We’re talking about children and food.
I care so much, in fact, that somewhere I have a detailed outline and first pages of a book I’d really like to write about it someday, sooner rather than later, although maybe after my experience of teaching kids how to eat goes from one to two.
Here’s an article in the New York Times where chef Nicola Marzovilla says that children’s menus in restaurants are "the death of civilization." This statement is obviously emphasized for dramatic purposes, but you know what, I tend to agree. Not that kiddie meals will actually lead to our demise (although in recent programs like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution it seemed pretty clear that they were a sign things are really going wrong), but rather that they send a completely false and misguided message.
Why? Well, I think that children should eat like the rest of the family as soon as possible. I also really believe in the family meal, of course for the occasion and time shared together, but also because it’s one of the greatest education means (in terms of nutrition, social habits and manners) you have. LP is a good eater, slightly pickier now than he used to be, but still willing to try things and eating a very wide range of foods. Everyone tells me that we’re so lucky, and I guess there is a part of luck into that, but at the same time I’m kind of sick of it. It can’t really be ALL about luck. There has to be something else, too. And that’s just our own experience, but in my opinion there is definitely a certain mindset you can get yourself in and many ways you can create a positive food culture and environment that will help you raise good eaters.
I’m not suggesting it’s the parents’ fault if they have picky eaters, but I also think that when you say you "really can’t take [Marzovilla’s statement] seriously", or get all defensive and attack parents "who did family dinners since birth" (what’s that unnecessary crack? Newborns don’t eat, and I don’t think *anyone* does family dinners with a six-month old. We certainly didn’t, although we started transitioning towards it around one), or say that "you can’t stand parents who brag their kids eat anything and imply that they themselves should only have to try harder or whatever," you’re showing bad faith. No one likes being told they don’t always excel at parenting, and we all have our strong and weak points (we’re OK with food, but not so good with sleep for instance, in part because we suck at it ourselves). Plus, food is just not that important to some people, and we all try to do our best amidst crazy schedules, tight budgets and all kinds of other factors. But it doesn’t mean that maybe, and I mean maybe, we shouldn’t be open to listen and at least be willing to rethink a few things (that does not only include food and absolutely includes me).
Here are my issues with kids eating separately and eating a different meal:
-They don’t see you eat. Sometimes LP just won’t eat something and we don’t force him, but he still sees us eat and enjoy it, he still sees all of these different foods brought to the table, gets familiar with them, and can see how they are supposed to be eaten.
-They don’t learn that pickiness is a highly, highly annoying and undesirable trait.
-They are not forced out of their comfort zone and their ruts, something I believe is an important part of their development (and in the reassuring setting of a meal shared between family members can be done in a way that’s a lot less daunting than many other situations).
-They receive the message that it’s OK for them to eat only a limited range of bland and/or not-that-healthy foods, and that the main purposes of food are its quickness and convenience.
-They are taken out of the main aspect of eating: the joy of it, of preparing food, of bringing it to the table, of sharing it together, of enjoying this great, daily pleasure of life.
Are we extremists? Of course not. We do occasionally make a separate meal for LP, because sometimes it just plainly makes more sense (we want to eat something he doesn’t like on a Saturday night, for instance mussels), but it’s the exception, not the rule. We don’t always eat healthy, either, so he does have French fries like any other kid (although we tend to prefer going to retro mom-and-pop shops than fast food chains), my sort of rule being that as long as you eat well 90% of the time, I think you can enjoy your cravings guiltlessly.
Do we force him to eat decidedly grown-up foods, like blue cheese? No! But we’ll still have it in front of him, and he can have bread with a little Brie and cheddar and paté. Sushi? He’s usually enthusiastic about eating it, until once he pops a piece in his mouth and suddenly remembers that he doesn’t like seaweed. We don’t expect him to like sushi (I didn’t even have it until my mid-twenties); we do, however, expect him to like vegetables, brown rice or quinoa, eggs, fish and other such regular foods. We encourage him, make him have a bite before he decides, and then don’t really fuss, rather try again when we serve it the next time. The general everyday rule is we won’t make a special dinner for him; if he barely eats, that’s just really too bad for him. He has phases, and we navigate through them as they happen; he never let himself starve or missed much in the end. He is totally allowed to dislike some foods individually and have his preferences like we all do; but it’s not even an option for him not to love (good) food, in the larger sense. I really believe that to raise a good eater, you need to start with the own example you set! So of course there can be foods you don't especially love, but when you start fussing and refusing to eat fish and onions and carrots and spices and this and that, you're basically asking for your kids to do the same.
We do even sometimes order from kids menus in restaurants for him. Of course once in a while it’s fine! But just like Marzovilla I don’t generally like the concept, simply because I don’t think it’s a good idea to send the message that they don’t have to try and can have a different, "dumbed-down meal" (as he puts it), and mostly because the food in these is often appalling (artificial sweetened juice or chocolate milk, fries with everything, and just a few no-nutrition options like chicken nuggets and corn dogs). I don’t think you have to be scared your kid won’t eat the normal food that’s served; rather that you have to at least try, present it favorably, and let him decide for himself… Plus, every time we order a special meal for him he ends up not eating much, and we feel like we paid for nothing. So in certain circumstances we do it, but we much prefer to either eat family-style with all the food presented in the middle for everyone, or to just ask for an extra plate and share what we have with him. Portions in restaurants are often way too big anyway.
We live in an enclaved French culture, but that’s still part of North America, and hence largely incorporates its way of life. We’ve also only traveled to the States with LP so far, and it’s part of why I’m so excited to bring him to Europe in a few days. My intuition is that over there, the whole concept of the kids meal is non-existent, especially in Italy where people still have such good eating habits. I’m looking forward to spending time in a place where children are just naturally expected to eat like everyone else, and trying to see if it does seem to have an impact on families and children’s pickiness.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
We’re talking about children and food.