It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Food, Meals, Food Culture

It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down to eat with the daycare children.

Well, a long time until two weeks ago. For the past two weeks, I’ve sat down every day. Eaten with them, corrected manners, modelled my own, chatted about the day’s events and Important Things in their small lives. Now, it wasn’t that I was ignoring them before. I did a lot of this even when I wasn’t eating with them. But, though I’d started off eating with the daycare tots, years ago when I began a home daycare, I had drifted out of the habit.

Gradually, I started doing chores as they sat around the table. Chores that I could do while supervising them, in a fairly casual, in-and-out-of-the-room sort of way. I’d start the dishes. I’d sweep the dining room floor. I’d get out the craft supplies (many of which are stored in a cupboard in the kitchen) for the afternoon activity. I could refill bowls as required, wipe spills, help a wee one load peas into a spoon … but I wasn’t sharing their meal.

Why the change? I’ve been reading Jeannie Marshall‘s “Outside the Box“, a book about food culture. She was in Ottawa not too long ago, and I recommended to my parents that they go hear her speak. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go, but one of my Lovely Clients bought the book for me! (I am so lucky. Yes, I know it.) I’ve been reading it slowly, rather than my usual break-neck speed, so that I can absorb the ideas. The ideas in the book include the difference between “food” and “food products”, something I’m familiar with from Michael Pollan‘s excellent “In Defense of Food“, and, come to that, from my very own mother.

(Was it from her I first heard, “If I can’t pronounce the ingredients, I don’t want to eat them?” It may have been. She was — and remains — far from a health nut. Back then, she was a pack-a-day smoker, though she quit many years ago now. Her favourite treat was crunchy pork rinds (remember those? packaged like potato chips? god knows what was in them) but she knew, we all knew, they were damned unhealthy. For eating once in a while, not for every day. Vegetables, fruit, protein, grains — those were for everyday.)

So I’m familiar with the ‘food/food product’ distinction, and (not to put indulge in any false modesty here) I do a kick-ass job of providing food, real food, to the daycare. These tykes essentially never get food products when at my home. Essentially no packaged foods, no ready-made stuff, very little fake-food-masquerading-as-healthy, like storebought granola bars. We made our own cheese crackers last week. (NOM!)

I cook with the children, but I admit that until a couple of weeks ago, that was pretty much limited to muffins and cookies (read: treats). Crackers are still borderline treats, but at least they’re not sweet! I’ve brought chopping board and a heap of vegetables to the dining room table (so they could sit around and watch) to make a big batch of gazpacho. We talked about the vegetables, they nibbled bits of this and that, they smelled the garlic and the onion, and cheered when I slammed the garlic to get the skin off. And when it was done? They were falling all over themselves to have a taste.

But still, I didn’t eat with them. And the more I read Marshall’s book, the more I realized how critical that is to instilling in children the idea of how to deal with food. I was good at providing healthy, real food, and getting them to eat it, but I wasn’t putting it in context.

A quote from my then 11-year-old daughter springs to mind, something she said during her first term in school, having been homeschooled to that point: “It’s like they [the other kids] see learning as some sort of bad-tasting medicine. It’s good for them, but they don’t have to like it.” Was I giving the same sort of message to the tots, regarding food?

So I’ve been sitting down and eating with them, and (another idea from Marshall) not hurrying them through the meal. A meal is not a hiccup in our day, something to be rushed through so we can get on to our next Important Learning Activity (or, I wryly confess, naptime, blessed, blessed naptime). No, a meal is an important activity. It’s not just a nutritional pit stop, a filling of the gas tank as quickly as possible so you can roar back into the race of life.

It’s nice, you know? Our lunches now take close to half an hour, instead of ten or twelve minutes. They don’t eat any more than they ever did. They just spend more time chatting. And — wahoo! — less time pouting about what might be in their bowls. (Well, except Jazz. Jazz is just not a food-oriented kid, and this is not a miracle cure. But who knows what the results of relaxed, social meals will be, even for food-indifferent Jazz, long-term?)

Last week, they tried roasted asparagus and mushrooms (even Jazz!), because I was sitting at the table, eating with them. We’re having fun, we’re enjoying our food and each other’s company.

And I haven’t even finished the book yet! Who knows what we’ll discover next??

June 7, 2012 Posted by | books, food, health and safety | , , , , , | 4 Comments