setting the boundaries at the table.

Dear Lucy and Desmond,

Oh darling Desmond, you’re borderline obsessed with tiny superhero figures right now. The Guys are the focus of your days. To think that six months ago we didn’t know if you would ever leave our legs. Now, not only do you happily play alone, but you also make up so many stories with Mr. Freeze and Penguin that they have become part of the rhythm of our days. (When we’ve made the mistake of letting you sleep with some of the guys, we’re awoken by indignant screaming when you can’t find them, since they are tangled in the sheets of your bed.) Today, at the thrift store, Daddy found you a tiny Hulk figure who moves his muscled arms up and down. You clutched it to your chest like a long-lost child, closed your eyes, and said, “Thank you so much, Daddy.” It seems that 42 cents can make happiness sometimes.

When you play Bad Guys vs. Good Guys — Catwoman and Superman smashing each other in your hands — I always say, “Desmond, there is no such thing as bad guys. They’re people who weren’t loved well making a series of bad choices.” Okay, okay, I know it sounds ridiculous. But I can see this black vs. white, bad vs. good binary thinking absorbing your brain these days. I’m trying to put questions in there, so the hardwiring of easy thinking doesn’t take over. I knew it was sinking in when you told me from across the room that Poison Ivy had gone to jail. Why, I asked.

She made some bad choices, you told me. And now she has to accept the consequences.

Hippie Buddhist mama repeating herself, over and over, pays off eventually.

We talk about choices around here a lot. Someday you might understand that much of the persuasion of parenting lies in repetition. I love you, said a thousand times (and followed by actions that demonstrate it), becomes a child feeling sure of it. I hear that you would like to do that but  translates, eventually, into an understanding that Mama does listen to you but she has to say no. And make a choice might eventually mean you see this: we might not have much control in life, but when we do have a little control, it’s up to us to make a conscious choice.

We talk about choices so much because your dad and I think about choices, all the time. We talk, every single day, about the choices we have made — the day before, a year ago, almost a decade later — and size them up with our habits now. I have seen it in my life. Habits form character. So when I make a habit of thinking in terms of choice, then I choose more consciously.

The only thing we can control is how much we react to what happens. And we can choose calm over panic. Kindness over spite. Open over tightly closed.

So when it comes to making a budget for food in this house, we think daily about the choices that matter to us.

Here are some choices I’d like to see you make someday.

Remember that everyone is different. Sometimes it seems that judging other people’s choices is the national past-time of this country. We have SO MANY OPINIONS about other people’s clothes, bodies, cars, jobs, friends, politics, drinking habits, hometowns, plates, fingernail polish, and definitely oh yes of course, about other people’s foods. So many opinions.

I’m exhausted with all the opinions.

Lord knows I have opinions too. But before I let those opinions settle into flinty tough ideology, I remind myself: there’s always a story.

There’s always a story. Why is that person eating so many doughnuts? Driving a rattly old car with liberal stickers littering the bumper? Going outside the house with hair that looks like that? Driving too fast? Voting for that guy? Wearing so much perfume? I still think these questions, but I don’t follow them to the next step — making judgments about a stranger I saw for 10 seconds. Instead, I think, “Story, Shauna. There’s a story.”

I’d rather walk through the world noticing and open than deciding I know how everyone else should behave. Imagine that weight of the world on your shoulders.

So, if you go to the grocery store and see other people buying food you don’t eat? Notice it. Don’t judge. See someone reading a book you think is boring? She’s reading. That’s a good thing. You can’t believe that guy is wearing a puce shirt to a job interview? Maybe it’s the only one he could afford for a job he really needs.

Seriously, relax. Are they kind? Are they observant? Do you they care about other people? Do they create something good in the world? Let those questions be your guide.

So let go of judging other people’s choices when you think about the choices you need to make for your life. You will change over the decades. So will your choices. Do the best you can now.

Choose your top priorities. These days, it seems that nearly every food product comes covered in labels: organic, certified humane, BPA-free, vegan, gluten-free, low-fat, low-calorie, non-GMO, and on and on. There is hardly room on the label anymore for the name of the food. It’s easy to imagine that they are all equally important.

Here’s what I have noticed: the more labels on a food, the more expensive it is.

If you want to budget to make sure you have food with all the labels, then know you are going to be spending a LOT of money on your food. That’s okay. That’s your choice. Just be conscious of it going in.

Or, you can choose the few that are most important to you. Here are some of the choices.

Organic. Why buy food that comes from plants sprayed with pesticides? Have we done enough long-term studies to show these pesticides have no effect on the human body? Or are they harmless to every living creature besides the bugs they decimate?

I’ve seen a lot of people advocate eating only organic foods. They all maintain it has changed their health for the better. And I don’t dispute that.

We believe that organic food truly matters. We just can’t afford to eat everything organic.

“Organic eggs, milk and salad greens can cost upwards of 60 percent more than conventional alternatives, while items like apples, carrots, granola and spinach carry premiums of between 7 and 30 percent, the study said.”

This makes eating organic a matter of privilege. When you see people’s carts full of foods labeled organic, you know they have more money than the mom with an EBT card behind her.

On the other hand, when those of us who have more money make the choice to buy organic, the market understands this is something worth pursuing. If there is money involved, change happens. Lately, at the store where I work, I see more and more relatively inexpensive items with the word organic stamped on them. So, perhaps we have a responsibility to carve out more of our budget to organic foods?

Then again, as organic has become big business, there are some who speculate that some of those mass-produced foods labeled organic may not actually be organic.

Here’s a fairly complex and nuanced piece about the price of organic foods , not only in every part of the supply chain but also the price that farmworkers pay to work among pesticides. Because if we’re going to care about our own bodies, we should also care about the bodies of the people helping us to eat that food. And of course, there’s the effect on the soil and air and water.

This is one of the more complicated choices you can make at the grocery store. These are no small matters. No one agrees. There’s quite an argument about all of these issues.

For right now, in this house, we have decided to always buy organic produce on the Dirty Dozen list and shop by price on the Clean 15. From April to October, we buy most of our produce directly from the farmers on Vashon, who grow organically, even if they are not certified organic. (That certification process is complicated and costly. That’s part of the price at the checkstand.) Since most of our grocery bags are filled with produce and very few foods in boxes, that makes sense to us and our budget.

But again, everyone has to make the choice for his or her family. Please don’t become the people who judge others because they don’t have “enough” organic food in their carts for your taste. Just don’t.

Non-GMO. Okay, at the time I’m writing this, GMOs are one of the biggest causes of arguing and flinging dirt at each other in the food world. Some people are convinced that every food that is genetically modified is inherently dangerous. Others believe that all genetically modified foods help mankind.

How do you decide what is right when both sides insist their side is more interested in humanity than the others?

To me, that means the choice is somewhere in between.

I’d highly recommend you read  our friend Tamar Haspel’s take on the GMO debate in her Unearthed series in the Washington Post. She’s full of rational questions and more interested in skewering faulty thinking than coming up with a right way.

And on issues like this, I highly recommend this Oatmeal primer on making the choice to question our deeply held beliefs.

Our choice for the moment? We don’t need to go out of our way to avoid GMOs, exactly. . Most of the foods we eat — shallots, red peppers, grass-fed beef, homemade granola, and ice cream from our friend Sam’s ice cream shop — are naturally GMO free. Do we have the occasional Tootsie Roll? You bet. (Lucy, you are as fond of them as I was when I was a kid. When it’s time for the sometime treat, you usually want a Tootsie Roll.) I don’t know if Tootsie Rolls have GMO ingredients. I’m assuming they do. Sometimes, we have some. I think the occasional choice to eat without considering every implication of that food is important too.

But 90% of the time, we’re eating local and GMO free.

Low-Fat and Low-Calorie. I remember an evening in Maine, years ago now, when we were on our road trip around New England, meeting with readers and listening to their stories. We stopped at a grocery store for snacks for the hotel room. As Danny and you, Lucy, gathered cheese and gluten-free crackers, I stood in front of the yogurt display, trying to find a single whole-fat yogurt. I could not. There was not a single yogurt there, in a pretty extensive display of Greek yogurt, flavored yogurts, and dairy-free yogurt. The best we could do was low-fat.

What’s the problem with that?

Well, first of all, Americans’ fear of fat led to us eating more and more sugar and refined starches to fill us up. Trying to find an unsweetened full-fat yogurt at that store was absolutely impossible. Who decided that all of our yogurt had to be free of fat?

This piece lays out a few of the nuances of this issue. Frankly, it feels like generations of eaters were duped.

As with everything else in American food trends, it turned out that what was preached was false prophecy. Full-fat dairy is probably better for us, for many reasons. Full-fat yogurt has milk or cream, with very few other ingredients. Low-fat or non-fat yogurts often have cornstarch and fillers to make it feel like full-fat yogurt in your mouth.

There’s so much more we could say about this, but we think it’s pretty clear, at least for us.

Eat the real stuff. That’s the choice we make in our house. Eat real food.

Choose to reward the companies you love with your dollars.  My guess is that, years from now when you read this, the two years that we ran our gluten-free flour business will be a blur to you. Desmond, you were not even 1 when we started, so of course you won’t remember it. (What were we thinking, starting a business when we had a baby?!) But Lu, you’re bound to remember the trips to the post office, the hours I spent on the computer, the looks of stress on our faces. I don’t regret it but I’ll never do that again.

Let me tell you this: nothing has grown my respect for small companies trying to make good food for us like running our own business for a couple of years.

Making good food and getting it onto the shelves is hard work. Such hard work. I’m writing a separate essay about this, so I won’t go into too many details. But let me say this: every bag or box of food you find on the shelf has meant countless hours of work, fear, and tears for the people who made it for you.

If a company is doing well, and getting food onto grocery store shelves (or online), they generally have to hire a broker, to introduce them to distributors. Both take a percentage of profits. There are shipping costs, storage costs, printing costs, insurance, bookkeepers, accountants, employees (if you are lucky enough to have enough money to hire someone to help you), cost of the food in the first place, marketing costs because you aren’t going to sell any of this food if no one knows it’s out there, and all the hours and hours and hours of labor you put in to make sure this works.

If you are lucky, as a small company, you might make 1 to 4% profit on the work you do. You can do the math. That’s not much.

And so, for the first few years, you do all this while also working another full-time job or a couple of part-time jobs that give you the flexibility to work the hours you need. And you take no salary, and you’re poor, and you’re worried often. But you believe in the food and what you’re offering the world, so you keep going. Or you don’t, because it’s too hard, or it turns out to be not what you want, and you have to face reality.

So every time we buy something from a small company, local or otherwise, your dad and I know how much work and passion went into getting it into our hands. That’s why, given the choice between paying a bit of money more for a small company we trust than paying less for a big-company product, we go small and slightly more expensive every time.

This is community too.

Other considerations. Gluten-free? Yep. That’s no question here. Will we buy something simply because it is gluten-free? Nope. We now have so many gluten-free packaged foods that we have to say no to most of them. Great food that is also gluten-free? Yes.

Vegan? We’re not vegan. Or vegetarian. But Desmond, you seem to  do much, much better without dairy, so sometimes we’ll buy foods labeled vegan for you. Still, this isn’t a priority for us.

Generally, we choose to buy food as ingredients. And we have a pretty standard list, other than changes in the produce department for season. Do we buy produce from Mexico? Mostly, we like to buy fruits and vegetables in season. This afternoon your dad roasted the first bunch of asparagus grown in Washington available at our store. We’ve been eating California asparagus — and thus asparagus many more days away from picking to our table than WA variety — and we had been enjoying it. But this? This had a much bigger taste, a slight sweetness, a nuance gone from asparagus grown in Mexico. Does that mean we never buy produce from Latin America during the winter months? Nope. We’re not purists anymore. (You two coming along pushed that out of us quickly.) Sometimes, Lucy, you really crave watermelon. And Desmond, you attack strawberries with gusto. So once in awhile, we buy foods out of season from Mexico, if they’re organic.

It’s good to have boundaries. This can all feel overwhelming, I know. But for you, maybe not so much. For you, this is merely the way you eat. We’ll see what choices you make when you leave the house. Desmond, you might go through a phase of eating top ramen and drinking beer when you’re in college. Lucy, you might become a vegetarian. You’ve talked about it a couple of times already. I wouldn’t be surprised.

So there really isn’t a right way. I believe there a thousand different ways to do the right thing.

Find your boundaries. Then stick to them.

So in our house, that means we buy food that is:

— gluten-free (except for Desmond’s sandwich bread)

— as local as possible

— organic for the Dirty Dozen, and then where we can afford it

— mostly produce

— grass-feed beef, pork from companies we trust, Alaskan seafood, tofu from the Vashon factory (organic and non-GMO and local), sustainable seafood, and chicken raised in as humane a way as possible. And not that much. 

— ingredients to make our own dairy-free milk and yogurt for Desmond and us too

— from companies we like for their compassion in the world

— tastes incredible

— full of good nutrients and gives you energy for the day

— mostly unpackaged.

— occasionally, completely frivolous and following none of these guidelines but gluten-free and dairy-free.

That’s our house, right now.

What will your house be like someday, my darling kids? We can’t wait to visit you there and share a meal.


all my love,


17 comments on “setting the boundaries at the table.

  1. KC

    The organic question is further complicated by the fact that organic (non-synthetic chemical) pesticides are allowed. But there’s no label designation for “we did the least we could with chemicals and the most we could with ladybugs and crop rotation and all that” – partly because there simply aren’t ways to inexpensively measure lower chemical load. Just as there isn’t a label designation for “we only give a chicken antibiotics if it specifically is sick and needs them to get better” – because there’s no good way to measure that. Knowing the farmers and going with farmers you can trust (and who have their priority “doing things well” rather than optimizing for a label designation) is the best, but it’s not really feasible in most urban environments. It’s very frustrating.

  2. Elizabeth

    I’m teaching my students about Ethical Wills. It’s so clear that you are writing your precious children an “ethical will” with every post. I cannot begin to tell you how much they will value them when they are of age. They are stunning. Best gift in the world to give ones child!!

  3. Marina

    Not judging people by what’s in their grocery carts? Shauna, please acknowledge your own past actions.

    1. Karen

      I agree. Admitting to one’s own past mistakes is a real sign of personal growth and maturity.

    2. shauna

      Yes, I did write a post, about 10 years ago, in which I talked about how my husband and I would look into grocery carts and wonder how people could be buying certain foods. Just a week after, I published a letter from a reader who took the time to open my mind to the privilege in my first piece. Not only did i publish that letter but I have written about my shift in thinking quite a few times since.

      1. Karen

        I’m glad to hear that. It would have been good to include some of those insights in this letter, so that your children could appreciate how it is possible to grow and change throughout their own lifetimes–that the people they are in the twenties will grow and evolve. I think Marina was expressing that, the wish to see your acknowledgement in THIS letter of your past judgements on others, to emphasize to your children the need to avoid doing so.

        1. shauna

          This letter to my children is meant to be a glimpse of where I am now. It’s not feasible to include all of our histories in a single piece of writing.

  4. Marcia

    For heavens’ sake, Shauna did address her “Grocery Store Game” a long time ago with a very detailed and apologetic blog entry following the original one. If you’re still hanging onto a mistake she made YEARS ago try taking a long look in the mirror.

  5. Charlene

    I remember years ago there was a blog post about “How We Eat Around Here” with some comments about the things people put in their grocery carts. Many people were offended by that. Shauna did re-think this blog post and it has been discussed at length. She has changed and she no longer makes these snap judgements, I think that IS a sign of personal growth and maturity. I’d love to see some of these critics live their lives publicly on the internet and get repeatedly shamed for things they’ve done and said in the past. Haven’t we all had moments we’d like to forget about? Haven’t we all popped out with a judgemental thought or action at some point in our lives? I personally didn’t like the “Grocery Cart Game” when she first wrote about it. Probably because I could remember living on dollar store food when I was in tough spots in my life. There were a lot of processed foods when money was tight and the idea of someone laughing at my choices made me feel sick to my stomach. Yeah, that post made me pretty mad. But then she apologized for it and said they were not going to play the game anymore, not after reading a very touching letter someone had sent her. You know what that means? She has the ability to empathize with someone else’s predicament and it led her to change her thoughts and behaviors. And that’s a GREAT and very important lesson for all of us, for everyone can stand to take a step back at some of their own choices and behaviors. I applaud Shauna for being brave enough to share her stories!

    1. shauna

      Thank you. I have to say that, even though I am mortified now by my privilege and narrow-minded thinking then, I’m glad I wrote it, since it made me re-examine everything I had written and the thinking that led to it. There are some people here who like to hold onto past mistakes with some sort of aha! feeling. But I really believe we are made of the series of choices we make. I couldn’t be any further away now from my thinking of a decade ago. I hope I only grow more aware and compassionate as I grow older.

  6. ezra

    Shauna, your writing and stories have matured and deepened over time. That’s part of being human and it takes a great deal of fortitude to expose our less-than-perfect sides.

  7. Valerie

    Living our lives is definitely a work in progress. Glad you’ve put ventures behind you that “don’t fit”. I read this some months ago, wanted to share it with you. All the best!

  8. amy

    Hi There. My son was recently diagnosed with Celiac disease. He loves Goodman Gluten Free sandwich bread, but I’d like to make my own. I just ordered ATK’s gluten free book, which is supposed to have a great recipe, but in the meantime, would you kindly recommend a good recipe using Thomas Keller’s cup4cup flour? Even though it is cup4cup, do you suggest weighing the flour?
    Thanks so much in advance!!!!!

  9. Nashville Chiropractor

    There is SOOO much out there in the food world. Who knows what is right and what’s not? Years ago, eggs were bad for you, then they were good. Same with chocolate. How do you REALLY know who to believe?

  10. Beth

    I think you also have to listen to what your body is telling you. Our bodies will speak to us. Do you get heartburn every time you eat a banana? Then maybe bananas aren’t the right food for you, no matter how many articles tell you they’re great. Does kale make you itchy, no matter how many great recipes you’ve tried to fit it into? No worries. There are a bazillion other plant foods you can try. I’m one of those people who just feels “off” on certain food even if there is no clear cut reasons for it. I’ve kept detailed food journals and symptom tracking for a long time now and patterns have emerged. I was also diagnosed with a gluten intolerance long after I’d discovered it on my own! But the validation was nice too! I also try to avoid processed foods. Our bodies are designed to eat more natural foods. Organic is super expensive but I do try to budget for it when I can. I wash and peel fruits and vegetables to try and avoid exposure to contaminants and we grow as much as we can in our city yard.

Comments are closed