Friday, September 14, 2007

Winning The Battle

I promise- I will get to that orange cake today, and if I don't get around to posting it today- it will be posted tomorrow. But today a comment in my Lunch Lady post sparked a reminder that I wanted to post about my kids today. Lia from the amazing blog Swirling Notions reminded me that I am winning the food battle with my kids and I thought it important to post about it, to encourage other parents out there who may be ready to give up on the battle altogether.

Sometime over the summer there was a shift. I can't pinpoint exactly what it was and when it was, but one day over dinner, I noticed that Abigail was eating everything on her plate. Not necessarily all of the food- but a little bit of everything. Sampling it all and enjoying what she really liked, but still eating some of what she didn't care so much for. And just the other day, I reheated some Navy Bean Soup and she inhaled it. And then I looked over at Zander, who complained about the beans in the soup, but watched his sister. And while he may have picked a lot of the beans off his spoon, he still ate the broth, ham, and other vegetables with gusto. Just last night we had Chili and prior introductions to Zander have resulted in PB&J to him. Last night he picked out the beans and went to town. Abigail requested chili for her lunch today.

Why is this? Well, I can't say for sure, but I really think the key here is both persistence and flexibility. How is it that both go hand in hand? I've been persistent in my food offerings. When Abigail was four we instituted the two-bite rule- that everything on her plate needed at least two bites. Over time we were able to distinguish what she really despises from stuff that just isn't her favorite. She despises Brussels sprouts, and I'll no longer even serve them to her. She doesn't care so much for scalloped potatoes, but she'll eat them anyways. Just when I think it's time to give up and pull out the chicken nuggets, she will surprise me and eat fried fish and swordfish. By being persistent in offering nutritious food, I am winning the food battle.

The other key is flexibility. I have never, ever, made food an issue. Even when Abigail was a toddler, if she didn't want to eat it, she didn't have to. While I may have strongly encouraged her to try something new, ultimately it came down to her choice. Her decision whether or not to put something into her mouth. In order to expand your child's eating repertoire, it must be their decision to eat it. If she didn't eat dinner and was still hungry, I always offered a bowl of cereal or a PB&J. I truly believe that one of the single worst things a parent can do to a child is force them to eat something they don't want to. Honestly- that one bite of broccoli is not going to make a difference in the grand scheme of things. If you're genuinely worried about their nutrition- that's what vitamins and your pediatrician are for. My children determine when they are full. With Zander we still double check, and occasionally he will go back for another bite or two, but when Abigail says she's full, regardless of what's on her plate, I believe her.

Abigail just turned seven years old, and I can honestly say that we've won the food battle with her. She's open to trying new things, and also understands nutrition and what is good for her. Yes, she still likes pizza and chicken nuggets and french fries, but come on here- who really doesn't like an occasional slice of pizza? Zander is three-and-a-half, and I can't tell you how beneficial it is to have an older sister to model after. Sometimes I think he is more open to trying new things than his sister is. When he was old enough to understand (probably a year ago) we instituted the one-bite rule for him, just to open him up to new ideas. Now that he's older we've upped the bites to two. He's still got a long list of things he doesn't care for- potatoes, dried/canned beans, sweet potatoes to name a few, but we're working on it. He recently discovered that he actually does like mashed potatoes if it has melted butter on it, but I need to remind him of that every time.

This post is getting long, but I do think it's important, and I see firsthand with my eyes how it actually does work. I remember when Abigail was a toddler getting so discouraged when she would eat so little, but I am here today to say that it truly is okay for your toddler to walk away from an unfinished plate. Children will not starve themselves. When your child comes up to you an hour later and tells you that they're hungry- that's an opportunity for you. An opportunity to explain how eating a good dinner is important, and then you offer them a bowl of cereal or an apple instead of the cookie they were eyeing up. And yes, you're going to have to have that conversation a hundred times- but it's so worth it! I also remember when Abigail was a baby reading that sometimes new foods needed to be introduced to a child at least ten times before they would even try them. It may have taken seven years, but now my daughter will eat a salad that has lettuce other than iceberg in it. Beet greens being one of her favorites!

One other issue that I think I need to address. I know I've been guilty of it myself from time to time, but one thing that I've tried really hard to stay away from is rewarding my child for eating well. You know what I speak of- the "if you eat four more bites of beans you can have dessert" routine. I confess that line does come out from time to time. But the reward for eating a good and healthy dinner should not be junk food. Yes, dessert from time to time, but even Zander understands that when he eats healthy food it helps him grow big and strong. He will ask for a glass of milk, drink a portion of it and then come to me to measure his muscles. Then he'll dash back to his cup, drink some more, and then measure his muscles again. By the time he's finished his milk, he's convinced that he's much stronger than he was before. In our house, dessert is a part of the meal. Even if they don't eat much at all for dinner, they are still offered a slice of pie or a piece of cake. I think it's building a solid foundation that food is not a reward system- that sweets can be a part of a healthy diet from time to time.

What else can I say. It works. It's paying off- as I watched my son polish off his meatloaf the other night, I knew I was doing something right. Or when we walk through the grocery store and the kids are begging for fruit and vegetables instead of candy. When my children choose Lo Mein noodles laden with vegetables over a chicken nugget happy meal I know I'm doing something right, and I can only look forward to the days ahead when we can truly do some food exploration together as a family.


Tammy said...

I so agree with you Erika. I despise the idea of people telling a child to "clean their plate so they can have dessert". The main reason is that a child will push themself to eat that food because they want that cookie or cake so badly. Ultimately, the child probably overate just to get that dessert. I think that teaches very poor eating habits. Of course, I know everyone has their own way of doing things and I'm not judging what others may choose to do, it's just not something I can do and feel good about. Like you, I've always offered foods to my kids and encourage and sometimes insisted that they take a bite. My kids are picky about some things, who isn't...but they eat sushi, fish, shrimp, asparagus, brussel sprouts, broccoli, carrots and the list goes on. My oldest does not eat any type of fruit though. I don't push it, she eats more than her share of veggies. And she will drink orange juice(no sugar added)so I feel I have no reason for complaints.
This post sounded so much like a day in our life. My oldest literally begs for asparagus and brussel sprouts(they must be roasted though)and seldom asks for cookies or candy. When she does, she may take a bite or two and she's finished with it. On the other hand, she'll polish off a couple of servings of veggies. must be doing something right so keep it up!

Erika W. said...

wow! I can't wait until my kids are begging for brussels sprouts and asparagus!

There are still a few carrots in the garden, and yesterday Abigail decided she was hungry, so she went and pulled one and was beyond happy to munch away on a freshly pulled carrot. I love that!

swirlingnotions said...

Hey Erika. First off, thank you for the kudos (and the link) up there!

Second, what an awesome post. It is so great to hear the ins and outs and ups and downs of you setting a healthy food foundation for your kids. It's so inspiring, and so good to see that it's not a one-time "eat your broccoli" deal, it's a consistent way of approaching food.

I had an experience with friends of ours in town this weekend with their 8 year old daughter. They've been very lax with her eating habits--raising her on mac n cheese and hotdogs, doing the 'dessert reward' thing, letting her snack incessantly on sweets, etc.--and it's not pretty the way it's playing out now that she's older. She and Noe sat next to each other at the table and Noe was devouring wedge after wedge of tomato and pasta with spinach. Our friend's daughter wouldn't touch any of it (yuck!). Part of it, though, I think is in the attitude that her mom is imparting to her. At one point, our friend held up a loaf of peasant bread with olives in it--which she was sure her daughter wouldn't like--and said, "you don't want any of this, do you?" And this just after she told me that she was afraid that she didn't expose her daughter to enough foods when she was younger.

I noticed that I put just as much love and care into making Noe's meals (at 10 months old) as I do our own--sauteeing or roasting veggies in healthy olive oil so they taste better than bland steamed ones, for instance--and serve them to her with enthusiasm. Our friend grabbed for the easiest "solution" available ("just stick the broccoli in the microwave" . . . I say YUCK to that!), and I think those two attitudes really showed in our children's different levels of interest in food.

Anyway, now I'm babbling and it's not even my post ;-). Thanks again Erika . . . looking forward to supporting and encouraging each other in this!

PS . . . about the orange cake. I have a really good recipe (with tofu, if you can believe it!) that I wrote for Prevention here if you want to give it a try. Enjoy!

Erika W. said...

Lia, you've already got what sounds like a very adventurous eater there! Even though it's a labor to feed our families, it's a labor of love. I love, love, love, discovering a new "acceptable" food. And as each year passes with my kids, there are far more successes than failures.

Oh, and thanks for the cake link! I'm completely intrigued with the tofu in it. That makes it healthy! ;-)