My husband and I meal plan in hushed voices in the kitchen while our daughter watches Rescue Riders on her tablet. We’ve just recommitted ourselves to ratchet down our takeout habit and try to cook more actual meals at home, after a year of thrice weekly to-go splurges and a tight rotation of homemade nachos, frozen pizza, and packaged snack buffets for dinner. We’ve both had our annual physicals in the last couple of months, and were both rather shell shocked at the scale and our blood pressure stats.
“We’ve got to get back on track. We have to set a better example. We are setting her up for failure if she starts to believe that this is the way to eat.”
“We want to be healthy and active and ready for fun with our kiddo for a long long time. We both want to get a handle on our blood pressures.”
“I do not want to buy even bigger pants.”
We whisper these nudges to each other and giggle, and I’m thankful that at least we have some solidarity as we endeavor to shore up our Pandemic snack food diet with some nutrients.
But we don’t want our daughter to overhear our food and diet talk. Even if we’re talking about adding in a lot of vegetables and shaking our dependence on processed food. Even if we’re not talking about calories or “junk food” or restriction. We don’t want her to hear us even talk in code about losing weight, or see either of us rub our bellies unconsciously when we draft up a grocery list.
Food Talk is very fraught in our house. As with many parenting decisions, our choice to keep meal planning and weight gain conversations out of our daughter’s earshot are a direct reaction to the ways in which the food culture of our families set us up for lifelong struggles.
I grew up in a household where food rules were rigid in some ways and lax in other ways and meal times were often a battle. My mom was always on a diet. My dad made endless commentary on her food choices and how often any of us had dessert. We were a strict Clean Your Plate family, and the kids got little say in what went onto that plate. There were many nights that I sat crying at the table for hours, unwilling to swallow the requisite bites of canned peaches or creamed spinach. Those forced bites did not make me appreciate food, or learn to like things I despised. They just made me angry and resentful of my dad and full of anxiety every time I sat down to eat. I rejoiced every time I got to eat and my dad wasn’t watching.
My family was rife with diet talk and confusing demands to eat everything served on my plate and also not to eat too much, lest I need a diet. My husband’s family was very different from mine, but had its own food angst. My husband’s mother grew up with extreme food insecurity, and that had reverberations into her own parenting, cooking, and eating expectations. We’re trying hard not to be like our parents in the food arena. It is much easier said than done.
I have generally tried to shift the food conversation at home away from “junk” food or even healthy food vs. unhealthy food, but to notice and talk about how food makes us feel, and to talk about how much I enjoy eating a wide variety of foods and trying new recipes. It can be hard for a kid to make these connections, because the sugar rush is immediate but the hollow hunger of not eating filling foods happens hours later. It feels good and comforting to eat buttered noodles for dinner five out of seven nights a week. It’s hard for me to deny her the comfort and ease of eating things she loves, even if the list of entrees she loves includes only five items.
Despite my adult frustration or even embarrassment that my kid is not an adventurous eater, she’s growing and has plenty of energy. How many adults tend to eat the same handful of “go-to” foods or recipes on repeat? I sure do. I spent at least three years in my 20s eating nothing but a rotation of six different Lean Cuisines for lunch at work. Nothing terrible happened. Kids feel, for the most part, just fine eating a steady diet of berries and carbs.
Author and journalist Virginia Sole-Smith writes about the Division of Responsibility in her book The Eating Instinct (highly recommend). Reading this strategy felt like a radical, risky, thrilling new world. The idea is that you, the adult, determine when, where, and what foods are served for snacks and meals, and the kid decides if she eats what you are offering and how much.
If you’re thinking “my kid would just never eat anything I serve and would starve to death”, the caveat is that there is at least one thing you know your kiddo will eat at each eating opportunity. Kids determine what they put on their plates, and how much. No bribes, no coaxing. Sole-Smith encourages parents to be consistent, and once the pressure to try new foods is removed, and kids trust that they really can choose and eat as much or as little as they want from the choices you offer, the power struggle over food exploration is removed, and kids are more likely to try and enjoy new dishes.
We have tried this a couple of times. It’s a bit of a hassle. It is easier to just heat up something on the list of her preferred entrees and make separate adult food. It’s easier to plop her plate of mom-chosen food in front of her. But every time I have tried the family-style buffet of options, my kiddo has surprised me by what she has chosen and how much she happily ate. Not always the “well balanced meal” I would like to see, but different from what I expected.
Case study: veggie burgers. On a typical night in our house, I would prepare the veggie burgers for Les and me, and make some scrambled eggs and cut raw veggies and some crackers or tortilla chips onto a plate for my daughter. But one night, I put the buns in a basket, the pickles and condiments on the table, a plate of raw veggies, the burgers, and a bowl of mixed salad. She ate a bun, a pile of pickle slices, lots of raw veggies, and even tasted a leaf of red lettuce “just to see what the purple leaf tasted like”. She spit it out, but she tried it. And she ate her fill, and it wasn’t just a bowl of noodles and a yogurt cup.
Leaning in to trust my kid is hard, because I don’t yet fully trust myself around food. We joke like this, don’t we? “I can’t let any cookies into my house or I will eat them all in one sitting”. Or we worry that if we don’t make dessert contingent upon eating an acceptable amount and array of food, our kids will just eat one green bean and a bagel and then expect a brownie. There are nights our kiddo eats only a few bites of food, even food she really likes, because she “needs to save room for dessert”.
Here’s a radical idea that we are also testing at my house, at the suggestion of the same Virginia Sole-Smith’s Instagram conversations: Serve dessert alongside the dinner options, rather than at the end as an incentive. We tried it, and choked back comments when she ate the cookie first, but guess what? She went on to finish everything else she had decided to eat for dinner. No saving room. No bribery. Honestly, it made my husband and I both feel all kinds of ways. But why? If we agree that dessert is an option at dinnertime, and the goal is that she eats some typical dinner food, does it matter if she eats the dessert with her dinner rather than after? Especially if it frees her up to focus on the actual meal, rather than avoiding any whiff of fullness while eating the veggie dog and broccoli in front of her?
Is it easier for me to experiment with our family food culture because my kiddo is average size? Probably. Is it a huge pile of privilege to have so much flexibility in what we eat and serve and whether we all eat exactly the same thing? Absolutely. Do I still cringe with embarrassment and make excuses whenever we eat with others (I mean, hypothetically. We haven’t eaten with anyone in over a year) and my kid only eats a roll and a strawberry? Yes.
On a good day, I can take a big step back and remind myself that I was a ridiculously “picky” kid, and now I happily eat all kinds of things I never would have touched when I was six. And on really great days, I remember that my kid is her own person with her own preferences, and I can toss her a multivitamin and not take it personally that she doesn’t like to eat many of the same things I like. A lot of you probably wouldn’t like most of the staples of my gluten free, mostly vegetarian, tofu-heavy diet. I don’t take that personally. We can still be friends.