Yes, no, and “later” foods: Dunkin’ Donuts, the ignoble conclusion

Last week, I discussed a dilemma I recently faced while standing in the middle of Wal-Mart with an exhausted, hungry 7-year-old who had spotted the Dunkin’ Donuts counter and desperately wanted a donut. (Read “Yes, no, and “later” foods: why Walmart depresses me as a parent.”) I didn’t buy her the donut, but I reluctantly agreed to take her to Dunkin’ Donuts the following Sunday.

Many readers commented about what I’d done. Most of your comments were helpful and empathetic, and several of you even had great suggestions for the future (including how to make my own wreaths so I could stay out of Wal-Mart to begin with). I appreciated them all — even Jack’s comment that I had scored a Big Parenting F. The truth is, we parents do fail sometimes. We fail, then we fail, then we fail again. Sometimes we do OK too, and in the end we cross our fingers that the scale eventually tips more toward “OK” than “fail.”

I read your comments. I reflected on the conversation that was taking place. Meanwhile, I took some of your advice: I looked around for a locally owned donut shop, I perused donut recipes, and I waited for Merrie, my daughter, to forget about the Dunkin’ Donuts promise.

She didn’t, of course.

In the end, here’s what I did: I read her my whole post aloud, and I read her your comments (more or less; some of the strategies I decided to keep to myself for the time being). She listened attentively, smiled sheepishly when she heard the description of her Wal-Mart meltdown, raised her eyebrows in surprise at some of the comments, and even nodded thoughtfully at times.

When I finished reading, I said, “I like the idea of making donuts best of all. It would be so much fun to make donuts together.”

She was silent for a moment, then she looked down at her lap and spoke slowly. “Well…that would be fun… I mean, I want to…” Then she paused.

“But?” I said.

“But…I…guess I still want to try Dunkin’ Donuts. Because Emily and Jana” — two friends of hers, not their real names — “eat there all the time. Emily goes to Dunkin’ Donuts every single Friday on her way to school. Jana goes after school, whenever she’s hungry and wants a snack. They always go. And I don’t think I’ve ever been there, not even once.”

I sighed. Here on the Ethicurean, it is so easy to dismiss people who make regular fare of fast food. We are Ethicureans. They are Fast Food People. Never the twain shall meet. But in real life, there are no such neat categories. We are all jumbled up together, moving in and out of each other’s lives fluidly, navigating our differences as gracefully as we can. Emily and Jana are two of her dearest friends. They’re good kids, and their parents are lovely people. Emily’s dad recently rescued me in single-degree weather after my car battery died on the side of a state highway. Jana’s mom is witty and smart, a hard-working business owner who still never fails to watch other people’s children, bake a chicken dish for a friend who’s feeling low, or join whatever committee most needs her. These aren’t Fast Food People. They’re friends and neighbors, and I feel lucky to know them.

There was a long pause, and Merrie added, quietly, “I mean, I guess I just really wanted to know what Dunkin’ Donuts is like.”

And then it was clear: she was curious about life on the other side of the food divide. Already, Dunkin’ Donuts was beginning to take on more importance than the place was worth. Soon, it would have all the potential of the Mystery Prize Behind Curtain #3.

It was time to demystify the place, to strip it of any cache that it might have gained.

“Fair enough,” I said. “We can see what it’s like. Tomorrow morning.”

Was she — and by extension I — responding to peer pressure? Yes. Are moments like this precisely why news reports say obesity and poor health habits are contagious? Probably. But on the other hand, Jana’s mom recently joined an organic CSA for the first time — inspired in part by a visit to my own CSA for me, when I was out of town. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that when we are all jumbled up together like this, that good things are contagious, too.

Anyhow, we went. We went the following morning, after offering up a gift to the Gods of Real Food (local eggs with local kale, scrambled in local butter and covered with local cheese). I ordered a coffee, Merrie a Boston cream donut.

While we waited, we talked a little bit about what we observed. Did Dunkin’ Donuts seem like the kind of place we’d want to spend a lot of time in? Were the people behind the counter treating customers like friends, the way they do at our favorite coffee shop? Did the seats seem comfortable? Were there any vegetables or fruits, anywhere in sight? No, no, no, and no.

Here’s what we could say: it looked clean. It was fast. It was cheap.

We sat down, and I sipped my coffee. It wasn’t bad, although I realized with some horror that I was sipping out of a Styrofoam cup (who still uses Styrofoam? Didn’t McDonald’s do away with Styrofoam like 20 years ago?).

Merrie ate her donut. At the first taste of sugar, her eyes rolled back in her head happily. “Mmm…” she said, grinning. She gobbled the first several bites.

Then, about halfway through her donut, she slowed down. She looked up at me and surprised me by saying, “Maybe this isn’t the right Dunkin’ Donuts. Maybe other ones are better.”

“You don’t like your donut?”

“Well, I do. I just thought it would be….better. Maybe other Dunkin’ Donuts are better.”

“Actually, they’re all the same,” I said. “That’s the whole idea of chain restaurants. They have the exact same food, everywhere you go. It’s all prepared the same way, too. Everything about the place is the same — the menu, the colors of the tables, the uniforms that the employees wear, all of it. The food isn’t special, but it tastes the same everywhere.”

She thought about that for a moment, and then asked, “Then why do people like it? I mean, Grandma J. eats here all the time.”

“Well, some people — like Grandma J. — find sameness comforting. It makes them nervous to try new things. They feel safe when they know exactly what they’ll order, and what it will taste like, no matter whether they’re in Florida, or California…”

“…or Vermont,” she finished.

“Right.” I said. “But me? I like when things are different. I like that the cheese from Cricket Creek Farm tastes different from cheese that we find anywhere else. I like eating kale one day, and squash the next day. And if I go to a restaurant, I’d prefer one that isn’t quite like any other, so that everything we see and smell and taste and hear is a little different from what we’d find anywhere else. Then the whole experience becomes a kind of adventure.”

She nodded. “Yeah, I like adventures.”

I waited a little bit, as she finished her donut. Then I asked about how this trip compared to some of her favorite local haunts — all of them locally owned, with a connection to the local food movement. “So I’m curious. Would you rather go here? Or Brew Ha Ha?”

She grinned, licking her fingers. “Brew Ha Ha.”

Here? Or Izabella’s?”


“Here? Or the Blue Benn?”

“Blue Benn.”

“Here, or the food co-op?”


I nodded. “Yeah, me too. All of them.”

It could have gone a different way, of course. She could have fallen in love with the place, decided it was her favorite restaurant ever. But as we sat there, surrounded by cold, hard plastic, watching people who did not speak to one another, all eating their breakfast out of unceremonious paper bags, I realized that perhaps that had been the least likely option all along. In the end, maybe even to kids, Dunkin’ Donuts offers only what it promises: fast, cheap donuts that are identical from store to store.

I thought about Jana’s mom, about how I know — I mean I know — she will love her first year at our CSA. I remember my own first summer there — the way I was floored, literally floored, week after week, by the farm’s bounty, community spirit, and jaw-dropping beauty. I remember being struck by the smell of the place, the notion that sources of food should have smells, and by the rich sensory pleasure I’d found, so different from the antiseptic supermarkets and convenience stores and fast food outlets that had defined American food for me until that point.

Merrie and I gathered our things and left. On our way out the door, Merrie looked up at me and said, “Mom, I’ll bet that when we make donuts, they’ll be a lot better.”

I put my arm around her, and said, “I hope so. But you know what? If we don’t like them, we can talk about what we’d do differently next time. Then we can try it again another time. We’ll just keeping playing with the recipe until we really love them.”

“Like an adventure.”


We climbed back into the car, and drove away. I glanced at Dunkin’ Donuts in my rearview mirror, and smiled.

Sure, they had gotten a couple of bucks from us. But I’m pretty sure we’re done with the place, at least for a while.

29 Responsesto “Yes, no, and “later” foods: Dunkin’ Donuts, the ignoble conclusion”

  1. Ess says:

    Good for you two!
    Further to the discussion, Dunkin Donuts is part of the Carlyle Group which is a Daddy “Warbucks” Bush venture. That alone is enough to keep me away.
    On another note, have you all heard about what Whole Foods (the Wal-Mart of Organic foods) is doing to its competitors all over the country using the FTC as an excuse to gain access to their confidential financial information?

  2. Mark says:

    What you did was more difficult, more educational, and – from an admittedly distant and limited observational vantage point – more loving than just a dogmatic “no.”  Thank you for your example.

  3. ronit says:

    i think u handled the situation very well, this coming not from an experienced parent, but someone who was raised with junk food being resticted and sugar and processed foods moderated but nothing outright forbidden.  we would see sugary cereals and soda in the house only on birthdays, and if we were away, spending the day with friends, were free to explore and participate in their family’s food choices, including going to fast food restaurants.  but when it came down to it, like your daughter, we recognized the difference in taste far before understanding the complexities of health effects, and actually prefered dad’s whole wheat pancakes with real maple syrup to our friends’ eggo waffles with aunt jemima.  on my seventh birthday, my parents told me that we could go out wherever i wanted, expecting me to request mcdonalds or chuck-e-cheese like my friends, but i simply insisted on spending the evening at a local vietnamese restaurant. 

  4. Erin says:

    I really enjoyed reading the first installment of this story. In fact, I found myself at my local Walmart (for the first time since we moved to the area) soon after reading your post, and I was like, “Wow — my Walmart has a Dunkin Donuts in it, too!” I’m sure this is the case with many Walmarts, but after just reading the second part of your story, I realized that we live in the same neck of the woods! Your thoughts translate well to handling these instant-food-gratification situations as an adult, as well. I am so grateful that we have access to such wonderful local alternatives — and I’m very glad to have learned about a few more of them from your post!

  5. J says:

    as a first time expectant father and fellow “ethicurean” this is one of the (many!) scenarios that i have been projecting into the future and worrying over so thanks for sharing.

  6. Stephanie says:

    Ali, this is an amazing story. Thanks for letting us know what happened.

  7. Diana Foss says:

    Thank you for that.

  8. I loved this blog post! Made me smile and brought back all kinds of memories. 
    I had a similar incident with my daughter when she was about 5. The culprit? Lucky Charms. She had never experienced “that kind” of cereal before. When she spent the night with a friend, apparently she took a new box of cereal, quietly disappeared into the bathroom and picked out all the lucky charms. No cereal, just those nasty stale marshmallow things (whatever they actually are). Her friend’s mom mentioned it to me, suggesting that my daughter might be missing out on special things because of my lifestyle choices. (We obviously had a different take on what makes up “special” things.) 
    To make a long story short, the over-indulgence of the “charms” made her sick. She thought they were “gross.” However, I did have to explain that it’s inappropriate to stick your arm into someone else’s cereal box and “steal” all the sparkly, gummy, mystery pieces. 
    Count Chocula? But what about those, mom? Maybe they aren’t so gross. 
    And on it goes…
    Hang in there. You’re obviously on the right track and if it’s any consolation, my daughter is grown now and cares very much about what she eats and where it came from. Whenever people ask her how she became so interested in healthy living, she always says, “It wasn’t by choice, my mom was a hippie.” 

  9. FoodRenegade says:

    What an amazing story. I think kids constantly surprise us with their wisdom, and you handled this parenting adventure really well! I hope I can experience the same grace with my own kids as they grow up.

  10. Howling Hill says:

    Seems to me Merrie was more concerned with fitting in and conforming than anything else. Even if her friends didn’t say a word to her about not eating crap food, she appears to feel the pressure to conform internally. If she doesn’t have the ability to stand up to her friends now over something “small” like fast food she’s not going to have the ability to say no when it’s something more immediate-life threatening.

  11. Lisa S. says:

    Was that comment supposed to be insulting to both Merrie and her mom, or is that a happy byproduct of a radical anti-fast-food sentiment? A seven-year-old’s natural curiosity about other people’s life choices and preferences, and her longing to try different things for herself, does not automatically translate into a prediliction for peer pressure later. There is no slippery slope from the Munchkins to smoking meth later on.

  12. Grey says:

    Ali, I have to say you are an awesome mom. I only hope I can be half as good when the time comes. So diplomatic! My parents were overprotective authoritarian – much better to encourage a child to think for herself.

  13. Jennifer says:

    Ali, you’re teaching your daughter to be thoughtful, as opposed to purely obedient (don’t eat fast food because I said so!). It’s a model I try to follow myself and damn, it’s hard!

  14. Jocelyn says:

    Nice — thanks so much for sharing.  Sometimes the conclusions our kids come to out of their own experiences are so much more powerful than the ones we simply explain to them.  I loved your first post, and it’s great to read the follow-up.

  15. Emily says:

    And it’s Mom for the win! What an awesome way to turn  a tantrum into a conversation. I wondered if something might be up when she said, “Can I have Dunkin Donuts?” rather than “Can I have a donut?” I’d chalked it up to advertising, but it turns out it was because her friends love the place. Hmmm, maybe next time she can say, “My friends really like this place and I’d like to see what all the fuss is about” instead of getting all worked up in the store!

  16. Teresa says:

    I loved the post. What a great way to let your daughter see that doing what her friends do isn’t always good. And that sometimes Mom is right.

  17. Tracy says:

    What a fantastic ending to your story!  I admire your honesty and fortitude in the face of a heartwrenching situation, and can’t imagine a better outcome.  You and Merrie both win, and I look forward to reading about your homemade donuts.

  18. Charlotte says:

    Aww. What a great story — the raw curiosity, fessing up that what she really wanted was to know what her friends liked about it — slays me. I remember being that kid — that funny longing to know what other people’s lives felt like. I haven’t eaten at DD in decades, but I do have sort of a soft spot for it — my parents divorced when I was quite young, and our dad would take us to Dunkin Donuts for breakfast at the crack of dawn before going, I kid you not, foxhunting. There we’d be with Dad in his pinks and his britches and his boots, in the Dunkin Donuts — he’d be reading the paper, and while we both could have one sugary donut, we had to have one plain cakey one too, because he thought that was better for us, and milk — those little cartons of milk. I can’t imagine the sight we must have been. The sun coming up over the last fields of northern Illinois (now covered with horrible subdivisions and malls). I’m glad you shared the whole conversation with her, and let her have her say. Yeah, you spent a couple of bucks in DD, but she found out what it was — and that it wasn’t that great. One of the crucial lessons of childhood, that just because it looked great on TV, or just because your friends loved it, it’s not always so great.

  19. Mark Powell says:

    Great story, and for what it’s worth I think you handled it extremely well.  Dunkin Donuts was gaining power over your daughter until you took away the power by letter her try the donut for herself. 

    I was less happy with the Walmart story, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue. 

  20. Peter aka Nosher of the North says:

    Wow. I almost cried. That was really well-written and you did all the right things after that one wrong thing (which only seemed wrong). I hate Dunkin’ Donuts – I get my donuts from a Greek shop that makes Dunkin’ Donuts doughnuts seem like styrofoam puffs of corn surup.

  21. once a kid says:

    Ali, fantastic second half of the story. Tell your daughter we admire her for keeping an open mind and thinking her way through her Dunkin’ Donuts visit. She has an excellent head on her shoulders, and she explained herself very well to you. With that and her thoughtful mom she’ll grow into a smart, capable adult. You did the right thing by taking her — experience and belonging are important.
    I just want to say to Merrie that there will be times when she does fall in love with the junk food. We all do. Sometimes, there’s no homemade or healthy replacement for a box of neon-orange Kraft mac and cheese or a fluorescent bag of gummy worms. This is completely okay. Life has room for “sometimes.” It probably makes more sense to you now that donuts are only a “sometimes” food.
    I have to tell you, Merrie, I finished high school and moved out of my parents’ house a few years ago. Now if I want to, I can go and buy Dunkin’ Donuts and Taco Bell whenever I want. The first thing I did after leaving my parents’ house was to eat a large order of fries and a dish of mint chocolate ice cream for breakfast just because I could and finally, finally, finally, no one was there to tell me that I shouldn’t. It tasted pretty good. But I almost never do that now, and none of my friends do it either, even though our moms can’t stop us anymore.
    We choose to eat well most of the time because we want to, because usually it tastes better, it builds better minds and bodies, and it’s often better for the planet.
    For some people there’s also the cool factor. If I started eating at Burger King or Dunkin’ Donuts every day and people found out, it would actually be pretty embarrassing. People think it’s gross and it’s bad for the environment. But this isn’t the same everywhere, and the crowd isn’t always right. The best plan is usually to hear other people’s opinions but also to think carefully for yourself and try to learn about what’s best for you and your family. You’re already doing a better job of that than some adults do. Good work, and keep it up.

  22. Christopher says:

    Interesting story.
    When my father returned to my life (around my 10th year of life after a 7 year seperation from my mother), early on in his take two on parenting, he took me to White Castle. Now, my father stated from the git go, that he didn’t like White Castle and told me exactly why. We went there, I had two or three hamburgers, had a stomach ache, haven’t been there since. Was their some wisdom in my father and I’s adventure into junk food. Maybe.

  23. Beth says:

    Thank you so much for this story!!  Even as a parent who is surrounded with high quality organic vegetables (my husband is a CSA farmer for a local non-profit), my two young kids are fascinated by the “other” foods that we try to monitor, and that grandparents and others love to share with them because they think they are deprived.  (Are home-made french butter cookies a deprivation compared to chips ahoy??)  I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which you approached the situation and that you shared your experience with all of us.  I only hope that I can be as gracious in the face of a junk food meltdown.  Thank you!!

  24. Jasi says:

    I think it’s -really- fantastic how you only post the responses that gush how marvelous a human being you are and not any alternate views.  You really should seek therapy for that.

  25. Ali says:

    Jasi – perhaps you missed the comment that suggests that my daughter is on a slippery slope to becoming a drug-addled prostitute because I’m not properly teaching her to say no? To my knowledge, no one has censored any comments; I sure haven’t – they’re posted by the time I see them. (if you were looking for your “don’t whine” comment specifically, you’ll find it the first post in this series). Thanks for the therapy suggestion.

  26. Erica says:

    Great story – I, too, hope that I will handle things so well when I am a parent!

  27. Jasi says:

    Hmm… Excuse me then.  I apologize.
    Drugs are bad. Stay in school.

  28. Ali B. says:

    Ah, no hard feelings, Jasi. We’re good.

  29. Amerloc says:

    Well done, Ali. You’ve obviously nurtured both Merrie’s ability to evaluate and her curiousity – she handled the DD experience the way she did because of the foundation you have laid.