It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Food, food, food

I love food.

I like cooking. I like eating. I love just about everything about food. I love the smells that fill my home as I cook, making it warm and welcoming. I love the bright colours of fruits and vegetables. I love the textures. (Well, except for the ones I hate, but texture! Important to food!) It appeals to all the senses, even as it nourishes, fuels, satiates and fills.

In my world, food is a Good Thing.

Which is why I am so dismayed to see food horribly, horribly abused in our culture. And I’m not talking here about poor quality food and edible non-food items, though I don’t think much of them.

I’m talking now about how we use food, and particularly how we use it with our children. I’ve spoken before about my experiment — now ranked as a success — in reducing the amount of snacking amongst the daycare kids. A few people had questions, based on some ubiquitous parenting wisdom. Toddlers have tiny tummies. They need to refuel more often, don’t they? And what about blood sugar? Don’t you get behavioural issues if they blood sugar dips?

My immediate answer is “I haven’t seen any of these problems in the 5 weeks we’ve been doing this.” However, much as I love the stuff, I am not a food expert, so I consulted with a couple of dietitians I know. Their response: 1. Yes, we do feed children too frequently. 2. If feeding schedules are consistent, children can learn to gauge how much to eat based on their awareness of the next food opportunity. 3. Toddlers have tiny tummies, but they also have tiny bodies. Their food needs are proportional, though you’ll likely need to make occasional temporary adjustments for growth spurts. 4. They weren’t aware off the top of their heads about studies suggesting snacking prevented behavioural outbursts due to low blood sugar. One of them did a quick search through a database and informed me that the studies which do address this issue focus on children with diabetes, not children with normal blood sugar regulation.

If breakfast includes a decent protein source, I was told, they can usually get to lunch. If breakfast is cereal and milk, toast and jam, a piece of fruit? There’s probably not enough protein in the splash of milk in their cereal to hold them, and the rest is pretty much all carbs. Quick energy, but not lasting energy. Kids who have a high-carb, low-protein breakfast will crash before lunch. So. Put peanut butter on that toast. Fry up an egg. Put ground almonds on the cereal. Give them firm tofu cut into fingers to dip in some yogurt. Give them an ounce of cheese. That punch of protein can make all the difference.

So that’s the input from the professionals.

But mostly? Everywhere I go, I see, snacking is used as a distractor and a bribe. A child is teetering on the brink of an outburst, getting to the point where they’re going to need some firm and focussed parental attention to move them past the rising likelihood of bad behaviour … and we hand them a container of Cheerios. “His blood sugar’s crashing,” we say.

And I wonder. Is it?

There are many things that affect a toddler’s behaviour. Sleep is a huge one. Get enough sleep into them, and their behaviour is exponentially better. Boredom. If they’re bored, they get fractious. Impatience. They hate having to wait for anything, at any time. Illness. Teething. Physical discomfort — they’re too hot, too cold, itchy. Their age. The fact that they’re two just means a certain baselines contrariness. And yes, sometimes hunger. Their behaviour does deteriorate when they’re hungry. But they are not hungry nearly as often as we feed them.

Feeding is used to distract.
To appease.
To divert.
To comfort.
To reward.
To praise.
To soothe.

I would argue that it is used for those things more often than it is used to actually nourish a body or satiate a hunger.

He’s cranky?
Feed him.
She’s doesn’t want to wait in line at the bank?
Feed her.
The siblings are squabbling?
Feed them.
You want to talk on the phone for five more minutes?
Feed them.

What are you using food for in those instances? It’s a sedative. A quick fix for an inconvenient situation. There are other fixes: a special toy that’s only used for these occasions. Crayons. Little cars. Sticker books. Sing a song. Play a clapping game. Or simply a level glance and a firm, “I know you’re bored, but you can wait quietly for another five minutes.”

Did I do any of those food-inappropriate things when my children were little? Of course I did. I did it without even thinking about it. In fact, packing that well-stocked diaper bag with the Cheerios and the apple slices made me feel not just prepared, but competent — a better parent! That, however, was 20 years ago. I’ve been tending toddlers for a long, long time, and have had more time to think about these things than most people ever get (or want to!). These days, I don’t pack snacks at all. Water bottles, yes (and for the littles, milk bottles). Snacks? No. With five children.

Now, when you go out, and you pack snacks, I’m not suggesting you kill yourself with guilt over it. No one achieves parental perfection every moment of every day, and somehow, children all over the globe live to grow into healthy, happy, functional adults despite having suffered fallible parents. Popping food into your kid for some reason other than nutrition every so often is not going to damage them. Once in a while, no harm done.

But. As a daily event? Even several times a day? It sets the child up for a bad relationship with food. Where food isn’t enjoyed for its wonderful satiating quality. It isn’t enjoyed because it looks, smells, and tastes sooooo good, even as it nourishes and fills. No. Food is consumed, mindlessly, because I’m bored, sad, tired, discouraged… or happy, content, proud of myself. Food becomes associated with activities that don’t need to have anything to do with eating: watching television, reading, sitting in the car, travelling, walking…

Food becomes quite detached from its primary purpose: nourishment. We need to stop doing this. We need to stop using food as a drug, and start savouring it as food.

Feed your children less often.
Enjoy your food more.

February 27, 2013 Posted by | controversy, food, health and safety, parenting | , , | 9 Comments