Someone recently asked me about how we handle mealtimes around here, and whether or not I have any overly picky kids when it comes to eating. This post has been half-written for a while now, so it’s time to put it out there.
I expect that many people will be surprised by how we handle food (or if not surprised, might disagree with our strategies). My kids have quite a bit of freedom to self-regulate their eating—they choose what to eat and when to eat it. Our strategies may require a bit of a paradigm shift for some of my readers—the way we handle food and mealtimes is certainly different from how I envisioned it before I had kids.
I have recently figured out some wrongheaded ideas that got stuck in my head as a child that I think has really contributed to my attitudes about food and mealtimes. It’s strange that I figured this out so late in life, but I think it was having the kids and learning how to teach them to handle their hunger rationally that made me finally identify two incorrect premises in my head. The first wrong idea is that you have to “clean your plate.” As a child, we were encouraged and praised for cleaning our plate, referred to as members of the Clean Plate Club, and chastised for being wasteful if there was food left on our plate. As a consequence, it is still very hard for me to leave food on my plate. The other wrong idea is that you should only eat at designated mealtimes. There must be a breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and those must be about 4 hours apart. If it’s been 4 hours since breakfast, then I automatically start planning lunch—whether or not I feel hungry.
Listening to the Signals of your Body
Starting from the time they were babies and we did on-demand nursing, I wanted my kids to be in tune with the signals of their bodies—to recognize them and respect them. I don’t want them to eat because it’s time to eat or because their plate isn’t empty yet. I want them to notice their hunger signals, satisfy them in a healthy way, and stop when they are feeling full. So we don;t do the Clean Plate Club around here, and sometimes we eat many little snacks or just a couple of larger meals.
I can’t know when their bodies are sending them hunger signals—but I do notice outward hunger signs (crabbiness). My job as Mom isn’t to tell them when to eat, but rather to help them notice their signals and I do that by saying things like, “Hmmm…I noticed it’s been a while since you ate something, and it seems difficult for you to stop whining. Is your body telling you to eat?”
There are a few circumstances in which I’ll strongly suggest they eat something. For example, I do encourage them to eat a snack before we head out to ballet or taekwondo, but I don’t generally push the issue too much. They have each made bad decisions in this regard and a gentle reminder “Do you remember how yucky you feel after taekwondo when you don’t eat a snack beforehand?” will typically send them heading toward the fridge.
We also never encourage them to “clean their plates.” The more I think about this, the more I’m amazed that this was something my parents encouraged! I think the sentiment came from the idea of not wanting to waste food (my grandparents lived through The Great Depression, so maybe this was impressed on my parents when they were children?). But it is simply not a good idea to eat past the point where your body is sending you “full” signals. As a child, we were not allowed a dessert unless our plates were clean—so not only did I eat too much dinner, I also ate my dessert on top of it, because no one is ever too full for dessert! Bad, bad habits. My primary focus these days for myself is only to eat when I’m feeling hungry.
Choosing Healthy Food
Choosing healthy things to eat is also a life skill that kids ought to learn. As with everything else in childhood, it’s a good time to practice these skills. One side effect of not restricting what they eat is that I personally have a strong incentive to keep lots of the kinds of foods I would prefer them to choose readily available. I can’t really blame them for filling up at the all-you-can-eat-crap-buffet, since I’m the one who does the grocery shopping.
Allowing them pretty much free reign of the kitchen was not something we have always done—it’s been a gradual transition over the last few years. When we first eased up on the food restrictions, there was a period of time where the kids, free to choose what to eat, filled up on the not-so-healthy things we had in our house first. I think this was partly out of the novelty of being able to do so, and also partly as a test to see if we were really serious about it. Now I wouldn’t put them in charge of the grocery shopping completely, since I value all of us eating good stuff, and I know they don’t have the information or judgment to make the best choices for us. But I know that in general, keeping healthy and not-so-healthy things in the house, the kids have made and will continue to make healthy choices—because their bodies feel better when they do. (That’s me helping them put the “rational” in “rational self-interest,” see?)
I do pay attention to what and how much they eat, just to make sure they continue to make good choices. One good suggestion my pediatrician made regarding kids and food was to look at what they ate over the course of a week instead of each day or even each meal. When I think about all of the different things they’ve eaten over the course of the last week, I know that they ate lots of protein and fat and fruits and vegetables and popsicles. Trying to focus on getting kids to eat vegetables (for example) at each and every meal would be quite a battle—a battle that might not need to happen if tomorrow they happen to go on a green bean kick.
I am the primary shopper in our family, so I make most of the food decisions. But I will honor requests if I can. I always solicit input into the current grocery list, and I’ll usually get popsicles if they request them. Sometimes I’ll turn their requests down—right now I’m not buying any cereal because about half of it seems to end up on the kitchen floor and I hate paying money for food that I also have to sweep up. Also, I’m not as inclined to buy popsicles next time since they have developed a habit of leaving them out on the kitchen table to melt into a sticky mess.
The Picky Child
That would be my Ryan. Beginning at about age 3, he began to be very picky about what he ate, which can be stressful for the parents as well as the kid, who picks up on that stress. I wonder if the picky stage was influenced by the peanut allergy, if our many discussions about Ryan-safe food scared him a bit. It was the advent of Battles about Eating that got me reexamining my premises about feeding my kids. Before we had Battles, we pretty much just plopped food down in front of him and he ate it. We generally let him eat on his schedule, but looking back, I know we focused too much on eating at designated mealtimes.
The way I handled my picky child was to make a conscious effort not to stress about it; started him on vitamins (just in case he was missing some important nutrients); always offered him lots of choices; continued to introduce and reintroduce new foods to him; tried not to show how excited I was when he did try something new (since he’s the sort to view such parental activity suspiciously and rebel).
In the last year, he has really matured out of his pickiness. He has branched out into the world of steak (yay!) and other sources of protein (he tended to not eat enough protein, IMO). He still refuses yogurt in any form, but will consume hardboiled eggs and bacon like nobody’s business. The other night he asked me to try some grilled asparagus, saying “I want to try it, just in case I might like it.” (YAY!) He didn’t like it—but he tried it! He does has quite a sweet tooth and he does need my help in using an appropriate amount of honey (for instance) on his morning waffle.
Independence in the Kitchen
I don’t know what took me so long to think of this, but last spring I rearranged our pantry and kitchen a bit to make it easier for Morgan and Ryan to be independent in getting their own snacks. I did it out of a need for my own self-preservation: with a new baby on the way, I knew I wouldn’t be as able to help get snacks for the Big Kids—at least, not in a timely manner. It was a stroke of (belated) brilliance—I moved all of the Big Kid food to the lower shelves of the pantry and took all of the plastic kid plates and bowls and cups and moved them to a bin in a low cabinet.
These days, both kids can prepare their own food, for the most part. Morgan mostly needs help in the lid-opening category. They pour their own drinks (water or milk), make their own chocolate milk, grab a piece of string cheese or a hardboiled egg, help themselves to grapes or canteloupe, toast their own waffles. It is so lovely.
Keeping a Running Dialogue about Healthy Eating
One thing that we rarely talked about when I was a child was the nutritional content of food, or really even the purpose of food. My mom was on a serious organic kick when I was a child, and I think I certainly benefited from lots of good homemade unprocessed food (and I’ve got the wisdom teeth to prove it, for you WAPF fans!). But our food was never talked about beyond a “eat all the healthy food on your plate or you can’t have dessert.”
Our focus is on being “big and healthy and strong.” And then we try to get the kids to understand what we’re saying by providing them with a way they can focus on their experiences. “Too much candy will not make you big and healthy and strong and it might make your tummy hurt.” or “Broccoli has vitamins in it to help your body stay big and healthy and strong.” When they ask, we’ll look up just what vitamins are in broccoli—they don’t need to understand all the ins and outs of biochemistry yet—but they like knowing which vitamins are in which kinds of food. They also refer to playing outside as “making some vitamin D.”
We have a couple of kid nutrition books, but mostly they promote the government’s food pyramid, which I think is actually really unhealthy. We have talked with the Big Kids in a general manner about what kinds of nutrients are in the food they are eating: “Meat has lots of protein and your body uses protein to build muscles.” or “Did you know that your body is mostly made out of water, so water is the best thing for your body to drink?”
When they are staring into the fridge, I’ll ask “Are you feeling hungry? Is your body telling you it wants food?” If they are fooling around at the end of their snack/meal, I will ask “Are you feeling full? Is your stomach telling you not to put any more food in your body just now? It is? Okay, then take your plate to the sink.”
I am not a Short-Order Cook
Becoming free from the need always to eat at a designated mealtime, combined with the freedom and independence the kids have in the kitchen, has quite the wonderful side effect for me—your hunger is not necessarily my problem. It was easy for me to fall into the short-order-cook trap when Ryan was a toddler. I got so used to preparing a Ryan Meal that it almost became habit. Apart from being more work for me, though, I inadvertently was limiting his choices by not giving him a chance to eat what Brendan and I were eating. Which possibly contributed to his general pickiness about food. Sigh—we make most of our mistakes on the eldest, don’t we?
These days, when I do take the trouble to make a real-live meal (something in the crock pot, or grilled out, usually), I’ll of course make enough for the kids. (I do always try to make something I know they like.) But if they don’t want to eat what I made, then it’s really no problem—for me. They are more than capable of making themselves a meal out of yogurt and fruit and cheese and pepperoni (to name one of Morgan’s favorite meals). Or make a piece of toast with almond butter. Or grab a hardboiled egg. What (or if) they eat is not generally my problem, outside of making sure to have healthy food that I think they’ll eat on hand for them to choose from. In other words, I’m more than happy to make reasonable accommodations—but I’m not your waitress or chef and my kitchen is not a restaurant where you get to place an order. :o)
When Guidance is Necessary
Sometimes, though, we do guide or encourage them to eat certain foods over others, or restrict them completely. But, in keeping with our general parenting principle of having a few limits as possible, we try not to have very many food limitations.
As you probably know, we do have one very big food restriction in our home: no peanuts. This is, of course, non-negotiable, as it’s literally a matter of life or death for Ryan. Now that Morgan has been tested and we know for sure that she is NOT allergic to peanuts, I anticipate a time in the future when we could maybe possibly have peanut products in our house. Waaayy in the future—when the kids are teenagers perhaps. We can at least discuss the matter. But for now, Ryan’s safety takes precedence, and the logistics of managing peanut residue with a 4 year old are too much. Also, Sean needs a peanut-free home for the time being.
If I do notice a negative trend in decision-making about food, the first thing I do is reevaluate my role in it. Have I been buying too many unhealthy snacks? Have I been slack in preparing things that they can’t do independently, such as hardboiled eggs (this is true lately and I’m going to make a batch this afternoon—although it’s definitely time for Ryan to learn how to do this)? First, I’ll make any changes that I need to make.
If I need to set a limit on food, I try to use my very best PD methods, making sure to explain my reasons. For instance—I recently caught Ryan filling up cupcake wrappers with honey and licking the honey out of them. !!! He also has taken to over-honeying his waffles. So for the time being, he needs to use the honey with adult supervision—he has temporarily lost his free-range access to our honey. I explained to him the two reasons for this: first, it’s not really super healthy for your body to eat lots of honey, but also—honey is expensive! (He understands this concept much better now that he has an allowance.) And it’s not fair for him to consume so much honey that others don’t get a chance to eat any either.
(Ryan in particular needs additional assistance in noticing the signals of his body (hunger and noticing that he feels yucky after going to town on chocolate, for example), and being encouraged to eat healthy food. This isn’t surprising considering how often we need to help him notice other signals of his body and get him to stop what he’s doing to heed those signals.)
Similarly, when we have candy on hand, they don’t get 100% free access to that. Some of it—but not all of it. The primary reason for this is that I have to go to quite a bit of trouble to acquire peanut-free candy—I have to order it online and pay shipping costs and it’s expensive. So I tend to order a whole bunch at a time (usually in anticipation of a special event, like Halloween or a birthday) and I’d like it to last more than 5 minutes after it gets here. And yes, I know that eating candy and sugar will not get you to be Big and Healthy and Strong—but I also know that being too restrictive with such things makes those items even more desirable (I know this from my own childhood and am still fighting the negative effects of it). The kids see their friends with candy, and I wouldn’t want to create some special aura about candy that I think would be easy to do if they couldn’t ever have any. We talk about how it’s okay to have every once in a while, and how sugar will not make you Big and Healthy and Strong (and also gets “sugar bugs” on your teeth, as their dentist calls it), and how we also need to make very, very sure that any candy we have is absolutely peanut-free. There is a balance to be found, I think, in making sure their bodies are healthy and giving them a chance to develop healthy minds (and they need practice making decisions in order for the latter to happen).
On a Side Note
Something recently occurred to me, and it’s applicable to parenting philosophy in general, not just food issues. I’m still thinking this out, so bear with me.
I think there many adults tend to believe that kids will gravitate toward making bad choices, and that the parent’s role is to force them to make those good choices. I have found that this is not necessarily true.
Freeing up my kids to be as independent as possible in as many areas of their lives as possible was a conscious decision for Brendan and me. But it was hard to let go, at first, of the idea that the kids will generally make bad choices for themselves. What I discovered is that kids make choices: some are good, and some are bad. In no area of their lives have they consistently made bad decisions—because the consequences of bad decisions are, well, bad. Many times, if they were making a bunch of bad decisions, it was a direct result of something I had done—like having too much unhealthy food in the house. Or sometimes they were just testing a limit—which is at the top of a kid’s job description, as you are no doubt aware.
But there is nothing inherent in children per se, that somehow determines that kids will do the thing that is harmful. They will make mistakes—as we all do—errors of both judgment and knowledge. I view my role as someone who helps them recognize when they’ve made a bad decision, anticipate the consequences of a bad decision (since they can’t really see how things might play out into the future), and help them make good decisions by setting them up to succeed (by having healthy food in the house, for example). I don’t want to view them as somehow possessing an inherent flaw—a tendency to harm themselves by making poor decisions—that needs to be parented out of them. I’m not saying all parents do this, of course, but it is something I’ve observed in some parents, this (subconscious?) tendency to view children in a deterministic light.
I think this is part of the beauty of the positive discipline method. Assuming positive intent acknowledges that while the child just doesn’t have complete information, and can’t fully exercise his rational faculty, he is not really trying to kill himself—he’s simply trying to fulfill a need he has. I don’t want to parent the badness out of my kids—I want to help them understand how their decisions affect them (in the short- and long-run) and how to use their minds to figure out reality. I know they will make lots of good and bad decisions—I’ve seen it.
Like I said, it’s an idea I’ve been mulling over recently; it’s not quite fully formed. So I’m interested in whether or not you think I’m on the right track.