A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Who's in Charge, Part 2: Focusing on Eating Habits, Not Eating

Can (or should) you control your child's eating?

Last week's post was a sound-off on the issue of control and its role both in modern society and in parenting, and I got some really thoughtful responses. Clearly, control in its broadest sense is something we very much need (thanks to a reader for pointing me to Sir Michael Marmot and his pioneering work on correlating control, stress and health). And yes, if serfs had never eventually worried about control, we'd still be living in a feudal society. But the benefits and definitions of control when it comes to parenting are far less cut-and-dried; and as the lines are drawn and redrawn, they can create all sorts of problems and anxieties. This comes to a head in feeding, beginning at a very early age.

When one of my daughters hit the age to introduce "solid" food, a.k.a. mush, we bought our first bibs, a high chair, cute little spoons and a baby food mill. We were anticipating this milestone with great excitement, and as she'd been an avid breast-feeder--no latching issues, no reflux--we didn't anticipate any particular challenges in getting her to try solids for the first time. Of course, there was that little detail of failing to get her to take a bottle, but since nursing was an easy alternative, we put that little contretemps down to an understandable preference for the breast over a rubber nipple.

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Camera at the ready, cute bib neatly tied, the first spoonful approached her mouth...and her mouth closed. Firmly. So began our introduction into the cold, hard world of feeding our child. I suspect people don't really believe me when I tell them that she never ate baby food. But truly, I promise that no more than one or two spoonfuls of mush ever made it past those adorable lips. Not until she could pick food up by herself, and convey it to her mouth by herself did she begin eating solids. At eight months.

This might have been less painful had I not been surrounded at the time by mothers whose infants apparently couldn't get enough of the mush. Bowl after bottomless bowl of rice cereal, applesauce, homemade squash-kale-flaxseed-what-have-you: these babies sucked it down like vacuum cleaners. These mothers actually worried about how to get their kids to stop eating. I started to feel hopelessly inadequate: What were they doing that I wasn't? What kind of terrible parent was I, that my own child categorically refused to eat? Looking back--especially with the blessed hindsight that having a second, completely different child can bring--I wonder whether this was as much an issue of control as anything else. I wanted to control what she ate and when; she was having none of it. As she's grown, this struggle has become increasingly familiar, almost laughably so: until she's good and ready, she's just not going to do it, and there's nothing we, her parents, can do about it.

Despite the terrible anxiety and sense of failure I had about my child's eating (and continue to have, periodically), I am grateful that this early struggle opened my eyes to who was really in charge when it came to food. I was--and still am, at least for a few more years--in charge of providing the food and modeling the kind of eating I believe in. And I do believe this is powerful in terms of teaching children to have a healthy relationship to food. But it's also clear to me that I don't have ultimate control over what they actually consume. Unlike parents who can feed their children anything they eat--spicy food, ethnic food, sushi!--I have had to shape my standards around their preferences. It's tough and often annoying to constantly seek that middle ground between demanding, "Eat this sushi or it's bed with no dinner!" and becoming the dreaded short order chef every parenting expert reviles. I've come to accept, however wearily, that I need to let food be a platform for negotiation and discussion. I don't believe it's my way or the highway, but neither do I want them to grow up solely on a diet of buttered pasta, pizza and hotdogs.

And so, as with every aspect of parenting, I've submitted to the reality that I don't have full control when it comes to what my children eat, and I've done my best to accept the wisdom of the middle path. Ultimately, it's the eating habits we need to focus on, and not the actual eating. Shoving "healthy food" (or any food, for that matter) down your child's throat doesn't teach heathy eating habits--quite the opposite, in fact. And there are benefits to the parent of allowing just a bit of control to slip from your grasp: that little bit of letting go might help you breathe a little more easily as well.

To make this point about control probably much more clearly and succinctly, here's a poem by my non-baby-food eating daughter, now in second grade:

I will do this.

I will do that.

I will do everything...

Eventually.

 

What I cooked this week:

  • Lasagne (using Mark Bittman's basic recipe in How To Cook Everything as a starting point)
  • Potato-Leek Soup
  • Roast Chicken
  • Slow-Baked Beans with Kale

 

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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