Friday, May 4, 2012

I want something special to eat

Mommy, I want something special to eat.”

I glance at the clock. It's 7:30 in the morning. I wince. Something special is big bear code for something sweet. 

“What do you mean special?” 

“I want two, no three chocolate chips.”

This is one of my worries as a parent. I am worried that I'm going to pass on my food issues to my little bears. The fact that he talks about “special food” is a sign that I have work to do.

"You can have a chocolate chip later, but not for breakfast." I have a variety of responses for big bear when it comes to food. I rotate them around depending on the request, context, time of day and the overall mood of my big bear.

I'm working on creating a food neutral household to minimize food related anxiety. To do this I avoid attaching overly positive or negative labels on food (treats, sweets, healthy, good for you); encourage eating a variety of foods (no need to eat everything, but try everything once) and attempt to defuse a pre-occupation with taste.

It's a challenge. I've been dripping these ideas on big bear (in a preschool friendly way) for just about two years now, but obviously big bear has picked up on the idea of "special" food, and special food is highly valued. 

Big bear has obviously inherited mommy's sweet tooth. He is ruled by his taste buds, turned off by texture and any food that looks "weird." I can almost feel the building frustration of not being able to eat chocolate chips all day growing inside him like a weed. 

I suspect there is both nature and nurture at work here. Nature in that kids may have evolved to avoid certain food types (fruits and vegetables), and developmentally, toddlers choose to play over eating for a few years. And when this happens, I believe that a strong conditioning to eat begins.

I can attest that is alarming when your child stops eating seemingly overnight. Babies know when they are hungry and stop when they are full. But one day, the eating stops. A developmental milestone is reached and eating food moves way down on the priority list and the negotiation (struggle) between parent and child begins. 

Methods to encourage a choosy toddler to eat can range from fairly benign (a food-filled fork is "coming in for landing!") to vegetables or bits of meat hidden under palatable food such as rice or potatoes. More assertive tactics include using a favorite food to encourage eating other foods ("no dessert if you don't eat your vegetables") or engaging a power struggle over eating (child refusing to eat, parent insisting child must eat dinner before leaving table). Food may also used as a reward ("no fussing tonight and I'll give you a treat') or withholding food as a penalty ("no dessert if you don't stop throwing a ball in the house").

The influences continue in the community as positive and negative labels are slapped onto food, commercials and food packaging are designed to influence food choices (thanks for putting all the kid cookies at kid level mr. grocery dude) and stereotypes are passed on regarding certain body types.

How does this affect our children's development? What do they learn?

A child learns to overvalue certain foods (sweets, treats, fast food) at the expense of other foods, a child learns to eat more food than necessary, a child associates food with good and bad behaviour and some children will learn to be freaked out by food and eating. Food is no longer just food, and we live in a community that values thin and demonizes fat. 

From an early age, we are conditioned to eat, hungry or not. 

We do this because it is our culture and our tradition. 

But the conditioning can backfire. Some will eat more food than needed and gain weight. Others may want to emulate overly thin models and actresses who are showcased in movies and magazines and develop a distorted body image. 

Some will diet and lose weight. Food anxiety increases, worrying that the weight will come back. Anxiety leads to overeating, gaining weight and more dieting. More worry, more anxiety, more eating, more weight gain, shameful feelings, more anxiety, more eating and more dieting. 

Some will get stuck in the diet mentality, a vicious cycle of restriction and overeating; losing and gaining weight.

I think that as a community we need to rethink about how we think about food. We need to think about what we are telling our children about food and how that will affect their eating behaviour as adults. 

We are conditioned to eat (and overeat).

We should be able to eat, like a normal person; a variety of foods that fuels our body and when the mood strikes, something that just tastes good. 

Upcoming posts:

  • I'm fat: is there something unresolved in my life?
  • More on a food neutral household
  • With respect to food, I've been a four year old preschooler for most of my life 

1 comment:

  1. Parenting is no joke! It's tough stuff. I don't envy you. I grew up in a home where desserts were only allowed on wkends, and food in general was very restrictive, which means I'd binge like crazy at the neighbor's house, which means I wasn't hungry for dinner. My mom would be furious, and force me to eat dinner. It was some messed up stuff! Parents have the best intentions. Ultimately, when we are adults we have to decide for yourself. I think if you come from a place of love and grace, you can't go wrong.


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