Ruth Rhodes

Mashed bananas in a jar. Tiny fruit-shaped juice bites in individual serving packets.Cheese and crackers sealed side-by-side in a small plastic container, complete with a little red spreader about the length of a paper clip, though alas, not as wide.

These are the wonders of my in-laws' pantry.They live outside Seattle in a swanky new housing development in Snoqualmie. I got to know their kitchen intimately because my family and I were stranded in their home during the Christmas snowstorm that blanketed the Northwest. We spent the better part of a week enjoying their hospitality. They have a little girl just a year older than our toddler, Henry, and the two of them got along famously.

But I always feel just a little inadequate around these step-in-laws.As parents, they have advanced "product knowledge."They know about all the kid stuff - and they have most of it.

Their house is like a Babies-R-Us plus a few pieces of adult-sized furniture. And when it came to toddler food, all I had to do was reach into a drawer, and out came enough convenient snacks to satisfy a legion of Happy Toes dancers.

When they visited us here in Crescent City last fall, we got a preview of their advanced coping skills. At the Thai House, as soon as my stepsister-in-law got her daughter in the high chair, she whipped out a disposable placemat from the depths of her giant diaper bag. It stuck on the table with some kind of adhesive.

Next, she produced a bib that unfolded from a pouch the size of a post-it note. Henry even got a placemat, too, though he drew the line at the bib.Bit of an ascetic, Henry.

I wonder, though, if all this stuff doesn't become a burden in the end.I don't mean to criticize my fellow soldiers in the trenches. I'm certainly on the other end of the "parent, be prepared" motto.

I'm the frazzled mom at the grocery store letting her child play with a bag of frozen peas because she hasn't thought to bring a toy along in the diaper bag.Or a snack.Or a drink.Okay, sometimes I even forget the diaper bag.But our own parents managed to keep us alive with a lot less baggage. How do we keep it simple?

Well, that brings me to jars of mashed bananas. Does anyone else see the absurdity? If I'm not mistaken, bananas come in their own protective covering: the peel. If one has a fork, one can mash a banana in about the same time it takes to open a jar.

And those tiny fruit-shaped juice bites?They're called Gerber Graduate Juice Treats. It turns out the first ingredient is corn syrup.The next is sugar.

I guess there's juice in there somewhere, but it's way down the list. With childhood obesity and diabetes on the rise, couldn't we just cut up apples instead? Kids' eating habits are formed very early in life.

Convenience has its costs.