A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Keep Calm and Carry On Eating

Don't be a parent who panics over food

There is, along with an epidemic of obesity in American families, a less public epidemic of anxiety and fear surrounding parenting and food. Here are just a few of the conversations I’ve had about food and weight with other parents in the past few months.

One mother recounted that at her oldest child’s last well visit, her pediatrician raised concerns that she was too thin and short. She had fallen slightly off her growth curve, and is certainly small for her age—only one child in her grade is shorter than she is. The pediatrician suggested the parents begin giving her specific foods to help her gain weight, such as milkshakes. The mother was concerned, but she also knows that her child eats a variety of foods, is healthy by all other measures, and doesn’t have a big appetite. She wasn’t sure whether to take the pediatrician’s advice, and felt worried that she was doing something wrong. I wondered: did the pediatrician take a look at the mother, who is herself extremely petite, or at the family’s two other children, who are built on similar lines? Could this not be a case of genetics rather than some action or inaction on the parents’ part? Because of the way the doctor phrased her concerns, these parents were left feeling that they are doing something wrong.

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A friend of a friend called me in a panic because of her child's sweet-tooth. She feels she needs to curb his behavior but doesn’t know how. The final straw was when he began swiping and eating packets of sugar off the tables at their country club, and she screamed at him to stop. She felt terrible afterwards, both because of his actions, which were worrying and embarrassing to her, and because of how she handled it.

A family we know has a child who is an extremely picky eater, and at age ten he has declared himself a vegetarian “except for bacon.” At a recent meal we shared, he ate very little until dessert, of which he partook with gusto. The parents—out of his hearing—confessed that his pickiness is a source of friction between them. The mother remembers what a picky eater she herself was, and believes that eventually he will grow out of it, but the father finds his son’s behavior deeply frustrating and struggles to accept that it’s not mere willfulness which he can correct.

I have written in the past about my own struggles accepting my children’s picky eating, and similar narratives abound all around us. From food writer Melissa Clark confessing recently to her own daughter’s preference for bland, white foods—and her frustration with all who assume her child must have an adventurous palate—to your friend who just wailed to you that her child won’t eat anything she used to, parents can easily become locked into constant battles with their children over food. One enormous and underestimated problem with this scenario, aside from the stress it causes between parents and children, is the message it conveys to the child about what food represents.

A child whose parents are constantly haranguing him about food, whether it’s to eat more vegetables or less sugar, is a child who grows up viewing the act of eating as a battleground and a tool for manipulation. If he can arouse such a satisfyingly emotional response from a parent over his refusal to eat broccoli or his demand for an ice cream cone, he learns all the wrong messages about food, and he will carry those messages forward into adolescence and adulthood.

Another danger, especially for children with the personality types that already make them susceptible to eating disorders, is that they freight their body size and shape with extra and harmful emotional baggage. "If I am fat, my parents won’t love me." "If I am thin, I will have succeeded in life." "If I eat broccoli, I am a good girl." "If I eat this candy bar, I am a terrible person." These may sound like exagerrations to you but I guarantee you there are children who feel these things and worse. By berating our children about what foods are healthy or unhealthy, we add immense parental weight to the already significant social pressure on children to look and eat a certain way. I don’t deny that we all want our children to be “healthy,” but what that means when it comes to eating and body shape has become grossly distorted. When parents start caring more about having a thin child than a happy one, when doctors use a “one size fits all” prescription to guilt parents into feeding their kids milkshakes, when we yell at our children for displaying a natural sweet tooth, we are failing to give our children a genuinely healthy message about food and body shape. And the message will last well beyond whatever diet we impose on them while they live under our roofs, believe me. 

A mother of two daughters I met recently told me that one of her children is very thin while the other is quite large for her age. But this mother has been witness to an older niece’s hellish struggle with anorexia, as well as the devastating toll that illness took on her family. She is also an experienced chef and is well aware of what her daughter eats, and is perceptive enough to realize she has two children growing up in the same household, with the same rules and same food, who are--at least at the moment--very different shapes. So this wise mama buttons her lip and chooses not to make her daughter feel bad about her weight. Instead, she recalls what her grandmother used to say to her when she was a similar age: “You are perfect just how you are.”

I don’t advocate turning a blind eye to the true costs of obesity or harmful food choices, but I—and I am sure, you—see too many parents who are doing the right things but are being made to feel they are not. And I fear their kids may bear the unfair consequences of that unecessary panic. So take a deep breath and try, just try, to resist the pressure to be one of those parents who blame, cajole or harangue your children about what they eat. It's not easy, I know, but it's right.

What I cooked this week:

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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