Something that Sara and I have always been extremely conscious about, is the way that we address food with the kids. Our goal is to be nonchalant about food and try to set a good example with our own choices. You would think that this would be easy, but it is extremely difficult. So often we have to walk a tightrope between making sure the kids get enough to eat and not scolding them about food. Between encouraging them to try new things and not praising them for overeating. Between wanting them to enjoy food and not using food as a reward.
Many years ago, we made two key, inter-linked (and apparently controversial) decisions regarding food; our kids are not required to clean their plates, and we have dessert with dinner every night (even for those who don’t clean their plates). To be fair, dessert is mostly healthy (usually fruit), and skipping dinner to get more fruit isn’t exactly beating the system, but still. These were not light decisions, and they evolved over time. The important tenant we try to hold to is, “Listen to your body. You’re done eating when you’re full.” You can’t argue with that, right? But again, food is such a charged topic in our society and there are pitfalls almost no matter which way you turn.
Good intentions aside, right away we started taking flack for these decisions. People absolutely feel that they need to get kids to eat, and that it is somehow un-American to not clean your plate (apparently it is un-American…have you seen America lately?) The dessert thing is mostly okay now, but at first people were pretty upset about that too. However, now that we have been observing this rule essentially all of their lives, the kids don’t know anything different. They think cake and cookies are special occasion only (and someone coming to visit or going to someone’s house is not a special occasion, because that’s basically every weekend for us).
In fact, because Sara and I are being so conscious of this issue, we can’t help but notice how food-obsessed society in general is. I’m guessing it was always this way but I never noticed it until I had kids. However, because I’m trying so hard to protect my kids from it, it makes me very uncomfortable. Almost every minute of the day, we are surrounded by an avalanche of food and body image comments.
I’m not kidding. You probably have no idea how many of these fly by you a day. Pay attention some time and you’ll see. People talking about diets, about losing weight, about how many calories this or that is. When people see you they say, “Did you lose weight? You look good!” or they say, “Come on Shane, clean this up, there’s just a little left!” And I’m positively struck dumb when people come up to the kids right before dinner starts and say, “Guess what? After dinner we’re going to have cake and ice cream!” as if the kids will just be able to forget that and eat something wholesome first.
Everybody rails against “society” and the “bad body image” it puts out there, but I don’t think anybody realizes how much we’re all a part of that. It’s not Hollywood. It’s all of us, all of the time.
Each of our kids has their own food issue. As many of you are well aware, Evie is extremely picky and eats like a bird. Ollie is the photo-negative; he eats and eats until there is nothing left in sight, like a plague of locusts. These are their natural inclinations, and it is very difficult to not play into them. With Evie, food is very much about control, and for Ollie it’s not hard to imagine a lifetime of struggling with weight issues.
And yet, how many times has Sara or I repeated, “Evie won’t eat anything, but Ollie will eat everything!” Enough that Evie says it now too. How many times has someone commented at dinner, “Wow, Ollie really does eat everything!” or cajoles Evie by saying, “Is that all you’re going to eat? You’ve got to eat more than that!” How damaging is that to her, to hear how great her brother is because he eats so much? As if that makes him better somehow. How damaging is it to Ollie to be praised for overeating, rather than for stopping when he was full, like his sister?
Sara and I are some of the worst offenders as far as comments go. However, we’re pretty good at pointing it out to each other and trying to make an effort. Unfortunately, there’s just so much of it out there, that I worry even if we were perfect it wouldn’t be enough. And we’re certainly not perfect. Thank god the kids don’t watch tv, or we’d have the endless food and weight commercials to go with it.
I’ve struggled with my own weight issues, which is probably why I feel like I’m seeing into Ollie’s future. First off, I was always an obsessive plate cleaner, and portion control is something I don’t think I got the hang of until my 30’s. Even now I tend to clean everybody else’s leftovers like some kind of human garbage disposal. I also spent most of my life being very proud of my ability to eat, since it was something I was tremendously good at, and always won me a lot of praise. Even now, when I know in my head there are many things I would rather be known for, I still feel proud on some level when someone comments on how fast I ate something. What an awful thing to admit.
Please don’t try to force Evie to eat more. Please don’t praise Ollie for eating so much. And on a larger level, please try to be aware of how you talk about food, and how that subconsciously affects the world around you.