10 February 2007

Kids, Food, and (Dis)Order

The M Grow (Baby) Blue festival has me thinking yet again about kids and food. Phantom's posts about Baby Blue's weight trigger lots of memories for me, and I have a particular fondness for BB's favorite drink (a cream/ice cream/soymilk mixture, if I recall correctly), as it's just the kind of thing we served CG for years. But not so much these days. Over the past couple of weeks, Politica and I have realized that Curious Girl is really a pretty regular kid when it comes to food. Her teachers say she eats a ton at lunch, and they're very impressed that she takes some of everything. She doesn't always eat everything, but she puts a little bit of everything on her plate (they have a little mini-lunch line for the preschool, with an entree and two side dishes and some kind of fruit, plus yogurt, bread, and PB in individual servings on the table for anyone who wants it). She drinks water all day long when she wants it. So we don't need to do much of anything about her eating anymore, other than watch it and enjoy. If she eats, she eats; if she doesn't, she doesn't. I will encourage her to drink if her lips are looking chapped, but that's about it.

Getting here was--as I've written before--not uncomplicated. When she was an infant, on the feeding tube, getting 5 or 6 feedings a day, people told us we were making her fat. (I look back at pictures and yes, she did have chubby baby cheeks then, but she was also way underweight and undernourished, and the size of an average child half her age, a fact lost on most of the commenters.) When she was a little older, and starting to eat, we were encouraging high calorie foods. People told us we were setting her up for a life of bad food habits, because chai made with whipping cream, Lindt chocolate balls, whole milk, and pasta drenched in butter just aren't good for kids. Then we worried that we were wasting food, because we'd put 8-10 samples of food on her plate, hoping she'd eat some of it. And then there were the people who said, when she had a feeding tube, "oh, when she's hungry enough, she'll eat." Er, no. Hence the tube.

Through it all, we just kept serving lots of food, stressing a consistently positive attitude toward food. We never say we don't like something, just "Oh, you don't feel like that tonight? Here, try this item on your plate instead." "Maybe next time." My pseudonymless friend and I have had many a conversation about my reluctance to label foods bad. I find a lot to like in Michael Pollan's notion that foods with many and unpronounceable ingredients are problematic; I won't defend people who pour Mountain Dew into their child's feeding tube when there are other liquids available; I believe in a balanced diet. Yet I'm relunctant to tell Curious Girl that X food is bad and Y food is good (pseudonymless friend taking the oppostie approach in order to instill good food decisions). To be honest, I did have to do some major internal changes to adapt to the diet I wasn't feeding my child: I had envisioned a crunchy granola diet for my child, and what I was feeding her, and how I was feeding it, was less than ideal. While other new adoptive mothers were talking about using the bottle feedings as attachment time, I was learning to use a feeding tube, and then going out to buy Cheetohs (which you can't choke on, becasue they dissolve in saliva) for speech therapy homework. But I got over it all, becuase I needed to for CG to learn to eat. So we served our foods along with the cheetohs. We followed the heavy cream with an offering of granola and yogurt (and didn't laugh when she ate the granola flake by flake).

I had an eating disorder for years, through much of college and graduate school. Therapy worked, in that I eat a pretty normal diet now, and I maintain a normal weight, and I know in my head that it's healthier that way. But there's an eating disorder in the back of my head much of the time, pulling at me to eat when I'm filled with any kind of negative emotion, making me feel that I am gaining weight as I eat. I know this is physiologically impossible, and most of the time, it's a distant little impulse. But still, it's there.

I don't want Curious Girl to know that impulse. That's beyond my control, of course; she'll have her own demons to fight, and I can only do what I can to give her the emotional wherewithal to deal with them. I can't say that my own sense of food issues came from anything my parents ever said about food. But my embrace of food is a pretty direct reaction to those eating disordered years. I had so many rules about foods that were good to eat and portion sizes and meal timings, and I want to teach CG that food is fruit of the earth, fuel for our bodies.

Now that she's a normal-eating kid, I'm having to come up with responses to things other parents just set up from the get-go, like requests for candy and treats. I have started saying that some foods taste good but don't have a lot of nutrients for our bodies, so we have to enjoy them only some of the time, in and around other foods. I talk about the timing of meals, how it is not snack time now because dinner is starting. But still, I serve a little picnic to her before breakfast, a picnic that is usually a sweet treat (a leftover eating encouragement). I let her eat whatever she wanted from the party bag she brought home this afternoon. I don't say it's bad for you. I just say, "save some room for dinner." I tell her she is beautiful a fair bit, and I tell her she is strong, and we never talk about weight.

Will it matter? I don't know. I'd like to take credit for her broad palate, but I don't know that our own eating habits affect her so much. Plenty of her friends seem to be pickier eatiers than their parents. But I hope she'll think of the table as a place where there are lots of good foods, in reasonable size portions; that she'll think of the kitchen or dining room as places where people came together to eat, and that she'll remember they fun while they were doing it.

And I hope this is enough for her to find her own demons. I don't want her sharing mine.

8 comments:

Songbird said...

Though I have remained fat, my kids are all slender now, and I mark that some sort of miracle. I also mark it a miracle that no one has developed any sort of eating disorder, given the obsessiveness their father has around food and the wild abandon I model. Your last thought is one I share.

ppb said...

It sounds like you've been the perfect mother for that particular girl. You're both lucky.

Phantom Scribbler said...

You know, I had no idea a feeding tube was on the table for Baby Blue until yesterday, and I have to admit that right now I am struggling to keep either child from sensing my private panic. Knowing you, and Politica, and CG have journeyed through it and come out where you are now is one of the only things that's keeping me from freaking. the. hell. out right now. So thank you for these meditations, and for sharing your story with us.

Rev Dr Mom said...

It sounds like you are creating a very healthy atmosphere around food. And fwiw, I tend to agree with you about not labeling food as "bad" or "good" although I have sometimes done it.

Thanks for your well articulated thoughts about this.

liz said...

Amen. And thank you for the thoughts on not labelling foods as good or bad, just not nutritionally sound.

Arwen said...

Ach. It's so frustrating to me, to finally realize it's a lot of us and a lot of different negative experiences with disordered or painful eating, and that it's not just me slogging through that trying so hard not to hurt or damage my kids.
It was somehow more manageable to think it's just me, and that if I can be clear, then so will my kids. I wonder if that's true since food seems to be an emotional issue for so many people. And now, I want someone else to make it better for all of us. You know?

I've been trying to decide whether this is something that affects and hurts us more than in other societies. I really enjoyed Pollan's article (thanks PS!), and I wonder if our ideas of nutritionism don't come out of some idea that we have of self, and responsibility, and choice; a little nutrition, a little consumption, a little individualism that is taking food out of the group and becoming a judgement of the individual? I don't know... I'm carpetblogging. Sorry....

I also am trying to not make some foods taboo or bad, but rather frame it as "sometimes foods" and work on portion control. On the other side of the spectrum. And my kids are great at eating tons of veggies and salads and fruits, and know those are the primary snack foods.

But I am still sketchy about food, and, yes: for me there is a heirarchy where the saintly veggie is driven to sin by the addition of a condiment containing fat; fruit is already slightly besmirched due to the sugars there-in, and certainly fruit juice has given itself over to wickedness; and ice cream is Satan in a bucket. Oh, so catholic.

I think the problem for me is that there is food - and all the psychological, social, creative and sensual ritual human things around food - and then there is fuel and how are bodies need and cope with that. Sometimes it feels like the two conflict. Whether eating nothing or eating wrongly. Or eating rightly but too much.

Shannon said...

Such a difficult subject when it comes to daughters! And I won't have the "it's just your genes" excuse to fall back on when she has qualms about her body. We're not sure what's in her genes (as you aren't about CG).

We are trying to be super easy-going about food. We (okay, "I") are certainly nutrition tyrants, but Nat doesn't mind so far, because it's all she knows yet.

But I am trying to ban the words "fat, thin, skinny, weight" and "diet" from our family vocabulary and stick to "nutritious, healthy, fit" and the like. We don't say foods are bad, because so far, we haven't had to discuss it with Nat (again, she hasn't been exposed to anything else yet). But one of these days...

I do a lot of hoping, praying and crossing fingers about this whole topic...

Suburban Gorgon said...

Oh boy, does this hit home with me, as the mother of a daughter and a "recovered" bulimic. I too have fought all my life the little voice in the back of my head that tells me that every calorie is a risk I have to decide on, and I have struggled with my weight since I was 12. I try really hard to keep the Kraken from absorbing any of that from me.