Food, glorious food

In the last week or so I have found myself leaving post-length comments about food on other people’s blogs.  Which makes me think I should just write my own post, already, instead of hijacking other people’s comment sections.

One of the hardest things about parenthood for me is that I can’t control what my kid eats, when he sleeps, when he screams, etc. I can influence things, and try to create the optimal conditions for whatever I want to happen, but I just can’t make him do things if he doesn’t want to.  Case in point:  the current squeaking of his crib springs upstairs as he does gymnastics in his crib instead of taking the nap he desperately needs.

When it comes to figuring out how to feed our kid, Roo and I have really loved the book Child of Mine, by Ellyn Satter. There’s lots of good stuff in it, but the most important part for us has been her differentiation of what is a kid’s job and what is a parent’s job when it comes to food. It’s our job to provide a variety of healthy food options. But it’s the kid’s job to decide what to eat, how much to eat, etc.  There’s more to her approach than that, and I encourage you to check it out.  But the above is the part that feels most important to me.

Our son eats widely varying quantities of food at each meal, and there’s some individual foods that he’ll gobble one day and ignore the next.  But he eats a pretty decent variety of things overall, and seems to be growing just fine.  On the days when Tadpole gets excited about eating snow peas, I feel so proud that this approach is “working”. And then there are the days when he eats almost nothing for dinner because he has turned his nose up at all of the dishes we are serving, and I feel unsure about whether this is all a good idea.  Shouldn’t we just make him a PB&J or threaten to take away his dessert or something?

I think there’s three reasons we’ve stuck with the approach, despite our frustrations:

1)It makes dinner time so much more pleasant when we don’t get into power struggles about food.  I have sat with other families as they argue about how many peas make a bite, how many bites are required to get dessert, what kinds of sweet foods actually count as “dessert”, etc.  I am in no way judging the choices those parents have made, but for our family it has been really nice to spend dinner time talking about our adventures during the day and our plans for the weekend instead.  We have plenty of other power struggles with Tad, and it’s awfully nice to have an official expert seal of approval for dodging this one.

2)I really like the idea of teaching Tadpole to listen to his own internal cues about what and how much to eat (from among healthy options). That’s the way I want him to eat when he’s a grown-up, so why shouldn’t we all eat that way now?  And Satter’s approach seems to make food so much less emotionally charged (see power struggle issue above).

3) It’s good for my control-freak tendencies to know exactly what my responsibilities are and are not.  I really appreciate Satter’s reassurances that Tad will do just fine making his own choices about what to eat, as long as I back off and get out of his way.

I don’t mean to imply that we have this food thing figured out, by any means.  Our current issue is about dessert.  Satter says it’s fine to have dessert, especially relatively healthy stuff.  She says it’s the only kind of food that you don’t let a kid have seconds of, but that otherwise we should steer clear of making value judgements about it.  And that’s great.  But we’re trying to figure out how to handle dessert when it’s not used as a bribe for eating something else–how often should we have dessert?  When should we serve it?

Right now, Tad will often eat about 3 bites of dinner before insisting he’s done and wants a “yittle ice cream cone.”  Satter tells us that if he says he’s done, then we’re not supposed to argue, even if it seems impossible that a boy who has spent the last 2 hours running madly around the playground is full after 3 bites.  So we get him a little ice cream cone (Tra*der Joe*s makes these fabulous ones that are about 5 bites’ worth).  He gobbles it down.  And then goes back to his mac and cheese, and peas and whatever else is on his tray. 

This way of sequencing a meal is kind of funny, and at some point we may need to teach him the more socially-acceptable way of doing things.  But the question I’m struggling the most with is how often to have dessert.  I have this vague philosphical belief that we shouldn’t have dessert after every meal, and probably not even after every dinner.  But I haven’t figured out how to articulate (to myself or to Tad) why that is or how often we should have it.  Probably due to my own lack of clarity on this issue,  Tadpole has recently started lobbying for dessert after every meal (including breakfast).  The begging is not exactly endearing, but it’s no wonder he’s trying to see how much he can get.  I want him to know that desserts are “a sometime food” (thanks, Cookie Monster).  But how often is “sometimes”?  When we’ve had a hurried dinner after picking Tad up at daycare, and I feel bad about how little time I’ve spent with him that day, it’s awfully nice to have a cozy shared moment of chocolate ice cream bliss. 

So how do you handle dessert at your house?  Any suggestions are much appreciated!

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5 Comments

Filed under Tadpole, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Food, glorious food

  1. yay! nice to see more posts about food, and, of course, posts about food that i agree with 😉

    the dessert issue is a bit of a question mark over here, too. sugar was raised with dessert after dinner every night; i was raised with dessert almost never. we do something in between for ourselves, though closer to sugar’s version. the bean isn’t awake for our dinner yet (one of my food goals we are not currently meeting), so it’s not an issue at present. i will be very interested to see what you all settle on.

  2. Sigh. I would never have guessed something as *theoretically* simple as sustenance could be so complicated, but I guess that’s because I wasn’t a parent before. I was also raised “dessert never”, and have a mad sweet tooth, so we (my husband and I) tend to have dessert always. Tend? No, we totally DO. I hadn’t even contemplated how we’d handle that parenting-wise. It looks like my anti-sugar childhood will be conflicting with my pro-sugar adulthood in a wonderfully guilt-inducing way! The fact that your boy eats dessert and then goes back to eating dinner is charming–seems like it’s working to not argue. I feel like it should be possible to make a case for dessert only after dinner, but I’m not sure why I feel like one should or how one might go about it without making it about treats and whatever. So, um, good luck!

  3. I may be misremembering, but I think Satter explicitly recommends the dessert-as-part-of-dinner thing, at least in Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. If you make it less a special treat and more just one more (though special) thing to eat, albeit with the special rules, that helps keep it from becoming forbidden fruit for your child. We do desserts that way sometimes.

  4. I was raised with something sweet after every meal and really dislike that strong connection I have now (ie: being programed to crave something sweet, even after i’m full from my meal). But, I also see the danger in forbidden foods. So, we’ve implemented a ticket system with my oldest (my 2 year old couldn’t care less about sweets) – he gets a certain amount of tickets at the beginning of the month and uses them to “buy” dessert when he’s really craving it, rather than just having it out of course. Its worked out great and he’s actually never come close to using up all of his tickets. If only I had the willpower he did! 😉

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