Raising Healthy Eaters

Raising Healthy Eaters

First of all, let me apologize for referring to your child as an “eater.” I think it’s kind of gauche. And yet, we are all eaters, amongst other things, and how we nourish ourselves has perhaps a bigger impact on our health and well being than any other action we take. In the spirit of Wholeness, we have to attend to what we consume, because it becomes us.

Many of our patterns and habits are formed in the first few years of our lives, so parents are naturally very concerned with nourishing their children. Note that I didn’t say some parents. It’s pretty much universal, barring severe incapacity. Nourishing our young is our first and foremost task. But we live in a world full of conflicting messages about how to do that, so naturally parents take different approaches, with varying degrees of success.

Recently, my 3-year-old asked me what I would want if I had a wish to make. I described a cozy farmhouse, complete with fireplace, for us to live in, then turned the question on him. He said “um, candy.”

So I don’t want you to think my children are in some state of nature where all they desire to eat is foraged berries and lacto-fermented cabbage. We live in this world, and we make our compromises with it. But by and large, my children do eat the well-rounded, homemade meals we serve them, rarely even want to order from the “kids meal” menu at restaurants, and get excited about fruits and vegetables in a way that many adults, myself included, find refreshing and wholesome. So I thought I’d share some of the strategies my husband and I have employed to get us here.

Make a Meal and Stick to It

This is the single best piece of advice I have to offer. I have to give credit to my elders, especially my Grandma, Mary Malone, for starting us down this auspicious path and our brilliant Pediatrician, Dr. Marianne Rothschild, MD, for encouraging us along it. Dr. Rothschild is author of a wonderful new book, Dancing With the Rhythms of Life.

“No child ever starved themself,” was Dr. Rothschild’s nonchalant response to my worry that Celia was getting picky. “If she can get away with refusing meals and demanding cheese and crackers, she will. If she has no other choice, she’ll eat what you give her.”

I think this was at Celia’s 2-year-old checkup. She was small, on the lower end of the weight/height charts, and I had let myself get concerned that she needed more calories. So although we had committed to serving our children only the same well-balanced meals we were eating, my conviction was wavering.

I think malnourished children is a primal fear for parents. Throughout most of history, we had to work moderately hard to provide enough calories for our families’ needs. We were extremely active, either moving across the landscape hunting and foraging or working the land year-round to grow our sustenance. This meant we needed a lot of calories, starting from a very young age, since children played by helping and helped by playing and so joined their families as both dependents to be protected and nurtured and also as assistants and co-creators of the family’s survival.

child sitting in a cooking pot
Play is essential to learning, and makes cooking with children fun!

That paradigm has shifted. Because of the horrific exploitation of children during the Industrial Age, many people these days try to sheild them from anything that smacks of work. In the meantime, urbanization has brought most of the world’s people into cities, where children can’t simply be turned outside to run around, and most adults don’t have infinite time to supervise a lot of outdoor play. The result is at least three generations of increasingly sedentary children, whose caloric needs are not great.

Combine that with the fact that they really will not allow themselves to starve, they will eat when they get hungry enough, and you can rest easy insisting that your children eat what you serve them before they get anything else.

Portion Size

As I write this, there is 3/4 of a sausage and about a 1/4 cup of cabbage and onions in a bowl on the table. I told the children they needed to finish their food before they went to their friend’s house, but after a loooong time of slooowly picking at her plate, Celia told me very earnestly that she was full.

I considered how much I had given her, decided that was believable, and told her to wash her hands and get her shoes on. I want her to learn to listen to her body and not eat when she’s not hungry. One of my great-uncles told grim stories of being given the same plate three meals in a row until he finished everything. I can only imagine how unpalatable it must have been by even the second time around, let alone the third.

So our rule is that you don’t get anything else until the next meal unless you finish. That distinguishes between “I don’t want this” and “I’m not hungry,” because if you’re hungry for a granola bar you’re hungry for the food on your plate. But if you don’t happen to be hungry right now, no one is forcing food down your throat.

I’ve heard it said that, given an array of healthy choices, children will naturally get the perfect balance of nutrients over a 72 hour period. So when, at some meals they hardly eat any protein, or don’t touch the veggies, I try not to freak out. Almost invariably, they then do eat the protein or veggies at a subsequent meal within the next day.

Sugar and Carbs

The exception to the above rule is if we pile their plates with noodles. If allowed, my children might try to subsist on noodles. And who can blame them? Noodles are delicious.

Same thing with breads, crackers and sometimes rice and potatoes; if you let them have seconds of these before they finish the rest of the food, they will completely fill up on carbs.

Now, I don’t believe in tightly restricting carbs, especially for healthy, growing children. They DO need a lot of ready energy for all their important business running up and down the hall, jumping on beds and falling off stools. So I don’t skimp on that initial portion of carbs, but nor do I let it fill the whole plate. And, if they finish the reasonable portion of meat, eggs or beans and vegetables we’ve dished out and then want just pasta or another biscuit, no problem.

We also don’t restrict sugar too tightly, but neither do we have it around all the time. At least once a week we have a breakfast that involves maple syrup or jam (fruit-juice sweetened, generally. But that’s still a lot of concentrated sugar, and isn’t appropriate for too-frequent consumption). And generally once a week we’ll make muffins or cookies or some other sweet baked good. We’re all looking forward to finishing Gary’s birthday cake after lunch today!

Cake made fro, local, stone-ground flour and farm fresh eggs, butter and milk
Cake made with local, stone milled whole wheat pastry flour, eggs, butter and milk from our Amish friends’ farm, fair trade organic sugar, vanilla and cocoa powder and decorated with plant-based sprinkles is a special treat I can feel good about.

But we try to eat our sweets during the day, rather than after dinner, when I feel they interfere with restful sleep. And we hardly ever buy sweet packaged things. Even all-fruit fruit snacks, granola bars and those pouches of mushed fruit and vegetables which have become so ubiquitous are rare around our house. I feel the easy-access nature of those things sets up an unhealthy expectation about the availability of sweets.

Don’t Hide, Don’t Bribe

In 21st Century America, is there anything you can’t buy? The grocery store shelves are full of crackers, pastas, sauces, even candies which claim to contain hidden vegetables. While I don’t think these are necessarily worse than similar processed foods that don’t make such claims, they’re no substitute for whole, freshly processed vegetables and fruits.

For starters, the factory processing all but eliminates the fiber by pulverizing it into a powder. That means it can’t do its good work of scrubbing down the intestinal walls and keeping bulk between molecules of fat and protein as food travels through the GI tract. The processing also all but destroys the vitamins and vital life energy of the food.

But maybe most insidiously, this practice teaches children to trick themselves and others. Rather than teaching them to awe and honor plants as life-supporting friends (which children naturally do if exposed to food-growing plants), it teaches them to awe and honor agri-business for so cleverly getting their parents off their parents off their case about the whole vegetable thing.

I also want to distinguish between “you won’t get anything else until you finish this,” and “if you finish this, I’ll give you some chips.” My children try to get me to bribe them (“If I finish my plate, can I have some chips?”) but I try hard to resist. Even if I plan to bust the chips open, I try to say, “I don’t know, but you’re definitely not getting anything unless you finish that.”

This might seem like splitting hairs, but hear me out. One of the Education researchers who transformed my practice is Alphie Kohn. He eloquently explains the deep damage we do when we bribe children in books like Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s Praise and Other Bribes. The essence of the argument is that we shift the child’s attention from what we want them to do to what they’ll get if they do it. This diminishes the intrinsic rewards of the task, sometimes to the point of making an otherwise fun, empowering and exciting task (like learning to read) seem like it must be dreadful and worthless, otherwise no extrinsic reward would be necessary.

In the case of food, if we introduce children to whole, fresh ingredients that grow near us, prepare them well and with love, and make mealtimes pleasant time for the family to gather, they will love to eat real food. I understand this is one end of a spectrum, and that busy parents can’t do this perfectly, but bear with me.

If, on the other hand, we try to sneak nutritious foods onto their plates while they zone out on cartoons and promise a chocolate bar for every bite of broccoli, they will find real food disdainful, always preferring the intense tastes and sensations that only factory-processed foods can provide. This is the other side of the same continuum. You can slide along it until you find the right place for your family.

Children Make Nutritious Snacks ;)

When we bake, the children get to appreciate the creative process, and come to value the sweet treats as more than just a sugar rush. Although I think it’s important not to gorge on fruit juice concentrate, maple, palm, date or panela sugars, I still think they’re much better for us in moderation than refined white sugar. By committing to buying wholesome, organic, fair trade sweeteners, we limit how much sugar we can even afford, and teach the value of quality over quantity.

And sweets aren’t the only food children like to prepare. If Celia is allowed to pull a stool in front of the stove and stir the meal a few times, she’s much less likely to complain about it than if it just shows up in front of her. This bring us back to the child labor question: children want to be productive members of the family, and learn by doing so. We’d be wrong to force her to stand in front of the stove, or even to allow her to be there unattended. But I think we’d be wrong to always shut her out, too. Even little Gary is learning to use a pot holder to open the oven door, and has recently earned the privilege of an occasional schmear with a butter knife.

child kneading bread dough
Children love hands-on activities like kneading dough.

Children also love watching transformations. So letting them help make kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi or pickles is a fun project. And the benefits of eating these wild-fermented foods is immeasurable. Their health depends in ways we are just figuring out on the health of the microbes in their intestinal tracts, so involving them in the process of harvesting free microbes from the air and causing them to transform inexpensive, fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs into gourmet condiments is awesome. If you don’t have time, they will probably also enjoy eating store-bought versions of these lacto-fermented foods, but you’re paying someone else to harvest the microbes, so they’re much pricier than the simple ingredients they comprise.

Everyone Has Preferences

Every good rule has its exceptions. So while the rule is that they have to eat everything, the reality is that they are each allowed a reasonable number of foods they don’t like and we don’t push. Broccoli used to be a universal crowd-pleaser, but a few months ago Celia stopped liking it. I shrugged and said ok. What can I do? If I force her to eat it, she’ll probably always hate it. If I let her eat around it, but keep preparing it in tasty ways and keep offering it, I expect she’ll come to love it again in time.

Now recently she tried to tell us she didn’t like stews or soups. Come on, kid, really?

We were a little at a loss for a while. Stews and soups are the absolute most nourishing way to prepare food, especially in Winter time. We want to honor her palate, but we can’t deprive the whole family of deep nourishment and we can’t have her skipping or just picking at that many meals.

My knee-jerk reaction was to yell at her. Which I did. Because I’m only human, and that shit was really annoying. I told her she was being contrary, and then had to explain what contrary meant. Needless to say, it got me no where.

Leftover veggies and crab meat made a delicious soup
After a fun weekend at the beach with friends last Summer, we had a bunch of random produce from people’s gardens, some cooked rice and a few crabs left over. We made them into a scrumptious pot of Maryland Crab soup!

So the next time we planned to serve soup, I sat down with her and had a real talk. I listened to her explanations of why she didn’t like them, and then offered to let her help select ingredients including seasonings to make this soup more to her liking. She still rarely finishes a bowl, but at least I feel we’re in a workable place with it.

We also need to beware of our prejudices. Every time I bring my children a bowl of oatmeal or yogurt with no sweetener, just some cinnamon and raisins, I think they’re going to turn it away. They gobble it up and roar for more. I frequently sneak a little honey or maple syrup into my own, because I didn’t develop an appreciation of these flavors in my childhood, but I’m so glad I’m letting them enjoy the full spectrum of tastes, rather than setting the expectation that everything will be bland and sweet.

Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death!

This is all time consuming. Since our family has transitioned to farming, foraging and medicine making, we have a lot more time in the winter to be slow (and a lot more incentive to be economical!). This necessarily looked different when I was still teaching full-time.

But let’s not exaggerate how much time it takes to talk with a child about the food you’ve prepared. And while they might eat a supper of crunchy-salty-sweet per-prepared food more quickly than a supper made from scratch with real ingredients, it seems to me that the 10-15 minutes per meal is a small price to pay for setting them on the path to deep nourishment, connection to their bodies and abundant health.

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