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Food Fight

Yesterday at the park I struck up a conversation with a grandmother who’s visiting from Argentina to help her daughter, who just had her second child.  The older sibling, a little girl named Carla, is only 15 months old.  Carla’s grandmother told me that the little girl’s world has been turned upside-down with the baby’s birth, and for the past week she has refused to eat anything except fruit.

Every couple of minutes, the grandmother would interrupt our conversation to walk across the playground and shove a blueberry into Carla’s mouth.  She told me how worried they all were, because prior to the baby’s arrival Carla had been a good eater.  I told her that food is one of the few things over which children have control (bowel movements being another, to a certain extent).  When they feel their world has become unpredictable, they try to gain a semblance of control by using the only means at their disposal.   Carla is a bright and perceptive little girl, so she understands that her food intake is of great interest to the adults around her.

From my experiences as a teacher, I know that food is a hot-button issue among parents.  Most of the calls I received after school were from parents complaining that I didn’t make their children finish their vegetables!   Several times I saw one desperate mother strap her child into the car seat after school and then force-feed him the remainder of his lunch… Scenes like these hurt my heart, because I understand that the parents have the best intentions but also know that they’re making matters worse and setting up their child for a lifelong dysfunctional relationship with food.

I loved this article on helping your child establish a healthy relationship with food from the beginning.  Everything it says is spot-on and following this advice will help prevent or heal food-related issues.  The article also reminded me of a story from my childhood, which I want to re-post from my old blog as an example that a child’s relationship with food will change when your approach to mealtimes does, too.

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When I was three years old, my family moved to a small condominium complex in Mexico City.  Our next-door neighbors, a registered nurse and her husband (a doctor), also had two young children.  The girl, Lorena, was my age, and we quickly became close friends.

Lorena was a pale and skinny little thing who was afraid of everything (including her over-bearing mother).  She would categorically refuse to eat anything except canned tuna fish.  Her mom would sit with her at the dinner table for hours, forcing her to gulp down cream of spinach or some other healthy food.  After hours of fighting (several times she even tied her down in desperation), her mom would break down and open a can of tuna.

Apart from the eating issue, Lorena suffered from a slew of “ailments”, including allergies to cats and mysterious rashes.  She took medicine constantly and was regularly covered in ointment to heal her hives.

When I turned five, my family and I moved to the countryside near San Diego.   My parents bought a beautiful hilltop  house with a swimming pool and two acres of open land.  The first summer we were there, my mom called Lorena’s mom and, after much negotiating, arranged for the little girl to travel with some relatives to San Diego so she could visit us for two months.

When Lorena arrived, she brought a small suitcase with her clothes, and a larger one filled with medication, ointments, and cans of tuna fish.  A letter from her mom stated: “Lorena is a very picky eater, and frankly it’s a struggle to get her to eat.  When you get tired of fighting with her, feel free to open a can of tuna since it’s the only thing she likes.”

My mom took one look at the quivering little girl, stashed the medications and tuna fish in the closet, and announced that it was lunch time.

“What’s for lunch?” my brother and I eagerly asked.

“Turkey sandwiches and carrot salad,” answered my mom.

“I don’t like turkey and I don’t eat carrots,” said Lorena.

“OK, then don’t eat,” replied my mom calmly.

“Can we eat her food?” we asked, ravenous after playing outside all morning.

“No, that’s Lorena’s food.  She’ll eat it when she’s ready,” answered my mom.

“I’m not going to eat,” replied the defiant five-year old, pushing her plate back and crossing her arms in front of her.  “I want tuna fish.”

“There’s no tuna fish,” said my mom patiently.  “There’s turkey sandwiches with carrot salad.”

My brother and I wolfed down our food, and when we were done, we grabbed Lorena’s hand and ran outside to play in the pool.  My mom put Lorena’s untouched food away and picked up the phone to arrange for swimming lessons, because five-year old Lorena didn’t know how to swim.

That evening, after chasing frogs, riding tricycles, and going down the water slide for five hours, we were called inside for dinner.

“I don’t want to eat any of that,” said Lorena upon eying the chicken, potatoes and vegetables my mom had prepared.

“Well,” answered my mom calmly,  “This is what’s for dinner.”

Lorena sat pouting with her arms crossed while my brother and I inhaled our portions and asked for seconds.

The next morning, we woke up to scrambled eggs and refried beans.

“I don’t like eggs or beans,” grumbled Lorena.

“Well, it’s what’s for breakfast,” answered my mom, while my brother and I piled our plates high.

To make a long story short, Lorena went on a two-day hunger strike.

On the third day, my mom served Lorena her usual portion of whatever was on the menu, and Lorena ate.  And ate.  And ate.

She ate vegetables, chicken, meat, potatoes, rice, eggs, milk, fish, fruit, and everything else my mother served her from then on.

Over her two month stay, the frail weakling of a child gained 10 pounds, achieved a healthy sun-kissed glow, and learned to swim.  Her allergies never manifested themselves (even though we had two cats) and she didn’t have a single rash during her entire eight-week stay.

Towards the end of the visit, my mom arranged for Lorena’s mom to spend a week with us in San Diego before flying back with her daughter.  When Lorena found out her mom would be arriving the next day, she broke into a rash and pooped in the pool.

And she refused to eat anything other than tuna fish for the rest of the stay.

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Montessori Mealtimes

I come from a Hispanic culture, where mealtimes are sacred.  As children, we were expected to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner sitting down at the table.  We were also expected to remain seated throughout the meal, have appropriate table manners, and join in or at least listen to the conversation.  Weekend meals at home and in restaurants were three-hour affairs, especially as my brother and I got older and could partake in adult discussions about politics and current events.

Those times around the table were the happiest moments of my childhood.  I felt accepted, respected, and part of a unit.  I learned to debate my viewpoint and accept counter-arguments.  I discovered that food wasn’t just sustenance; it embodied culture, heritage, family history, art, science, pleasure and yes, even some pain.  Mealtimes taught me discipline, respect for my elders, pride in my cultural heritage, and the joy of service. 

I want the same experiences for our child, and I know that to get there I have to start now.  I want Zach to understand that mealtime is a pleasurable moment of the day where one can relax, converse, and savor food.  I also want him to understand that there are certain expectations during mealtime: he should remain seated until everyone has finished; he shouldn’t play with his food; he should try at least two bites of everything; and he should join in the conversation or listen attentively.  To parents whose children get up and run around the dining room, play with their food, eat only chicken nuggets, or demand to watch TV during mealtimes, these expectations might seem a bit unreasonable.  I feel that they are achievable – and important – goals that any child can reach with the right preparation.

When Zach was younger and started eating solids, I would prepare his meal while he played on the floor and would bring him to the table when everything was ready.  Little by little, I’ve set up a mealtime routine that emphasizes the qualities I want to help him develop.  I always announce mealtime to him, place him in his Tripp-Trapp at the dining room table, and give him a toy so he can entertain himself while I warm up his meal.  When I first started doing this about 4 weeks ago, he would throw a fit from the moment I sat him down to the moment the first bite of food made it into his mouth.  As a very hungry five-month old, he did not understand the concept of waiting.  I persevered, letting him watch from the table as I prepared his food, telling him what I was doing each step of the way, and assuring him that his food would be ready soon.  This morning, I was amazed to see how much patience he has developed in just a few short weeks!  He no longer cries while he waits, and instead watches me as I move around the kitchen and plays quietly.  If you want to teach a child how to wait, the best way to do it is to give him opportunities to wait! 

I also want him to understand that we don’t get up from the table during mealtimes.  To model this behavior for him, I had to make sure I had everything necessary for his meal.  After a couple of weeks of kicking myself every time I realized that I had forgotten something in the kitchen, I decided to buy a tray. Problem solved!  Now, while his food is steaming, I prepare his glass bowls, cloth napkin, cleaning towel, spoon, glass, water pitcher, and fruit compote.  When his food is ready, I place it on the tray and bring everything to the table.  It’s such a relief to know that I have everything I need in one place! 

Right now Zach can’t leave the table until I take him out of his chair, but we chose his Tripp-Trapp precisely because it will give him the freedom to climb into and out of his chair when he starts walking.  I want Zach to develop the necessary discipline so that he can remain at the dinner table of his own accord,and this starts by modeling.  (If you think it isn’t possible for a toddler to sit for meals, I invite you to visit a Montessori Infant Community, where children as young as 15 months sit together for 20-30 minutes, enjoy their meal quietly and respectfully, and then clean up on their own).

While Zach eats, I talk with him.  I must admit that having one-sided conversations takes some imagination!  I tell him what he’s eating, ask him if he’s enjoying it, and discuss either what we’re going to do that day or what we did during the day.  I don’t ramble on during the entire meal, because it’s also important to let him focus on the act of eating and allow him to explore the flavors and textures of his food.  I make sure we establish eye contact while we talk, and I respond to his babbling with smiles and verbal acknowledgment.

During mealtimes, I make it a point not to answer the phone or check my e-mail and I expect my husband to do the same when he joins us for dinner.  Sometimes I have to put off eating dinner until Zach is done because I can’t juggle eating and feeding him at the same time, but at least we are all sitting together and Zach and his dad are enjoying each other’s company at the dinner table.

Montessori teachers are often reminded to “teach by teaching, not by correcting”.  This means that you should model appropriate behavior, set reasonable expectations, and prepare the environment so that you and your child are successful.  By so doing, you avoid having to nag, threaten, and punish.  It takes a bit of planning and discipline, but the results are worthwhile and extend to other areas of the child’s life!