Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My friend Tara and her two kids were over yesterday, getting in one last playdate before school starts on Tuesday.  She's as much a foodie as I am, and we inevitably talk about recipes, what's fresh in the markets these days, and the ills of corporate farming.  As mothers, though, we discuss our children's eating habits and our frustrations over their picky starch-and-sugar based diets.
(Tara and I talk over family eating habits, while Brenner and Maddie bake.)

This is a common conversation amongst my friends, and I would guess it's common in any group of parents.  Let's face it: kids are picky.  But, when Tara asked me how I feed my kids, I actually had an answer.  It may not be the perfect answer with the magic to get our kids to voluntarily reach for the asparagus, but it is my answer nonetheless, cultivated from a decade of dinnertime battles and the desire to give them up.

Human beings have a biological instinct to assume scarcity in food.  Long, long ago, on a planet that looked a lot different from today, we had to gather and hunt, and the results of our efforts were meager.  Fast forward several millennia, and our social and agricultural progress has transported us exponentially fast.  Anything we want is a short drive to the Piggly Wiggly.  Our DNA is still in the dark ages, though. The idea is: Eat as much as I can now because I might not get another meal for a week!  As a species, we learned to ignore our true hunger and fullness signals.  We also learned to fill up on as much sugar as we could find since that could be stored in the body longer and give us reserves of energy should we have to go without for a while.  Mushrooms could be poisonous, our prey could turn around and attack.  Eating was a dangerous and limited prospect.

We now tell our children to lick their plates, eat at prescribed times, have eggs for breakfast and meat-and-potatoes for dinner, and not to have dessert until they've eaten all their veggies.  And, "for Pete's sake, stop playing with your food."

Rubbish!

Now, I'm not suggesting we let our kids fill up on Halloween candy day after day and splatter the walls with a mashed potato food fight.  I'm just relaxing a bit and letting nature guide the rules for eating in my house.

First of all, dinner is for me.  I do try to prepare meals with my family's tastes in mind so that there's at least one thing on the table that each person will eat without complaint, but I would go crazy if I tried to please everyone.  For me, though, dinner is family time, focused on talking over our day and sharing our wishes and thankfuls.  Food is just a centerpiece. Chad loves my cooking, but the kids don't usually eat much at all.  So be it.

If I'm being honest, I do feel disappointed from time to time that my children haven't embraced my philosophy whole-heartedly, but I do believe they see how happy and healthy it makes me and that they'll catch on sooner or later.  Besides, if I was really cooking to make them happy I probably wouldn't make mushroom lasagne in bechamel sauce.  No, I make that for me.  It took some time to realize it, but it's okay if I have this one meal each day that fills me with joy.

Breakfast and lunch.  And snacks.  Those are for the kids.  And, they eat plenty to satisfy both their cravings and their health.  Eggs, sunflower butter sandwiches, pickles, oatmeal, fruits, carrots sticks, popcorn.  Almost everything they eat during the day is fresh, local, and so easy to prepare that making individual meals for them is a snap.  And, because I live in the real world, I have given in and found cereals and chips that are produced in a more-or-less acceptable manner.

Chocolate chip cookies or other treats have nothing to do with finishing a meal in my home - that kind of system destroys a child's ability to self regulate and promotes "treat" as reward and "meal"as punishment.  So, we do our baking in the afternoon when the treat stands on its own and they'll have time to burn the sugar off jumping on the trampoline.  Then dinner can stand on its own a couple of hours later.
(a few sprinkles - if you're going to have cake, might as well do it all the way!)

From planting radish seeds, to shopping the farmers' market, to sauteeing carrot slices -- and adding sprinkles to cake batter -- my kids are involved.  They point out awful chicken houses when we travel, followed the Taco Bell is-it-meat scandal on TV, and let the hens peck sunflower seeds out of their hands.  They read ingredient labels. I arm them with knowledge, opportunity, and choice.

Now, it must be said that my kids are not fantastic eaters.  Nor are they fantastic vegetarians.  In fact, they order burgers when we go out.  But, they all have some healthy foods that they rely on, and they slowly stretch their boundaries out a little at time.  They have learned the difference between foods that are grown sustainably and those that are manufactured.

Brenner, who is clearly the worst eater, is even trying new things.  He'll put something on his plate and mush it around.  Progress.  And, he goes out into the garden and shells the sugar snaps right there, munching on the peas inside.  His first vegetable.  They have all rejected McDonald's.  Victory!

An expansive menu of tastes will come with age and experience. What I can provide to encourage that expansion is opportunity and role modeling.  I put new things in front of them.  I eat these new things.  Occasionally, I let the kids design the menu.  This often results in pizza or breakfast-for-dinner, which are really pretty decent choices when done with some thought.  It did once mean that I served a bowl of candy corn as the evening's vegetable selection, but even that was an experience in fun and creativity with food.

We are all healthy.  No one has diabetes.  The pencil markings on the mudroom wall where the kids stand, heels to the baseboards, while I hold a ruler over their heads, are climbing steadily upward. This is the real measure of a child's eating habits: their health.

Most of all, we don't fight about it.  We used to, and it didn't work.  What goes into - and out of - the body is the only thing a child can control and he will do anything he can to have that control.  Everything else is mandated by an adult.  I decided a while ago to take the power struggle out of food, to let my family feel a sense of choice for themselves and the opportunity to feel the achievement that comes from making good choices.

Brenner still refuses apples, of all things, but he'll eat zucchini bread.  Westley has moved from fried pork dumplings to the steamed vegetable variety.  Gabi had lettuce and tomato on his sandwich yesterday, and loved it.  And, Maddie is naturally drawn to anything fresh and raw.  Though they prefer cookie to veggie, they will always choose homegrown or homemade over store-bought.  

And, me?  I can serve cake in the afternoon and quinoa with roasted beets and bleu cheese vinaigrette in the evening... happily!

What do you feed your kids, and how do you get them to eat it?  Desperate mothers want to know...

WISHES AND THANKFULS

I am thankful that all of my family is back home together after a week of separation.  (Maddie was on a vacation, Gabi was at sleepaway camp, and Chad was golfing St. Andrew's.)  I am thankful I had eight days of quality time with my two youngest sons.

I wish the last week before school starts is slow and easy and filled with memorable summer moments.






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