, resigned to the naked truth of it. That’s why I must be in charge of breakfast, he says, getting out the big brown loaf, the butter and the milk. And I go back to sleep.
Anna Winger’s first novel, This Must Be the Place, is published by Riverhead. She is also a photographer and the creator of Berlin Stories for NPR. She was raised by anthropologists Dr. Robert LeVine and Dr. Sarah LeVine in Kenya, Massachusetts and Mexico, and now lives with her husband and two daughters in Berlin. The Mother Culture is an ongoing series of reflections on her experiences as an American mother abroad and conversations with her parents about mothering around the world.