Feeding Children: Health versus Freedom? Part One: The Problem

I had promised myself I would never blog about eating. It’s so controversial. There are so many competing diets and theories on nutrition right now. It is also a surefire way to start mommy wars. In an effort to keep this blog positive, I thought it was best to stay away.

But, when my 3 year old developed issues directly related to eating and drinking habits, I knew it was time to throw myself into learning about pediatric nutrition.

My 3 year old developed some potty issues. I made a promise to him that I would not share such intimate details with the world, so I will keep the details of it to but one realization and one recommendation. The realization: My son was not getting enough liquids in his diet. The recommendation: Read the book It’s No Accident before you ever start potty training and certainly if you have any potty issues. This book recommends to potty train closer to 3 years old, watch for signs of problems (which is why you need to read it before potty training), and to eat a diet high in fiber and with lots of water.

Otherwise, our eating situation was not terrible, but my son only really liked to eat Cheerios, peanut butter sandwiches, and drink milk. He did eat fruit popsicles and roasted chick peas pretty happily and even chicken, beef, and salmon on occasion, depending on how they were served. I worried about how his diet contributed to his health problems and what a proper diet even was–beyond just the obvious that cookies, chips, cakes, and colas were bad.

The other problem we encountered is he never wanted to eat at dinner time, then wanted to eat after being put to bed. Yes, after a full day of being a mom to 2 kids, when you are supposed to finally be “done” for the night, it is completely irritating to be sitting at a table watching a 3 year old eat.  I took and take full responsibility for all of it, but better solutions had to exist.

So, all of this “inspired” me (more like “threw me in based on worry and panic”) to read as much as I could on pediatric nutrition and health.

There are many competing, contradictory theories on how to feed children. The one book I read for feeding older children before my child reached that age was French Kids Eat Everything. This is a very popular book to recommend among educated people. The author describes the “French” theory as “Gentle Authoritarianism.” Children do not have a choice in what to eat or when: Mealtimes are mealtimes. They do not allow the children to graze. The children come hungry, to the point of screaming, to the table. They are then spoon fed whatever is on the menu. The book promises children eventually go on to like all sorts of exotic foods.

A complete opposite of this view, a more typically American one, can be found in many books, such as the ones on Positive Discipline. These books typically offer ideas such as leaving “healthy snacks” out for children to eat at any time they like. A common sentiment is that children during the Great Depression ate whatever was available on the table, which is a hint towards, “They aren’t going to starve. Don’t force feed them.”

So, now what? Have complete, domineering control over every morsel that goes into your child’s mouth? Or let them have total control over when and where? Maybe telling my story, sharing the research I did, and finding what worked for us will help.

Our first eating battle that we encountered was spoon feeding. My son, 4 months old at the time, absolutely refused. I panicked: My big plan to make homemade, wholesome food to get my son acquainted to the taste of fruits and vegetables was failing. That’s what led me to find Baby Led Weaning, where jar food is skipped, and, at around 6-7 months, infants are given whole, solid foods, such as long slices of apple, to gnaw on, play with, and eventually eat. I watched in delight as my son ate a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, salmon, and more. I was absolutely thrilled with this approach. He was eating healthy food and doing it on his own. I literally have never spoon fed my child. Baby Lead Weaning was published in 2010, not long before my son was born in 2012. It is now a thing and is even featured in the book What To Expect When You are Expecting. I don’t recommend this book (What to Expect) but it is a sign that this method has gone mainstream. Jar food is so 2009!

I thought for sure that how my son was eating on his own and healthily would carry on throughout the toddler years. It didn’t. Part of it may be my fault, because I switched my diet from the time he was 1 until now, when he is 3.5. I did notice the foods we introduced to him as an infant are ones he is willing to at least look at, including salmon and some other chicken/pork meals that we eat. There is a window of opportunity there to be taken advantage of. The more you can expose your child to when they are about 1 years old until about 2 or 2 1/2 years old, probably the better.

Either way, we ended up in the situation we were in. In general, I believe in freedom and respect for children but with eating I had thought more strict ideas may be better. I was never in the “come to the table and clean your plate club.” But the one (and actually, only) coercive tactic I used, which ended up causing me to alter my entire philosophy on eating, was to offer my son eggs in the morning, telling him he couldn’t have milk until he ate his eggs.

It’s genius, right? (Wrong … ) In the morning he was assured to be hungry, so he would eat whatever was on the table. In my defense, I did offer him the choice of scrambled or hard boiled eggs; with or without dressing. Also in my defense, I was borrowing ideas from the French way, where the food is the food. And, for several weeks, he did eat the scrambled eggs, getting the protein I was so happy to watch him eat, something other than starchy Cheerios. But I watched as he started to push his eggs around to make it look like he ate them, eating one bite, and then saying, “I ate them!” so he could get his milk. My attempts at coercion were causing my son to learn to lie and pretend. And, as noted, I later found out that not getting enough liquid was causing him to have health problems. My attempts at coercion were working against his health and his natural desire for more liquid was working towards his health*. This was a very sobering realization for me.

(*Cow’s milk as it turns out is binding and we had to limit it. But he did need much more liquid than he was getting.)

I suppose I could have leaned in harder with the French way and spoon food him scrambled eggs–or not. That is the thing about toatalitarian approaches, they need to be total. No ounce of freedom can be allowed if you are coercing another person into something. I also wonder what type of negative side effects occur from the French way. The French are notorious for providing rude customer service, especially at restaurants, such as taking a very long time to serve people. It is not hard to imagine that how they were rudely treated as children cause them to be like that.

No, I went the opposite way: I pretty much decided not long after that that I was going to eliminate all attempts at coercing him to eat anything. I have written pretty prolifically about how building trust in my son by respecting him, dealing with his emotions, and explaining things to him has created a relationship where I can get him to do almost anything. He trusts me. He knows I have his best interest in mind. I am his advocate. So why was I not applying this to food? I have even written about how I explained once to him how French fries are unhealthy for him and, since then, he absolutely refuses to eat French fries.

Oh, but where to start? I needed recipes; I needed tactics; I needed information on what is healthy.

So, I got to work reading, meanwhile I ended all food battles. His wish was my command. Peanut butter sandwich? Coming right up. Six milks in one day? Ok. In my defense, I have always kept cookies, cakes, etc., out of our house. I still stand by this decision. So his wish being my command didn’t translate into “cookies and cakes all day.” I swore off all fast food–a nasty habit that developed out of convenience. In addition to being crap food, I am convinced that eating while sitting in a car causes digestive problems. I simply wanted to rebuild trust in regards to food with him, while being somewhat mindful to health while I got more refined knowledge.

And I noticed many things when I did this. For one, he actually didn’t want peanut butter sandwiches all of the time. He even asked me for scrambled eggs on some days. When I offered him water (which we put just a splash and I mean a splash of juice in) throughout the day, he didn’t want to have more than 2 or 3 cups of milk per day. (My previous mistake with liquid was to simply ask him if he wanted the water, instead of having it out for him to get when thirsty.) Every now and then, while eating, he would simply come over to tell me, “Mommy, I really like chick peas!” Or he would sometimes say, “Mommy, my dinner [when he was at breakfast] is delicious!” I loved that he was communicating with me. And my heart *smiled* when we went to the store and he pointed at the bananas, saying, “And we eat one of those every single day!” (I had told him it is good eat fruit every day, not bananas, and he doesn’t eat fruit every day, but the understanding of it made me happy!)

This is a good place to stop. In Part Two I’ll talk about the more refined solutions I found, which I am actually thrilled about!

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