"She refused to be bored, chiefly because she wasn't boring." Zelda Fitzgerald

Friday, February 26, 2010

How To Eat With Your Children and Not Lose Your Mind

Been reading about children and food and family eating politics and table ettiquette and nutrition and all the pieces that go into making sure common table time is not hell with knives and forks. Lately I've consumed:

Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater

Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense

Real Food for Mother and Baby: The Fertility Diet, Eating for Two, and Baby's First Foods

I started all of this reading because obviously, as a mom I wanted to know what and how a child should properly eat. The thing that really drove my quest for knowledge however, was the fact that A and I come from quite different families in regards to food and we have very different priorities and ideas about how a childhood eating should be addressed. Who is right? Somebody has to be righter, right? Heh. Well, not always, sometimes it does just come down to custom and culture but, occasionally there are actual truths to be uncovered too. 

 Another factor driving my kid-food research was the fact that mealtime (particularly with respect to Ru, although I'm sure Dee's time is coming) has gotten quite stressful at our house. Now, when I say "quite stressful" I don't mean that he's limited his food to only three items or that he throws out of control temper tantrums but, I do mean that pretty much no meal was a peaceful, enjoyable experience and that eating as a practice had become more a battle of the wills and an all out war than a thing we did together to feed ourselves. Far too stressful. 

When this mommy gets stressed, she reads, looking for information, new ideas and her blind spots. It helps me get a little perspective, gives me fresh food for thought and also encourages me that there are other possibilities besides just what I'm doing or failure. I love that people invented books.

So, after a good bit of exploratory reading these are the new kid-food policies at our house.

  • There will be three meals a day, at as regular a set of times as possible (at the moment that means Breakfast 8:30AM, Lunch 12:30PM and Dinner 6:30PM) and between the meals there will be dependable and nutritious snacks (10:00AM and 3:30PM) This point may seem a bit silly or even frightening to some of you but, I have to be honest...this is a change. I've of course always targeted three meals a day and worked towards reliable serving times but, I've just come around on consistent snacks. I used to harbor this old-fashioned idea that it was good for children to learn to wait patiently for meals and not snitch in between, coupled with a very inconsistent breaking down "Oh fine, alright....if you're hungry you can have something...what do you want?" kind of attitude. Brilliant. Turns out the research I've read says that children are happier and healthier if they eat every two to three hours (honestly, so are adults says much research) and our boys are remarkably more pleasant while I'm preparing dinner if they are reasonably hungry but have had their 3:30 snack and aren't ravenous. It works.
  • Desserts will be served with the meal, in kid-sized portions and will not be given as "rewards" for eating well. Sweets will also be served in unlimited amounts as  occasional afternoon snacks. So, if I had my druthers, I'd raise my children very low sugar, possibly sugar free...but, then I live with A. We have to deal with reality folks! That's kind of one of the requirements of life. I have also wrestled repeatedly with the issue of handing my children a right attitude in relationship to sugar...restricting sugar stringently tends to make people get bingy when they end up in an unrestricted environment ( I struggle with this) but then people who grow up in sugar relaxed households tend to have sweets so built into their "must have" list that they can't imagine going without them...that worries me too. How to win? Well, truly I don't have the perfect answer here but, I do know that hardcore restriction tends to trigger the brain to go into panic gorging mode because it hits patterns in that wire us to worry about famine. Anything that our brain fears might be scarce we will be driven to binge on in unlimited exposure. That's the purpose of serving sweets in unlimited portions occasionally as an afternoon snack. Teach kids that there's no need to panic and stuff when they see sweets, sweets come along periodically and you don't have to worry about whether or not you'll get "enough." Also, the goal is to teach them to self-regulate about sweets, ("I can choose to have just one if I want to.") instead of teaching the ever driving allure of desserty foods..."You can only have one! Aren't they good??? MMmmmmm" Serving dessert at the beginning of the meal kills the undercover double push to get our kids to over-eat for the prize of a sweet: once, to finish or at least taste their meal in order to get dessert (whatever your family policy) and then the second time to eat the dessert. Kids may not be hungry enough to do either of their own will but, they might do them both if dessert is held out as the almighty prize they must obtain. The idea is to encourage kids to eat dinner for other reason than that they want to...and that they are hungry. That should be the only incentive to eat. Anything else is pretty unhealthy. 
  • No catering. You know the drill...you serve a meal and your toddler turns up their haughty little nose and refuses everything on the table as "icky" and demands a bowl of cold cereal. And really, what's the harm? Cereal is simple and it ends the whining. So you cater. It seems harmless but, what you're really teaching your kid is that they can win petty power struggles just by asserting their demands, that they shouldn't try new foods and that they can be rude if they want to be. A meal is a gift, prepared by the cook and it should be received as such. We won't make our kids eat anything but, we insist that they not announce loudly that the food is "icky" and if they're not hungry or unwilling to try what's served they will have to go without until the next meal or snack. No child will starve on this policy and eventually, kids will learn that they can try new things and sometimes they'll like them. I am also making it a policy to make sure that there are several dishes on the table for each meal and I'm trying to make sure that some of them are things that I think the children will like. (This does not meal I serve Pepperidge Farm Goldfish with every meal though...I just try to not make our meals limited to chopped liver, kimchi, wild goose eggs and radicchio.) Eating also happens at designated times, at the table, when we are all together.
  • Manners matter. Children should be expected to speak in reasonable tones of voice, use thank and no thank you, pass dishes, keep food on their own plates, eat neatly and ask to get down when they are finished as well as compliment the cook if they enjoy the food, clear the dishes from the table and help set the table. Even kids can learn to be good table-mates. If kids won't behave at the table then they leave. 
  • Everyone is responsible for their bit of the plan. Parents are in charge of what food gets served in their house (nutrition) and when the food is presented (scheduling) although of course its great for kids to mention foods they particularly enjoy and ask for it to be included in the plans if appropriate). Kids are responsible for how much they eat and what they eat. Turns out that research says, if kids aren't coerced, cajoled or plied with too many political issues and arguments...they eat what they should and have healthy food attitudes. Its okay for your kid to go vegetarian for a time if they wish (Ru is basically at the moment)...and no harm will come to them from avoiding foods that are red if that's their particular wish for the moment. Children generally will find the missing nutrition in other places and will grow out of silly food habits if they are ignored and allowed to morph on their own. As long as you are presenting healthful choices there should be no harm in letting them pick from them as they will. Part of a child's responsibility in choosing their food (once they are physically able) is to allow them to serve themselves (always monitoring as needed to ensure that they are doling out sane portions "You can have more later if you eat that much"). Its good for children to learn how to gauge their own hunger level, to feel empowered to truly choose their own eats and to learn the mechanics of lifting the ladle or serving spoon and taking part in passing dishes on to others. 
So there you have the latest and the greatest food-wise from our part of the world. So far, we're really pleased with how this is working out for us. What do you think? Anything shocking or enlightening in our ideas? What are your brilliant brainstorms for dealing with kid/food issues?

By the way...if you're looking for some good reading on this topic and think any of the ideas I presented sound appealing...I suggest you pick up Child of Mine. It was my favorite out of the books I've read so far on the topic.


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