It was weighty thought for early morning but moms, I think, are often fixated on questions of nutrition. Like sleeping and peeing in certain specific locations, eating is one of those inexhaustible motherhood topics. You get a group of moms together and within minutes, they will be swapping details of their children’s latest sleeping patterns, if they’re potty training, how it’s going, and of course, how’s her appetite?
“Is Sarah getting really picky, because Sophie’s getting picky? I’m really worried she’s not eating enough.”
“All Brianna eats is crackers.”
“Jeremy begs for treats all day.”
Mike won’t touch vegetables.”
As parents, we’re always afraid that this new fleeting phase will be the one that ruins them in the long run. We worry that if our daughter only eats carbs and dairy now, she’ll grow up to struggle with her relationship to food forever.
Aside from sleeping (and maybe pooping) there is little in a young child’s daily life that is more important than what she eats. And like sleeping and pooping, there is very little we have less control over. You can offer and present, you can suggest and request, debate, negotiate, bribe and beg, but at the end of the day you can’t make your kids eat, sleep, or poop.
It’s one of those mother paradoxes: that the three most vital aspects of a child’s survival are the three things mothers can’t sufficiently control. Maybe there is some deep spiritual lesson in it. Maybe it’s the foreshadow for mothers that one day we will be able to control nothing in our child’s life and it is to our advantage to begin using methods other than coercion to achieve desirable outcomes. Better still, maybe the lesson is that we shouldn’t be trying to manipulate our children into doing what we want but instead teaching them how to make responsible decisions that will serve them well in the future. You know the old teacher adage: Teach them how to think, not what to think.
It’s hard though. Like most really important things, it’s hard to do. It’s hard because every decision your young child makes deeply impacts you the caregiver. Whether it’s the “Science Experiment” that you know you will end up cleaning off the sofa, or the nutritious meal your son refuses to eat holding out instead for snack at school which often consists of little more than Nilla Wafers. You want to allow your child freedom but doing so means taking on the extra burden of picking up the pieces when the experimenting gets messy or the skipped meals turn into a crazy juvenile, screaming, spitting, crying meltdown. The job of a mom seems to be the constant repetition of letting go, backing off and then picking up the pieces.
It’s hard to not tell our kids when we know that what they’re doing is going to end badly. Indeed there are days when that very phrase comes out of my mouth dozens of times. In fact, the other day, as Twila climbed into the Kelty Backpack that was propped against the door, she paused, looked at me and asked, “Is this going to end badly, mom?”
It’s hard to keep our mother mouths shut because we don’t want our kids to get hurt, or go to bed hungry, or have an accident at school, or be tired, or get sick. But it’s also hard to keep our mouths shut because we don’t want to have to spend our days dealing with the collateral damage of failed experiments and risky maneuvers. We don’t want to spend our whole day pulling ice packs from the freezer and digging Band-Aids out of a drawer full of Band-Aid wrappers. But we have to.
We have to find a way to not always be telling our kids what to do or we’ll resent the fact that we spend the whole day arguing. The very fact that we do know what will happen is the reason we have to not always tell them because then when they do fall out of the Kelty Backpack or the experiment does explode all over the family room, instead of learning from the accident, they resent us for knowing before they did what would happen.
It’s hard to not helicopter over my kids but I’m trying. I’m finding ways to back off and allow freedom where freedom can be allowed. When serious safety issues are not in play, I try to keep my hands off and my mouth shut.
When it comes to food, there is a way to not battle. I am slowly (oh so slowly) learning the somewhat obvious lesson that kids cannot eat what is not around. It’s almost comical how many times Ryan and I have gotten exasperated with Twila for insisting on having a cookie when she’s barely eaten any dinner. We get into the inevitable sticky territory of the “I’m full/You couldn’t possibly be” debate. I hate challenging a child when she is giving information that only she could possibly have. I hate even more insisting that a child have “one more bite” as if that one bite contains the magical ingredient to nutritional balance. If a child is full, one more bite teaches her that she doesn’t know her body; that she shouldn’t stop eating when she is no longer hungry. And if a child really hasn’t touched her meal, one bite does not a complete meal make. So one bite is really just a last ditch effort of the parent to feel in control of something she is not in control of. So I hate debating about food. Ryan and I get indignant; Twila gets indignant. Nobody wins. But if there is no cookie in play, if dessert is not only a non-option, but not even in the house, suddenly kids get a lot more honest about their appetites.
Sometimes kids really aren’t hungry and unlike us adults, they haven’t learned yet that when people are eating you should eat, that when the clock says its meal time you sit down and put food in. In short, they still listen to their bodies’ cues. That’s not a habit I want to curtail. So if it’s not about the treat she’s going to fill up on instead, she can eat as little or as much as her body needs that night and I don’t say a word. I have nights when I’m not as hungry as other nights too.
But one dilemma still remains. As I am stocking my cupboards and refrigerator with only foods I am comfortable with Twila devouring, the question persists: what do I buy? The information out there on food and nutrition changes with the phases on the moon, it seems. Yes there are certain truths that seem to stand the test of time:
· -Eat natural/unprocessed food
· -Eat vegetables
· -Eat whole grains
But unless you’re a person who can eat quinoas and broccoli three meals a day, you face the question of: what else? High fat or low fat? Is dairy good or bad and if it’s good should you buy whole milk or skim? Nuts or no nuts? Meat or tofu?
Now that soy has been called into question I feel like there is no solid nutritional rock on which to stand. There are nutritionists who insist that animal fat is vital to the development and maintenance of the human brain. So I fry the bacon. I don’t want my daughters’ brains to not develop properly for goodness sake. But there are those who say with the rise of childhood obesity, we must only feed our children lean meats like turkey and chicken. There are others still who insist that a vegetarian diet is best for the heart and liver. Some days it feels as if you have to pick which organs you want to properly care for, because there doesn’t seem to be a diet that will maintain them all.
I was at the co-op the other day and I picked up a book on nutrition, something about changing America’s Diet, or something like that. I flipped to the middle and read something along the lines that the consumption of dairy has never actually been proven to increase bone density. The only study to come even remotely close to linking the two was paid for by…The American Dairy Association. I know that is a weak reference since I can’t even name the book or the author. I promise to follow up on that. The point is it blew my mind. Whether it’s accurate or not, the fact that someone is positing that more dairy won’t build stronger bones? Where to turn? What to feed my children so that they grow up strong and healthy and without major food/body image issues? The author went on to claim that higher osteoporosis rates are correlated to countries that eat more protein. Challenging protein? Suggesting it might weaken our bones? I almost cried right there in the vitamins and supplements isle.
Lately I have more questions about food than answers. It’s difficult to prepare a meal for myself or my family that I feel one hundred percent sure about. I just keep waiting for more news to come out about food thus tumbling my belief systems out of whack again. In the mean time, I just take my best guesses. I try to stock the cupboards with nuts and dried fruit instead of cookies and crackers. I try to make more vegetables and fewer white carbs. But who knows what nutrition research will tell us tomorrow. I guess we just do our best until then. So here I am, still in limbo, frying the bacon.