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Would you serve your kids mac and cheese from a box?

Potentially harmful chemicals that were banned from children’s teething rings and rubber duck toys a decade ago may still be present in high concentrations in your child’s favorite meal: macaroni and cheese mixes made with powdered cheese.
Potentially harmful chemicals that were banned from children’s teething rings and rubber duck toys a decade ago may still be present in high concentrations in your child’s favorite meal: macaroni and cheese mixes made with powdered cheese.

I could make mac and cheese in my sleep.

I often do, in fact. Or at least I’m barely awake. It’s late at night or early in the morning, and I’m at the stove on autopilot: Warm the milk. Melt the butter. Add flour and stir until it smells nice and toasty. Slowly ladle in the milk, whisking until it thickens. Turn off the heat, add a mess of shredded cheddar and Parmesan, add salt. Definitely don’t add phthalates, the nasty chemicals a new study says are present in high concentrations in the powdered cheese of macaroni mixes.

The mac emerges from the oven a deep, gorgeous, enticing golden-brown. It bubbles. It smells like cheese went to a special cheese heaven and the unicorns cavorted and the angels sang.

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My kid won’t touch it.

I make it for his teachers, mainly (and his dad). They are crazy about it. They request it for every school event. It is really good, and I wish I could take any credit for it beyond being the intermediary who wills it into existence. It’s Martha Stewart’s recipe, which I’ve been making so long I’ve committed it to memory.

However, my son does like boxed mac and cheese. To a 4-year-old, powdered cheese substitute is fairy dust, phthalates or no. When it comes to his dietary preferences, he does not really take into account that I am a food writer. You could call him picky, but let’s go with discerning. Once, I was on the phone with chef Gordon Hamersley, of the dearly departed Hamersley’s Bistro, talking over a story he was writing for the Globe. My son came over and loudly told me everything that was wrong with his dinner. Then he sent it back. Restaurant-critic karma.

So we have boxed mac and cheese in our house. I don’t make it very often, because my son is equally fond of pasta with butter and grated cheese, and because I don’t understand mixes. They just don’t save that much time, and they contain a lot of multisyllabic chemicals I’d rather not eat myself. Macaroni and cheese is easy to make from scratch, in the same way cake is. It’s also pretty convenient: You can make a huge batch, cut it into single servings, and freeze them. And the homemade version doesn’t include phthalates. The consonant-to-vowel ratio on that word is so wrong you just know they have to be evil.

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But that’s me. You do you. There are a few basic rights and wrongs in the world of parenting, but mostly gray areas populated by very tired people attempting to get things done.

For now, I feed my son simple stuff: roast chicken, grilled fish, eggs, too much pasta, lots of fruit, vegetables he sometimes eats. (The list of accepted vegetables is a document ever in revision.) He’s sworn off tofu, but he’s accepted black beans back into his heart. The food gods giveth and they taketh away. If all else fails, I’ve learned, you can always take the food on the plate, combine it with a beaten egg, flour, and milk, and turn it into a pancake.

We also have cereal bars that contain a good bit of sugar, crackers shaped like bunnies and goldfish, and occasionally little bags of fruity gummies — a menagerie of snacks I never expected to have in my house before actually parenting my actual child, with all of his own ideas and preferences. I grew up in a PBS, whole-wheat, from-scratch kind of house, and I loved my mom’s homemade cookies, but I also felt a bottomless longing for Doritos. I have sympathy for my son’s desire for fruity gummies.

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Remember a few years back when we learned that rice contains high levels of arsenic? It still does. Yesterday’s arsenic is today’s phthalates is tomorrow’s . . . well, we’ll find out soon enough. The chemicals made by humans are part of humans’ food supply. That cat’s out of the bag. We can work to stuff it back in, but even in more regulation-friendly times, policymakers haven’t always been aggressive in limiting substances like phthalates and BPA in food. Then there’s personal choice. We all know sugar isn’t great for us, but we keep giving the kids treats anyways. We take the information we are given, and then we do our best, given constraints of money, resources, time, willpower.

When my son was a baby, I made him organic vegetable purees and he Hoovered lentils with Indian spices and I thought we would go on like that forever. Now we cook together sometimes, but he’s not that interested. (He likes to clean up.) We have a vegetable garden, but he’s not that interested. (He likes to pick flowers.) I’d like to think that these activities — cooking, gardening — are just part of the fabric of his life, something he takes for granted. And I know that having them there is a privilege. The mom who makes organic vegetable purees for her baby is easy to lampoon, “Portlandia”-style. I’ll laugh at myself right along with you. But what’s not funny is that the ability to provide one’s child with real, healthy food is a privilege in this country. I’ll defend anyone’s desire to do so. As I started writing this, an editor suggested to me that there’s no excuse not to actually cook for your children. There are many. We sometimes even call them reasons.

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It’s great to cook for your children. It’s not that hard to do. And sometimes you can’t. That’s when boxed mac and cheese is there for you, phthalates and all.


Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.