Why do we have so many comments, questions and challenges with this one?
We already know that:
- food is love
- food is cultural
- healthy food is important
- we must distinguish between everyday food and special food
- we need to be explicit if any foods are off limits to the au pair
- we need to allow for some purchases just for the au pair
- we want him or her to respect the cost of food and not take it for granted
- we can’t use food as a way to punish or reward our au pairs
- we want her or him to adjust to the family’s general food patterns (e.g., frequent vegetarian meals, few processed foods, no diet shakes, etc.).
But, even with all this wisdom, why does food continue to be a challenge?
Here are some thoughts:
1. Having an au pair (or any other new adult in the household) interrupts the food-related patterns we’ve gotten into, and it’s a drag to readjust. Every year.
Most families have a pattern of grocery buying, a pattern that has been shaped incrementally over the years by family preferences, children’s growing appetites and favorites, and distinctions between kids’ food and parents’ food.
Grocery shopping lists change in yearly cycles– it may seem obvious when stated, but the seasons influence what I cook, what amounts of food we need, and what types of food we buy. Those strawberries I got for 2.99 back in August? They are 4.99 or more now– something I know, but kids and au pair do not. So, I won’t buy 3 quarts at a time, leaving others to complain that I’m not getting enough strawberries.
Having our patterns get interrupted is annoying. An au pair interrupts these patterns, and by the time we get the au pair into our family’s groove they’re gone, and a new au pair is here.
2. Groceries are a very visible expense.
While we can be annoyed by lights left on in the au pair room, or by very long showers, it’s not like there’s some kind of machine adding up the incremental costs. But with groceries, you can see that the fancy chocolate is gone, that the meat for tomorrow’s dinner was eaten for lunch, and that buying two additional halibut steaks adds another $12-16 to the bill.
3. Au Pairs can’t be expected innately to know, and automatically to adjust to, the financial realities of groceries.
Au Pairs have little to no idea how much food actually costs in the US of A. If they even know how to figure out a unit price, they might not know what’s “expensive” and what is “inexpensive”. They can’t tell that the two chicken breasts they cooked for lunch cost as much as 8 chicken thighs for tomorrow’s stew. S/he has no idea what’s an expensive treat and what’s cheap. An au pair can’t read your mind about the tradeoffs you are making, like not buying strawberries in January and getting seedless grapes instead.
In the bigger picture, Au Pairs don’t know how sensitive any of us is to the size of the grocery bill. I know what our average weekly grocery bill is, since I’ve been buying my groceries online for 5 years I can even track it month by month. I can see when it’s “big” and when it’s “average”, and I pay attention. I think about the grocery bill in the big picture of eatings-out and entertainment costs, and manage it as a category. But my au pairs have no idea how grocery bills fit into the overall budget. Moreover, they have no idea if groceries are a large portion of our budget or just a rounding error.
4. It is extraordinarily easy for an Au Pair to ‘trip your switch’ with her eating patterns.
if you have “food issues” yourself (and who doesn’t?) and you worry about your weight and/or nutrition, watching someone with less concern (or better management) of his or her nutrition can create friction. Why is s/he hiding food? Eating in his room? Drinking Slimfast and ignoring those HoneyCrisp apples? And, by the way, popcorn is NOT a meal.
5. It’s easy to feel like all the hard work related to food is either unappreciated or simply ineffective at keeping things organized.
I don’t know about how it is in your house, but in mine food is a big thing. I spend a lot of time thinking about nutrition, cooking, good eating habits, making sure we have stuff in the larder, managing the shopping, planning menus. There is so much work involved! What, s/he doesn’t appreciate it? S/he doesn’t like home-made chicken pot pie every Tuesday? How ungrateful! (harrumph)!
How to unhook from all of this? Think kind thoughts. Think about food as a way to show care and to nurture. Think about food as a way to teach and to learn, about your au pair and about yourself.