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

No-Snacking Check-in

A few of you have asked how it’s going since we quit morning snacking in the daycare.

In a word: Terrific!

There was an adjustment period for Rosie, at 17 months the smallest both in age and physically. Promptly at 10, our former snack-time, she would run to her high chair and bang on it. When that got no response, she’d wallop the fridge. (Not a lot of words for our Rosie just yet, but she communicates just fine, thanks!)

Was this genuine hunger, though, or just habit? Even if it was hunger, was it mild, so she could wait till lunch, or severe enough that I should feed her? I wasn’t sure how the non-snacking would go with the under-twos, after all. I was willing to bend on this one for them.

Yes, this would mean different expectations for different groups of toddlers, but we already have that, don’t we? The Big Kids use the toilet upstairs. The Middles use the potty in the living room. The Babies are in diapers. Big Kids don’t have to hold on to the stroller when we walk, Middles do, and Babies ride. Big Kids put on their own snowsuits; Middles need more help, and I put the Babies snowsuits on them. There are lots and lots of these types of distinctions in a day. I wasn’t worried about perceived injustice. Which is not to say a three-year-old might not see injustice, of course, but I was quite prepared to defend the difference in just those terms: “She’s a baby. You’re big.” And, secure in my role at The Boss At Mary’s House, I didn’t worry about a whole lot of back talk, and tantrums? Don’t happen here. (Well, with very, very rare exceptions.)

Still, I wanted to know if this was just habit. My compromise was to give her one of her sippy cups of milk at the prior snack-time. Rosie is quite the milk baby. Left to her own devices, I’m sure that her diet would still be 90% milk. (The remainder being comprised of crackers and pasta, natch.) Her parents and I have talked about her minimal ingestion of solid foods, but they were not quite ready yet to reduce her milk intake. So. Milk at 10:00, and water with lunch at 11:30.

It worked like a charm. She’d suck that milk back in two minutes, and then be on to the next thing. The added bonus? With milk separated from meal by an hour and a half, and only water in her sippy cup, she was eating more.

On the second week, she had stopped asking for milk. (How does mostly non-verbal Rosie ‘ask’ for milk? She runs over to her backpack, hanging from its hook in my front hall, and pounds the wall beneath it, yelling “MUH! MUH!” Crude, but effective.) No more running and pounding and yelling. Just play.

What to do about that milk? I now give it to her after lunch, during the snuggle-and-story time that precedes nap. Perfect! Added bonus: she doesn’t always finish her milk. This has been the nudge she’s needed to make the mental transition to viewing solids are her ‘real’ food.

Grace, who has been going through a major growth spurt (2 cm between Christmas and Jan 25), was also asking with more than normal intensity after snacks. She, however, being three and a half, could understand my explanation. She’d have a drink (of water) at ten, and then a good, solid lunch. Either she’s accustomed to the new pattern, or the growth spurt has tapered off — likely both — but after three weeks she was no longer mooching for food mid-morning, either.

I know I had parental buy-in from her parents, even with the growth spurt factored in, because when I explained it, mom’s response was, “Great! She’ll be nice and hungry for dinner!” Which got me thinking: “nice and hungry” is an expression I heard routinely from my parents, and from the parents of my friends, when I was a child. But it seems to me that these days, you don’t hear that very much at all. Instead, you see parents scrambling for the crackers. Hmmm…

Another bit of parental feed-back came in last week. I thought I’d told all the parents of the change in eating patterns, but it seemed one had missed it. (Probably I told dad in the morning, and he forgot to relay it to mom.)

Mom asks me at the door: “How’s Jazz’s eating here? Because she’s eating WAY more at home, and with WAY less fuss.”

HA! An unaware subject validates the experiment! Or at least, confirms that the results extend beyond my home. Woo!

So I explain the new no-morning-snack regime, and mom is very impressed. “Excellent! We are absolutely going to do that at home!”

It’s been four weeks now, and I declare the experiment a success. It is no longer an experiment, it is simply How It Is. Children in my home will get a three-course lunch, and then a light, healthy, sit-down late-afternoon snack. That’s it, that’s all.

Love it.

February 12, 2013 Posted by | food, Grace, Rosie | , , | 8 Comments

Snacking: When, Where … and why so much?

How often do your kids snack?

Increasingly, I am coming to the opinion the answer to that question is almost certainly “too often”.

Kids snack a lot these days. A lot. More than I did when I was a kid, I’m sure of that. Why? Are kids hungrier than before? Has the essential physiology of the human body changed so much in a generation or two? Of course not.

Kids eat all the time, and everywhere. In the stroller, in the car, before daycare or school and after it, before bed. We take snacks to soccer games and kindergym — so that kids who’ve burned off 200 calories running can quick! ingest 300 more!! We don’t even consider leaving the home without food. Has it struck anyone but me that this is a bit excessive?

Why do you give your kids snacks?

For all sorts of reasons, I’ll bet. I’ll further bet that many of those reasons have nothing whatsoever to do with hunger. We feed our kids to bribe them, to motivate them, to appease them, to distract, soothe, quiet, coax. That container of food in the diaper bag is our security blanket. If they get fractious, we can pop something in their mouths and fend off the meltdown for a few more minutes. I’m not saying we must never do that. I am suggesting, however, it should be the aberration, not the norm. We should have enough tricks in our parenting arsenal, including the firm look and equally firm “That is enough. We’ll be going home soon”, that we are not stuffing food into their ever-willing mouths five, six, ten times a day.

In fact, though our children, when requesting a snack, will declare themselves to be STARVING!!!, I’d go so far as to say that most North American children never really experience hunger. They may get peckish from time to time, sure. And most assuredly, they are conditioned to expect food at certain times (in the stroller, in the car), and that association has them wanting food. “Wanting food”, however, is far from the same thing as “being hungry”.

It would be a tremendous thing, so good for their long-term health, if we could teach our children the difference between those two things.


And what do you feed your kids, when they do snack?

Most toddlers get an astonishing amount of simple carbs in a day. Simple carbs are not bad in and of themselves. We need a certain percentage in our diet. But, variety! We also need variety! A day spent tanking up on Saltines, goldfish crackers and Cheerios, followed by a dinner based primarily on pasta, is not variety.

I believe that infants who are strictly milk-fed should be fed on demand. They know when they are hungry.

But you know … I fed my kids on demand, and in those earliest weeks and months ‘demand’ varied from every hour some days to every three or four. However, when I was nursing, the term “cluster feeding” had not hit the popular psyche. Some days your baby had a “hungry day”, sure, but the idea that a child could nurse, relax, then feed again in twenty minutes, then again twenty minutes after the end of that feeding … and again, and again?

Well, okay, some days that might happen, but it wasn’t considered normal. It was an aberration that you tried to work out of their little systems. You’d take them for a ride in the stroller, give them a soother (after the first six weeks or so, when breast-feeding, if that was your choice, is well established), put them in a baby swing, swaddle them tight and put them down for a nap on that tummy you KNOW was full. By popularizing the term ‘cluster feed’, I fear that we’ve put yet another burden on young mothers, that they can never say, “Oh, no, you little fuss-budget. You are not hungry so soon!”

But for the most part, demand feeding in those first six to eight months, with a gradual weaning into solid in the second half of that first year.

And by a year, they should be eating everything you’re eating, pretty much. Cut in smaller pieces, steamed a little softer, sure, but everything you eat.

Once they were two years old, my own children got about one snack a day. You read that right. One. We’d have breakfast, we’d have lunch, we’d have an afternoon snack, we’d have dinner. Now, this is not to say that in the proud tradition of North American parenting, I didn’t keep an emergency stash of Cheerios in the diaper bag for those occasions I’d be stuck in the line at the bank as naptime approached. Sure I did. But they were truly used for emergencies. That half-cup container of Cheerios might need to be refilled every couple of months.

But somehow, when I started a daycare, I fell into the pattern of more. We snack at 10 in the morning, we have lunch at 11:45, we snack around 3 or 3:30, depending on when naps were over. So between breakfast and dinner, they’ve eaten three times, and their parents know this … and yet, they were having snacks in the car or stroller on the way home! This just blew me away. Why am I feeding afternoon snack, when they’re only going to eat again an hour later? And then they have dinner. Some of them get bedtime snacks, too. And of course, this is normal. My clients are not aberrations, they are just parenting as North Americans parent. It’s what we do.

And just try suggesting to parents (I’m talking societally here, not dissing my parents) that kids don’t need to snack so much. While mulling over this post, I stumbled across a thread in a parenting forum where a young mother asked if snacking in the car was strictly necessary. She didn’t want the mess, and surely it was reasonable to think that kids could wait a bit?

In the four pages of responses I scanned, I found only two people who supported this idea. Those two exceptions aside, Every.Single.Parent responding said things like “Kids eat constantly! Get used to it!” Some were more polite, some less so, but that was the overwhelming message.

But you know? I just don’t think constant snacking is necessary. I don’t even think it’s desirable. We are teaching our children that hunger is a bad, bad thing, to be avoided at all costs, by eating incessantly. We are teaching our children to eat for all sorts of non-hunger, non-nourishment reasons. If they never experience hunger, they will never know when they need to eat. They will be eating provoked by cues of association, not physical need.

What’s our big fear about being out of the house without food? I suspect it’s not so much that the children will be hungry, as it is that the children will misbehave and we won’t have our quick-and-easy distraction. Is the child addicted to the steady stream of food, or are we addicted to the small bit of security that container of Cheerios provides? Could it be we are afraid to be out in the big world with our toddler without our edible safety net?

But even if it is our child’s hunger …

What of it? Is it so very bad that a child should feel hunger? Hunger is what lets us know we’re ready to eat. Hunger does not mean I MUST EAT! INSTANTLY!!! Surely there’s something to be said for pleasurable anticipation of a good thing to come?

So, just because I feel the whole constant-snacking thing has gotten so out of whack, I’ve been running an experiment recently. I’m skipping morning snack (which was almost always fruit; once a week it was muffins), and tacking it to the end of lunch as ‘dessert’. I’ve been skipping afternoon snack altogether, because I know they’re all going to eat on the way home, anyway. So really, I’m having these kids eat the way I ate at their age. I’m going retro with food.

It’s stretching parental comfort zones to suggest that kids be allowed to get hungry, I know. So what do I do when the kids tell me they’re hungry? Which, being accustomed to a 10 a.m. snack, they do?

I tell them what we’re having for lunch. Cheerfully. Which is, now that I think about it, exactly what my mother did: “You’re hungry? That’s great! Then you’ll really enjoy the yummy eggplant lasagna I made for lunch!” Or commiserate: “Yes, I’m getting hungry, too. Won’t that lasagna taste great??” The message being it’s okay to feel hunger. It’s okay to savour the next meal with cheerful anticipation. And then, before they get stuck and whiny, I move them on to the next activity.

The results?

— There has been no enormous uptick in bad behaviour. There has been no change in behaviour at all. This includes the two 17-month-olds, which I hadn’t necessarily expected.
— They are eating more at lunch.
— Jazz, our chronically picky eater, is eating. No fuss, just eating. Sometimes multiple helpings. (I am 110% convinced there would be far fewer picky eaters in North America if children were ever allowed to feel hungry.)
— They are not necessarily eating their ‘dessert’ (formerly their morning snack), because they are filling up on lunch.
— This may be a total coincidence, but the two younger ones have been napping longer.

I’m going to give it another couple of weeks, and then, if nothing changes, I’m calling it a success. Cool.

January 29, 2013 Posted by | controversy, food, health and safety, parenting | , | 29 Comments