the smell of my desperation has become a stench

The beginning of an ironic yet worthwhile tradition

This content was created in partnership with Ford to help make creativity a part of every drive this holiday season.


It is a little known fact around here that my kids are somewhat picky about food, “somewhat” meaning that they would prefer that food not be required for basic survival. This is a topic about which I do not have to exaggerate as I am wont to do about other things. Their pickiness is exaggeration personified. Leta won’t eat bread or cake. Marlo’s face melts off if a pancake is served with a dollop of whip cream. NOT THE WHITE STUFF NO!

This makes Thanksgiving a little tricky because of the look of disgust on their faces when confronted with traditional dishes. Do not even try to serve them homemade cornbread stuffing or a serving of tender turkey that has been lovingly roasting overnight. Most of my memories of Thanksgiving are consumed with sitting around the table with my family and indulging in those dishes, so I’ve tried to be diligent about making this holiday special, something more than just a normal visit to my mom’s house where she will slip them Diet Coke behind my back.

It’s not easy, especially with the normal craziness that accompanies this time of year—all the running around and loose ends at school and my own deadlines. This year I wanted to start a new tradition with them to add some depth to the meaning of this holiday, something that ties in with what I’ve wanted them to observe from some of the work I’ve been doing, something we could fit into all the usual madness. They can’t necessarily visit a clinic in Haiti, but they can see other types of work in Utah being done to help people with less means than our own.

Leta’s friend Gigi came over for a sleepover on a recent Friday night and the following morning I piled them all into the car to go shopping for food that we could donate to the Utah Food Bank (a trip we’d make on one of those days when Marlo had yet again taken off and misplaced her old glasses). You could make the argument that it’s ironic that I’m starting a tradition around the mission of fighting hunger when both of my kids don’t like to eat. And you’d be right. But I guess I’m taking the old parental refrain of THERE ARE STARVING KIDS IN AFRICA and bringing it closer to home. There are starving kids down the street. And we can help.

I printed out the list of most needed food items and had each of them do all the work. They had to find the items, push the cart, load the cart and then transfer everything to the conveyor belt at checkout. I wanted them to own this themselves. This may not seem like a lot of work, but when your kids are picky like mine, finding anything in a grocery store is like trying to read a map in a foreign language. Almost two hours later we had three heaping sacks of canned fruit, pasta, peanut butter, and chili. What took the longest to find? Canned stew.

“What on earth is stew, Mom?” Leta asked. That’s my kid! Feeding the hungry!










After loading everything into the back of the car we set out for the food bank which is a bit of a drive from our area of town. Normally we listen to Leta’s favorite radio station, but I turned the stereo off and started a conversation to get them thinking about this season. I wanted this conversation to be a part of the tradition.

“Leta,” I said from the front seat. “What one thing do you want most for Christmas?”

She had no idea where I was going with this and piped up almost before I had finished asking the question.

“Oh! I want these little bunnies that work in these little pet shops, and an Easy Bake Oven, and all the stuff you need to cook with, and a new bike!”

“I said one thing, but that’s okay.” I was worried she had run out of breath.

“One thing? I have to choose just one?”

“Why do you think you deserve any of those things?” I challenged.

I’d caught her off guard, and after a few beats of silence she answered with a question, “Because it’s Christmas?”

I laughed inaudibly under my breath. “No. What have you done to earn those presents?”

“Oh….” she said, and I could hear her thinking from the backseat. “Well, sometimes I watch Marlo so that you can shower…. I make my bed, I do all of my homework, and I try to get good grades.”

“Yes, you do all of those things,” I confirmed. “Is there anything you could work on?”

“Well, I know I complain a lot. I’m always saying that I hate homework and that piano is hard. I could work on my attitude.”

That’s when I decided to clarify what I was doing. “All the food that you guys are going to give to the food bank is going to feed people who might not get anything for Christmas. These people work hard all year, too. They watch their little sisters, they work on homework, they meet deadlines. They work on themselves, too.”

She then stepped right into the spot I had opened up. “But, it seems like if they have earned presents they should get presents.”

“It does seem like that, but that’s not how it works. If they can’t afford a meal they probably can’t even afford a Christmas tree. Do you see how lucky we are?”

“But… Mom, that isn’t fair. What do we do? Everyone has to have a Christmas tree!”

Gigi spoke up out of nowhere, “We bring them presents!”

“That’s a great idea,” I said. “We are just as lucky to have food, to have three meals a day. They don’t have a refrigerator stocked like ours. Do you see why we’re bringing them food?”

“I do,” answered Leta. “But now I want to bring them Christmas trees, too!”

That’s when it hit me. My inspiring, lovely non-eater who wants cooking utensils for Christmas! “You know what? Every year we spend Thanksgiving together we will shop for this food and take it to the food bank. And every year we spend Christmas together we’ll find a place where we can buy trees for people who want one but don’t have one.”

I continued this exercise with Gigi and Marlo, and not surprisingly, Gigi caught on a little more deftly. She said she wanted a whole new snow outfit for Christmas complete with “boots that velcro at the top so that the snow doesn’t get into your socks.” That is SUCH a Utah thing to wish for. The only thing more Utah than that would be to ask for the pattern to a cross stitch. Or a vat of green Jell-O.

Then she explained that she washes the dishes after dinner and sometimes helps her mom with laundry.

“Sometimes I pick up the living room a little bit when it’s so bad that it’s not even pleasant to sit in,” she concluded. “And next year I’m going to do that more. I’m going to make it so that the living room is always pleasant to sit in.”

Pleasant to sit in.

I wonder if Gigi is available for hire. I pay well.

Marlo said she wanted every American Girl Doll accessory ever made, and when I asked her why she deserved any of those things she answered, “Because I really want them.”

“No, why have you earned them?” I pressed.

“Because I think they look pretty cool.”

“Marlo, what have you done this year to EARN a present?”

“Mom,” she answered as if I was not listening to her. “I am amazing. I am an amazing child. Those things are amazing and cool. Christmas is amazing.” I could hear her hand hitting her leg with each “amazing” as if to drive home the point.

Oh, yes indeed, I have my work cut out for me with that one, the wonderful work of shaping and encouraging her generosity. We’ll get there.





This content was created in partnership with Ford to help make creativity a part of every drive this holiday season.

  • Lily

    2014/11/10 at 9:40 am

    But she really is amazing. Point driven home.

  • LisaBoBisa

    2014/11/10 at 9:55 am

    Wow…I have to ask, the picture with a 2 older girls pulling pasta out of the grocery cart….that’s what’s happening right? It looks like a mirror image of Leta leaning into the cart by herself, creepy.

  • patty

    2014/11/10 at 9:58 am

    The ‘doing the shopping’ makes a great impact. In addition to the multitude of food drives we’ve contributed to, I take my Girl Scouts once a year to actually do the shopping for a local shelter from a list. Buying the goods, seeing the costs, makes a big impression.

  • Sarah

    2014/11/10 at 10:00 am

    This is amazing :::slaps hand on thigh::::

  • lisaro

    2014/11/10 at 10:06 am

    I will be so sad for the day when pictures of Marlo don’t include a puppy purse.

  • crosberg

    2014/11/10 at 10:09 am

    For the past few years, my family has “bought Christmas” for three families from a women’s shelter in our area. There are always three single moms with one to three kids from infancy up to their teens. Our family is small, but we’re all adults and have enough stuff to succeed and enjoy every day we have. If there was something we wanted for Christmas, there is no reason we couldn’t buy it for ourselves. We still spend Christmas together with lots of food and laughing and dogs running around, but the stress of shopping and wrapping is gone, and we know that the money we’d spend on stuff we don’t really want or need is going instead to help people enjoy their childhood as they should.

    Congrats on your grand tradition, and here’s hoping it inspires many more people to follow in your footsteps!

  • Karen

    2014/11/10 at 10:21 am

    long time reader/lurking popping in to congratulate you on encouraging your kids to think about helping others at an early age. i think it sets the stage for a lifetime of giving back. i think thanksgiving and christmas is an excellent time to be talking to your kids about supporting their neighbors in need. it’s a time to reflect on all that we have and what’s truly important to us. i also wanted to chime in to encourage people reading this to think about supporting their local food banks at other times of the year as well, especially summer. i am a fundraiser for a food bank in New England. summer is another time of high need for struggling families….kids who rely on free and reduced breakfast and lunch are without those vital resources when school’s out, and many families turn to their local food pantries to fill the gap. Helping to ensure that those shelves are well stocked with healthy food at that time will go a long way towards feeding the hungry. Just food for thought! thanks for tacking this important discussion point!

  • Michael Mathews

    2014/11/10 at 10:27 am

    This is fantastic. At work we have a Family Giving Tree every year (that reminds me that it is about time) where you pick wish cards for needy families and buy things that are later distributed to them for the holidays. I think it is more meaningful to go buy specific things than to write a check to the organization that coordinates it.

  • Laynie

    2014/11/10 at 11:25 am

    My kids gather and recycle aluminum cans all year long. We use the proceeds to make stockings for the homeless full of hand warmers, batteries, flashlights, warm socks, toothbrushes, a Christmas card and some candy, of course. My kids look forward to it every year!

  • Richard Morey

    2014/11/10 at 11:43 am

    Love this quote from Marlo ““I am amazing. I am an amazing child.”

  • Richard Morey

    2014/11/10 at 11:52 am

    I think food banks are a great idea and think its great that so many people bring food to them, but here’s a question – let assume a person brought $100 worth of groceries to the food bank. If, instead of bringing food, that person gave the food bank $100 along with everyone else who bought food to donate giving money instead, would the food bank, in theory, be able to purchase more food by buying direct from wholesalers and buying in bulk? Plus the food bank would know what products they needed most and could ensure that they purchased enough of those products to meet demand rather than publishing a list of “most needed products.”

    I understand, of course, the value of teaching children a lesson about those less fortunate and the process of actually going to the store and finding the items and purchasing them and delivering them to the food bank, but as I read this post my computer programmer brain kicked into gear and I wondered if there was a way to make the money spent on donated food go further by having the food bank purchase in bulk.

  • Christie Burke

    2014/11/10 at 12:12 pm

    Yes, food banks are GREAT at stretching those dollars, and cash donations are often used for perishables like milk and fresh produce. Donating funds is a great way to support a food bank. They do also need the non-perishable items (esp. personal care items, as these are not covered by SNAP benefits), and many food banks use volunteers to repackage large donations into family-size packages (e.g., thousands of pounds of apples donated by a grower, packaged by volunteers into 5lb bags for families to pick up). There are lots of ways to help, something for everyone to contribute. 🙂

  • KristenfromMA

    2014/11/10 at 12:15 pm

    This is a wonderful tradition to start with your girls, but I have to say: two hours to buy 3 bags of groceries? You have the patience of a saint, Heather.

    The only thing more Utah than that would be to ask for the pattern to a cross stitch.
    Devoted cross stitcher here, one that is not Mormon (godless heathen, thank you very much) and who hasn’t ever even been to Utah. My wishlist is full of patterns.

  • KristenfromMA

    2014/11/10 at 12:16 pm


  • lizandrsn

    2014/11/10 at 12:33 pm

    This is the start of something good! But please let them know that hunger isn’t a once-a-year thing; like poverty in Haiti it’s all the time and everywhere. We all feel better doing good works for the holidays, but it’s hellish for families when the kiddos are home from school during the summer, too. I wonder what they could do when school gets out to continue their generous spirit?

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/11/10 at 1:25 pm

    Not pictured is Marlo lying prostrate on the floor in the canned fruit aisle refusing to participate anymore.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/11/10 at 1:39 pm

    I think that’s a very valid point to make. And to speak to everyone else’s point about hunger not being a once-a-year- thing, I’ve been thinking about what she’s learning in school about finances (checking accounts, balancing a checkbook, etc.) and how I can teach her to set a certain portion of her allowance aside for monthly donations, whether it be to the food bank or another charity that is meaningful to her and letting them use the money where they need it most.

    But yes, this was an exercise in physical generosity. Using a Saturday morning that they could be spending lounging around watching a movie or playing with a room full of toys and instead spending those hours using their hands and feet and problem-solving skills (WHERE WOULD THEY PUT THE STEW?) to give of themselves.

  • KristenfromMA

    2014/11/10 at 4:19 pm

    Of a saint!

  • Jan

    2014/11/10 at 4:21 pm

    What a great activity for you and your girls. Being amazing is all Marlo has to be right now, but how wonderful the behaviors and ideas that were modeled for her today by you, Leta and Gigi. I am reminded of a singer who died way too young, Harry Chapin. He worked very hard to feed people, he often toured without his band to cut expenses so more money could go to World Hunger Organizations. He applauded the schools’ Thanksgiving food drives but said he wished the conversations would continue… he would say ‘let’s talk about what are they going to eat the day after Thanksgiving…’ I appreciate you, Heather, for using this powerful forum you created to model caring, tolerance, fighting the good fight.

  • Kate

    2014/11/10 at 4:28 pm

    I love this. I take Luke every year during Advent and let him do the grocery shopping for the Food Bank. He gets to fill the cart with anything he thinks other kids would like. Invariably a lot of chocolate pudding goes in – so I slip in some peanut butter too – but I am ok with the chocolate pudding because I think every kid should get chocolate pudding regardless because not knowing where your next meal is coming from is pretty fucking terrifying and I like to think that maybe that chocolate pudding takes the edge off a little for some family somewhere. Then we take the whole haul to the food bank and he tries to guess how many pounds of food we have given. And some good conversations are started too.

    We also do the same thing for Candy Cane Corner, which collects gifts for the Road Home and other organizations. Parents working with these organizations then get to come shop for their families and wrap the presents themselves, which is really awesome on a lot of levels. Luke picks out the toys and then we deliver them, usually with a lot of reminders from me THAT FOR THE LOVE OF GOD THE TOYS ARE NOT FOR HIM TO PLAY WITH. Ahem. Back to all that feel good stuff now…

  • tien nguyen

    2014/11/10 at 8:52 pm

    But she really is amazing. Point driven home đổ mực máy in

  • mindyMarlo

    2014/11/11 at 3:43 am

    Sounds like Mindy Lahiri— maybe your Marlo should be one of her writers!

    “I am amazing. I am an amazing child. Those things are amazing and cool. Christmas is amazing.” I could hear her hand hitting her leg with each “amazing” as if to drive home the point.

  • Julie Vidani

    2014/11/11 at 9:04 am

    I always wish a food bank could work with some of those obsessive couponers. what those people really enjoy is the thrill of the hunt and the deals they get. A food bank could capitalize on that and enrich the stock of their shelves beyond tuna and peanut butter.

  • greenplanner

    2014/11/11 at 10:17 am

    Sad that the shopping list is still advocating so many carbohydrates. Pasta, boxed dinners, and macaroni and cheese will all contribute to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. The poor are highly at risk because these foods fill them up, but the price is weight gain and diabetes.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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