Phantom's posts about Baby Blue and weaning have gotten me thinking again about what I've learned as we've supported Curious Girl's eating habits (quick recap for newer readers: Curious Girl couldn't swallow as an infant, and she had surgery to insert a feeding tube when she was 9 months old; at almost 4, she finally had it removed, and in between we had lots of speech therapy to train her muscles and habits). After several weeks of eating with a lot of different people, I'm also moved to wonder why so much of our conversation with children concerns what foods they like and don't like. Now, my approach to eating and mealtimes isn't going to work for everyone, but here are some thoughts on fostering a healthy relationship between children, parents, and food.
The main thing I've learned about eating is that you can't force someone else to eat. You can try (and I've done that--not my best parenting), but it won't work, and all it will do is take up time, increase agita, and leave you wondering just why it was worth it to go through all that fuss for oh, say, an extra half ounce of milk (that would be 10 calories for anyone counting.) As we started to get Curious Girl increasingly independent with mealtimes, we relyed on Ellyn Satter's advice: it's our job to serve the food, and CG's job to eat it. I had to learn not to take CG's refusal to eat as a referendum on my cooking ability, not to take any single meal as an omen about a lifetime of eating. I had to learn to be patient.
When we were working on CG's eating skills, first we had to work on the mechanics, something I assume isn't an issue for most readers of this blog. Our early therapies were all about developing muscle tone and stamina; CG had to learn how to move food around in her mouth, how to take bites with her back teeth, how to swallow in bigger, smoother gulps. Once the mechanics were in place, we had to work on social habits: making the table a fun place to be, making meal times family times, making meal times a treat.
We did this in a number of ways: at first, we had special toys that came out only at the table. We ate together, sitting down, leaving our focus free for each other. We learned eventually that CG eats better if we just serve a plate, leaving the extra servings in the kitchen. If she can see family-style servings out in front of her, she often gets distracted by wanting more, more, more on her plate. We also learned that smaller portions are less overwhelming and more likely to be eaten.
As an upper-middle-class family, our early parenting was filled with forced (and often fake) choices: do you want the yellow cup or the blue cup? the round piece of cheese or the square one? toast or cereal? milk or carnation instant breakfast? but we learned that taking food choices away helped CG eat more. The choices, even forced two-choices, frequently led to confict. She'd waver, unable to decide. Or she'd change her mind. There would be tears and anger. So I just stopped asking her what she wants, and I just serve. Every now and then I'll let her choose between items or even make up a menu on her own, but for the most part, I just announce what we're eating.
But I do listen to her, and if CG says 'can we have chocolate chips for dinner?" I'll often say, "Sure!" and then put two or three chips as a garnish on her plate. That way, she gets what she wanted, and I still get to serve whatever dishes I have planned. And really, isn't it fun to have pickles for breakfast or chocolate syrup on pancakes every now and then? I do keep Curious Girl involved with our meals: she helps me cook almost every day, we bake bread, we get out cookbooks and select menus during the week. Last night, she saw me eating some matzoh, and she told me she wanted some for breakfast. "Mama! I have a good idea! We could put some chocolate chips on top and cream cheese underneath it, on the matzah for breakfast. Isn't that a good idea?" By morning, she'd forgotten, but that's probably something we'll eat one of these days.
We keep our food discourse totally positive. The World's Greatest Speech Therapist told us that it takes 31 tries before a baby knows whether it likes a particular food. So there's no point in letting a first rejection of a food guide anyone's impression. We just keep serving what we want to serve. It took 3 weeks of peaches on Curious Girl's breakfast plate before she finally started eating them, and now she loves them. But even when she wasn't eating them, I never said, "oh, you don't like peaches." I would just say, "well, you don't have to eat them today if you don't want to," and I'd talk about how much I like peaches or what else we could do with peaches (peach smoothies, peach pancakes, peach muffins, etc.). The deep dark secret I'm keeping is that I really can't stand watermelon. I don't eat it when CG and Politica are eating it up and loving it. "I don't want any right now, thanks," I'll say if CG offers to share her watermelon with me. If CG says "I don't like X" at the table, we redirect, always telling her that she doesn't have to eat it today, but pointing out, say, that it's a new food and she doesn't know yet, or that it's a food she's loved before.
We try to keep Curious Girl a positive influence at the table, too. One of my major pet peeves is when other children see food and announce, "I don't like that." (CG will follow suit and say "Oh, I don't like that too," no matter how much she likes the food in question.) A word of advice to anyone eating with young children: don't tell them what your children or grandchildren don't like to eat. What good can come of that? Tell them stories about people liking food. Or tell them stories about a fun thing you did that morning, or tell them a joke. But don't sit down to a meal and tell stories about people who won't eat the food being served. It's not helpful.
We've also used incentives around eating, so far the only place we've ever had an organized incentive plan. We started with our speech therapist, who had us giving CG a small sticker for every sip, and a bigger sticker for every ounce she drank (which will tell you something about how little CG would drink, once upon a time). We had various other drinking games at work (involving a specially decorated eating bucket, placemats, sponges, and toy animals, to name a few--the basic idea being that for every choice or action there's a sip or bite (or for every bite or sip a chance to do something with a toy)), but the one that has hung on is the treasure chest. I found an actual treasure chest at a garage sale one day, and when CG drinks up a big glass of milk, she can pick something from the treasure chest. When she was really little, we could recycle things in the treasure chest, but these days we have to trade out the little treats: lollipops. stickers, barettes or ponytail holders, little pieces of jewelry, a key chain that one of us has gotten at a conference, that sort of thing. At this point, we only do the treasure chest if she asks for it, which she still does pretty regularly. But the thing is, the incentive works only because there's no pressure. If she wants it, great. If she doesn't want it, great. If she tries for the treasure chest and doesn't finish the drink, that's fine, too. It's easy to get wrapped up in the notion of a child getting the incentive, but that's not our job. We keep it stocked, we keep it safe, and if she gets the treasure chest, hurray. But there's no tension at the table if she's not headed in that direction.
And really, what we are after are mealtimes without tension. Ianqui wondered a while ago (in a post I can't find to link to) how her readers handled mealtimes--do we eat as a family or not? I love family meals (although we each teach one night a week, so we miss one dinnertime/bedtime, but that also makes for a special two person meal on those nights). The World's Greatest Speech Therapist really helped us think about the longterm family mealtimes we wanted to have, and it's working out just fine. CG doesn't eat only junk food, despite all the high calorie things we fed her as an infant. CG does eat, despite all the meals she had that consisted of tube feedings she barfed up instantly and three nibbles of the tail of a goldfish cracker. She loves to cook, she loves to go to the farmers' market, she loves to help with our vegetable garden. She has an adventurous personality (in a "hold me in the sling, mama, while i have this cool adventure" kind of way) that has served her well: even when she took only 3 nibbles a day, those 3 nibbles were of different foods. She'll try most things, and that's a personality trait.
I lay this all out not to recommend this as The Way to Get Your Child to Eat (although I do believe that power struggles around food are profoundly dispiriting at best and dangerous at worst). Each of us has a different family dynamic about meals and foods, each of us has a different personality that makes trying new foods more or less difficult. But given how negative so much of the discourse about children and food can be, I thought I'd lay out our path to dinners that get eaten by three, in the hopes that anyone struggling with children who can't or won't eat, or can't or won't gain weight, can find something useful in a story about taking the long view, learning patience, and letting a child come into her own eating habits in her own way.