Kids: eating and their palates, part 1

Recently, one dear reader mentioned that she'd really enjoy hearing more about what my kids eat -do they actually eat what I cook?- their willingness to try new things, and the thoughts I probably have on the subject (of course I do!). So here goes, part 1 of a mini-series on my food philosophy as it relates to my kids. My evolving philosophy:

For starters let me say that I am certainly no expert on any of this. I'm not a nutritionist though I am a voracious reader of all material related to nutrition, nutrition science, cooking, the ways in which our food is produced (the environmental and animal welfare backgrounds) and the ways in which eating habits are formed and become ingrained. In my second graduate program, Human Development and Psychology, I took a class co-taught by leaders at the Sesame Workshop (the organization that produces Sesame Street; Ses St tries very hard to teach healthful living to its young viewers) on childhood nutrition, obesity prevention and health education. The importance of the family meal was underscored as critical to preventing obesity as was teaching healthy eating patterns from the time your kids are born. I also took a course on eating disorders which emphasized how eating patterns become negatively tweaked and damaged; have you ever noticed how most young children stop eating the moment they feel full, regardless of how yummy something tastes? They simply walk away, no weird inner dialogue about it, no emotional connection to it. I found studying the ways in which eating becomes emotional, tethered to feelings such as boredom, sadness and so forth fascinating. Why do so many folks stop paying attention to what hunger and satiety really feel like? And ultimately, I brought all of this to the table, so to speak, when Jack was born.

Having always been an at-home mom, I've been the primary food source for my boys. First I nursed them and then I decided what foods we'd have in our home, where we'd eat out when we did, and so forth. I knew I wanted them to eat the most healthful foods possible, and that's why I focus mostly on organics; within that I try to distill the industrial organics from the smaller-source ones (Earthbound vs your local farmer, for example) simply because I prefer supporting small farms when possible. It seems more carbon footprint friendly to me. Anyway, I memorized the "the most important organic produce to buy" list (based on which foods tend to suck up the greatest concentration of pesticides) and started there. As I became better educated, I moved on to dairy, meats, eggs and so forth. Now we're nearly 100% organic in our home and as often, seasonal. By that I mean that we don't eat watermelon in January because it's not in season here which means it's been schlepped in from somewhere really far away. Though it might be organic, the carbon footprint of its trip to me seems antithetical to my whole philosophy on the environmental aspects of healthy living. So, we eat what's in season, and I like the ways in which that's helped us feel in sync with the local ecosystems and the associated knowledge and awareness we've gleaned from that.

How I translate this to the kids:

I've always tried to show the boys the connections between what we eat and how those decisions affect our bodies and the Earth. I explain why I'm not buying the watermelon in January: 1) it probably doesn't actually taste very good (if at all), and 2) it's not its season here. We talk about how a lot of bugs are beneficial, how the outdoors is their home, like our house is our home, and so we need to respect their environment too by not spraying chemicals everywhere. We get out in the garden and dig, holding plump, healthy worms gently, and watching how many (seemingly) thousands there are when we turn our compost pile. The worms in our yard are so robust. I swear to you that in another yard in which chemicals are applied liberally and in which the boys sometimes get to dig, the worms are the most bizarre color and just seem rather flacid and off.

Since we moved into our house, we've put a lot of effort in to making the yard healthy so that the boys can play without me fretting about toxins and so that we can grow food out there. This year it looks better than ever, and the kids love watching everything grow. They'll taste anything they've had a hand in growing and for me that underscores how valuable it is to include them in the food and eating decision-making process. It's why I take them to the farmers market almost weekly, because there too, they will just go to town trying new things. And it's why we just don't keep certain things in the house. No sugary cereals, for example, no soda.

Tom and I love to eat, and being from Louisiana, I just couldn't have picky kids who only ate white foods or some similar travesty. :) So as soon as each child was old enough to get going on solids, I put before them a huge array of tastes with various degrees of spiciness. I never made a big fuss about any of it but I tried to encourage them to try everything by showing how enthusiastic I was in eating it all. I also don't eat differently than they do which means that we often have the same meal, or when we eat at different times, I make them something I'd want to eat myself. I don't make them eat everything on their plates because I want them to hold on, as long as possible, to the ability to hear the messages their bodies are sending them. They both love spicy foods as well as a wide array of foods from different countries and cultures. Sure, they don't eat enough sometimes, and we have to have a snack intervention. And sure, Jack went through a pickier phase as will Oliver I imagine, but I've tried not to stress too much about it as I find the bigger deal I make, the bigger an issue it becomes.

I feel like this has worked well in my family. When Jack was in his three-year-old year in nursery school, they had a party to celebrate the 100th day of school. He wanted to bring 100 chocolate chips, so we counted them out and he brought them in. Most kids had brought some kind of sugary treat, and J ate his face off. I will tell you that he came home growling and when I asked what was wrong, he said, "I think all that stuff is making me feel bad and mad. I will never eat that much chocolate/sugar (however he described it) again." And do you know he hasn't? Not once. He knows his limits and respects them.


That story illuminates the issue of treats. While I am fairly strict regarding the boys' sugar intake, I have never refused them dessert or treats. Think of how much you want something if you tell yourself you cannot have it EVER, AT ALL, NOT EVEN A BITE. That is a shortcut to overindulgence and obsession. My rule has always been, eat your fruits, veggies, grains, proteins and fats and then you may surely have a dessert treat. We bend the rules on birthdays or the last day of school or special dates and so forth, but in general, they know the plan and it doesn't even phase them. And by dessert treat, I mean 4 mini-marshmallows or m&ms, or a scoop of ice cream or one cookie. Literally a treat. Not nothing but not a lot either.

More in the next installment...