Piece of cake

I want to talk about parenting and food, because goodness do I have no idea what I am doing. I am frustrated with myself by the things I say to my daughter:

“Finish that or no treat for dessert…finish that or we won’t go…eat that or I’ll take away this…three more bites…you have to eat…ok let’s just go straight to bed…you should have eaten at dinner, I’m sorry you’re still hungry…etc”

So many messages in there, most of which I don’t want to pass on. Here are the messages I unintentionally provide daily:

– You must always eat all that’s on your plate.

– Food is a privilege, it can be taken away. I can take it away.

– Sweets are a goal to get to.

– I don’t care that you’re full, eat more.

– I will punish you if you don’t eat what I decide is best for your growing body.

– You only get to eat when I say you eat.

Meanwhile I eat what I want when I want and so does my partner. I nurse the baby at their request. They eat as much as they want when they want. She’s the odd one out, surrounded by unfairness, no control of her body or her nourishment. Why do I get to be the authoritarian? When will I let this go?

Here’s what I want her to know.

– Food nourishes your body, keeps you alive, helps you live, gives you love and energy from the earth.

-Your body tells you what it wants, how much it wants, when it’s hungry and when it’s full.

-Food is not a privilege, it’s a right.

– There are people everywhere stripped of this resource, so what resources we choose are important because it impacts others. This includes working to not waste them and giving care to our food.

Here’s an idea we are going to try with her. I will write more as we explore this. I see there being three major changes to our approach to food.

1) She can have one treat per day if she wants to. And whenever she wants it. This does not include a treat we decide to gift to her. The treat is always her choice and our gift does not replace this choice.

We started this already, the first day she ate it before dinner. Since then she has nearly forgotten about treats. I’d like to think this may be because they are no longer incentives. We’ll see where this goes next.

2) She does not have to finish her food. She’s done when she’s done. We still push a time limit because I’d like her to treat food with care rather than eating while distracted. Any leftover food gets put away for a future meal.

With some unpacking, I went deep into why I cared about this so much. As a kid, I watched my dad get so upset when we wasted food. So upset that he’d just consume the leftovers. As an adult, I get it. I type this shortly after eating a watermelon airhead (which I’m pretty sure isn’t really food) because she didn’t like it and wanted to toss it. Food not only costs money but there are people with no food and what a jerk move to just waste it because we can. So instead of making her feel bad about it, we are working to remind her of her leftovers for snacks and simply serving them with her next meal. So far, most leftovers are getting eaten.

3) This one we’ve only started to explore, but here is the concept. Meals are broken into four groups and are currently titled: proteins, grains, fruits, and vegetables. For this, she gets three options in each category to choose from. The key is that all four categories get some coverage in a meal.

In my head, I envision a magnetized board where I can put the day’s choices, but my time is limited for such a craft project at the moment. So instead, I’m laying the groundwork by offering her choices in threes. Rather than saying “what do you want?,” I’m going with “here are your choices, what do you want?” In full five year old style, when I ask her simply what she wants, she always says “I don’t know, you pick.” Of no surprise, she says no to all of my picks. She has also given push-back on the three choices when I offer this model, saying that she wants none of them. But when I’m patient and let her think for herself, she almost always chooses one of them. She’s still at that age where everything needs to be her ultimate choice so it’s a balance of autonomy and direction.

Here’s what I don’t know yet: what to do with meals I cook. She currently rarely eats them. I need to move beyond my own hurt feelings when no one eats what I’ve made because it’s not about me or my cooking. In reality, I cook what I want, what my body asks for. Or I cook what I think they need or want. This is mostly because I live with two eaters who don’t decide what they want until they want it. This brings me right back to me deciding what nourishment goes into their bodies, when I have no knowledge of what their bodies are asking for. I need to figure our how to help her learn what her body is telling her.

I have two other ideas to help balance this…two dinner nights that are standard. The first is try something new night. We make a new dish that we haven’t all had before and we all try it. The second is whatever you want night. On this night, we all fend for ourselves and eat whatever we want to eat. Even ice cream…which will likely be my choice.

I figure this will set the stage for being explorative and curious with new tastes and foods, while also opening up space to explore your wants, desires, and hunger. For all of us.

There is still so much to learn and unpack in my relationship with food, both for myself and as a parent. But I am growing and exploring how to give my kids more autonomy, more ownership of their bodies, as I seek to find a better relationship with mine. I desperately want to lay the groundwork for them, in the hopes of preventing the same misunderstandings I’ve had along the way. To prevent any socialized shame, guilt, or misinformation the world tells us about nutrition

I’ll admit this all came to head when we were attending a birthday party a few weekends back. We had a two hour food disagreement where my socialization overtook my heart, and I heard my words in a deeply troubling way.

She wouldn’t eat her lunch so I threatened to take away cake at the party. She had that look that told me she doubted I’d actually do that, so she held her ground and “lost the privilege.” Guilt consumed me so I made my partner come up with a compromise so she could “earn” it back. He made peanut butter crackers for her and she had to finish them to get cake. There were three. In the car on the way to the party, she ate two. We ended up granting cake if she took one more bite of a cracker. She did.

Participating in and leading this two hour long ordeal, and hearing what we said to her along the way, felt so wrong. It felt like we had to win. And it felt like she had had enough of our authority.

In the end, she had the cake and my partner and I came up with this plan.

Ready, set, here we go.

4 thoughts on “Piece of cake

  1. This is a topic I struggle with often. I love cooking, it is my main hobby and a core part of who I am, as well as my main ‘love language’. And I have a 4 year old who eats fruit, grains, and dairy and pretty much nothing else. He rejects 95% of the meals I make. It took me a long time to stop taking that personally. I could talk for a long time about this and I don’t think my family has arrived upon any groundbreaking solutions, but some things we do are: 1) when I meal plan I ask each family member to pick a dinner for the week and I make whatever is requested, 2) I try to make a kid-approved meal approximately every other day, so that my 4yo sees a mix of accepted foods and more challenging foods, 3) Right not I am focusing on dinner time being pleasant rather than focusing on what he eats, which means that sometimes he eats nothing, 4) We always have fruit after dinner so this means that the kiddo does not go to bed hungry – maybe taking this away would make him start eating more foods but it’s not something I am comfortable with at the moment. Net effect is that he is growing well and generally (not always) we can sit down together and have a pleasant dinnertime. However he has not opened up to new foods AT ALL in the last ~2.5 years, so who knows if this is the best approach.

    I also went into parenting with lofty goals about never using food as a reward, and have not been successful there…

    1. I’m with you on the love for cooking. I love so much when others enjoy it too. I hold hope that when they’re bigger their tastes might expand and we can build on that love. In the meantime, I say we hold that love tightly for us!

      What a great idea to rotate meals, I’m going to have to try that. And having everyone pick a meal for the week.

      Thanks for reading! xo

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