Wrestling our kids in the nutrition ring

Just before leaving the house at god-awful-o-clock this morning, I filled my travel mug with timer-brewed coffee (bless that timer) and looked around quickly for something to eat while on the drive to Providence.

We were out of trail mix, and nothing was going to be open in town at that hour for me to pop in and grab a bag quickly. Homemade granola would be too messy, and there was no spare time for me to slather peanut butter on a couple of slices of bread, Dinner With Dad-style.

Enter the Pop Tart.

We always have a plentiful supply, because it is Mason’s breakfast staple. When there is no coffee cake, pancakes or cinnamon rolls to be had, he falls back to the Brown Sugar and Cinnamon variety of the breakfast pastry.

This morning, there were two unopened boxes in the cupboard, so I knew one package would not be missed. Out the door I went, coffee mug, Pop Tart, and car keys in hand.

Fast forward two hours. I am southbound on the Acela, and wondering why I am starving before the clock has even struck 7 a.m.

Now I understand why Pop Tarts are not on Harvard Medical School’s list of essential foods. They are more snack than breakfast. That led me to wonder how Mason functions at school with Pop Tarts as his daily breakfast. His metabolism is clearly faster than mine based on age alone, never mind how active he is. He must be hungry by the time he gets on the bus, never mind mid-morning in his classroom.

Brandy and I have been talking a lot lately about the food choices we make for our boys, and empowering them to make healthy choices for themselves when they get older. It’s a tough balance to strike. With Mason in particular, just getting him to eat is the challenge. For lunch, all he wants are Ritz crackers with peanut butter. For dinner? He’d choose chicken nuggets or hot dogs on alternating nights if left to his devices.

We’re actually doing OK on the dinner front. We persevere through a certain amount of grousing on some nights, but for the most part we’ve been successful with alternating chicken, steak, pork, hamburgers and sausage, with only occasional reliance on pizza, grilled cheese and frozen, prepackaged foods. Only one of the boys likes pasta or rice, so side dishes alternate between fresh peppers, carrots and celery; cooked broccoli, green beans or peapods; or fruit. Sometimes we’ll add crescent rolls or freshly baked bread to the mix.

Breakfasts and lunches are entirely different challenges, though, especially during the school year. Mornings are chaotic, and efficiency and conflict minimization probably dictate our choices most often. For lunches, we’re steering more toward packing the kids’ lunches rather than relying on them to fend for themselves in the cafeteria. With Mason in particular, though, that’s daunting. How do we get enough protein in him when he won’t eat sandwiches with deli meat and loathes the thought of tuna or egg salad?

It’s a constant wrestling match, and some days you can’t win. For example, Sam came home on the first day of school with a full lunch box. He decided to eat the chicken patty on the cafeteria menu instead. We sent that lunch box back to school with him the next day, reminding him to eat the packed lunch when provided and not to be tempted by the cafeteria offerings.

It’s enough to make us want to tear out our hair and empty out the school lunch accounts. That doesn’t feel right to us, but it would be effective.

And therein lies the parental nutrition conundrum: What’s right, versus what’s effective. That’s the balance we need to strike.

Caffeine is both friend and foe

The extra tea on the way home tonight (now officially last night) is working, preventing sleepiness at beverage-plus-3-hours and counting. Of course, the tea chaser a few hours after coffee had been ingested at the beginning of the 4.5-hour ride may have been overkill.

It’s a classic Commuter Daddy conundrum on the drive home during my regular New York trips. Somewhere between hither and yon, the droopy eyelids set in. Must fight through. Must get home. A head shake here; a foot flex there; add another head shake… Must clear cobwebs.

Eating chewy candy helps, but that’s no way to stay in shape. Plus, I swore off candy-fueled drives this year (see item #3). Sugarless gum holds my interest for only so long. Sipping caffeinated drinks is the only working, calorie-free solution.

The latter helps short-term alertness because the act of drinking itself helps stave off the sleepies. Later, the caffeine kicks in, keeping me focused on the commute until I pull into my driveway. It then takes me a bit to wind down once I park myself in my easy chair, but at least I have arrived in that seat safely.

So I chase that caffeine with an adult beverage. Usually it’s a beer. Tonight, three fingers of Glenmorangie were in order. Even that is not working, though. I’m wired.

I caught up on “Lost” and took in the latest episode of “The Web.Files Buzz.” I flipped through Google Reader. I checked on the sleep-talking, blanket-shedding children and returned to my chair to see what I had missed on the Facebook news stream. Nothing was making my eyelids resume their drooping.

So now I blog while everyone sleeps, taking some advantage of a rare moment of solitude on the home front.

I’m not complaining. I’m certain to pine for such a quiet moment later today or over the weekend. But in about 5 hours when Ruby needs to be walked and the boys want to say hello after I’ve been away for three days, I am going to be asking myself some questions about extra caffeine and my commute.

The good news is the writing is helping. I’m slowly losing focus. I feel my head getting heavier. Yawn. At caffeinated-beverage-plus-4-hours, it just might be time to zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….

Trying harder to eat healthy on the road

I don’t want to be a shill for Starbucks, but I have to applaud the recent additions to their menu. I had noticed their offerings seemed to be getting healthier, but a Rewards e-mail I received tonight confirmed that this strategic move is in direct response to customer feedback: “Starbucks customers consistently request more delicious and nutritious options for breakfast.”

Not just for breakfast, my friends. As someone who spends a lot of time on the road — and recently recuperating from month-long chest congestion, which eliminated exercise from my routine until today — I’ve been much more selective with my in-car eating lately, doing my best to choose healthy, on-the-go options. As any road warrior will tell you, though, eating decent while traveling can be quite a challenge, never mind eating healthy.

So in that vein, I’ve been choosing Starbucks over Burger King/McDonalds/Wendys of late, and much to the company’s delight, I’m buying more than just coffee. Whether it was the new Fruit and Nut Bar I bought in lieu of the free lunch at Inbound Marketing Summit I recently attended, or the egg salad sandwiches on multigrain bread I’ve wolfed down while logging onto the in-store wifi for a quick e-mail session between hither and yon, I’ve been able to meet my renewed on-the-road dietary goals.

To be fair, Panera is also a favorite for much the same reason: Free wifi and healthy sandwiches. But when I recently asked if I could order a sandwich on a rollup (so I could eat and run), I was out of luck. I wish they had more portable healthy choices — especially the Mediterranean Veggie sandwich, which would be just as good in a rollup as it is on regular bread. That alone won’t stop me from going to Panera when I have time to dine in, but I will choose Starbucks when I’m in a hurry if only to grab another Fruit and Nut Bar with my coffee to go.