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.
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.