My daughter is not what you’d call a “good eater”. In fact, the year she turned two, I don’t think she ate much at all. The. Whole. Year. My parents would berate me about it every time we went over for dinner. And over the phone in between visits. Although my daughter was a chubby little infant with splendidly round cheeks, chunky thighs and pot belly due to the copious amounts of broccoli, brown rice, corn, pasta, soups, etc etc she was happy for me to shovel down her throat, by the time she was 2.5, she had become all bones, and rib cages, with long gangly legs. Splendidly round cheeks (to our delight), remained.
So what happened? I got this question a lot. By said grandparents. And friends. And strangers.
My answer often sounded like this:
“Ummm, she turned TWO.”
And to the question, “how long has this been going on?”
“Uh, about a year.”
The fact is, her less than impressive eating habits were causing me much anxiety about her health (although she rarely fell sick now that I think about it), my perceived view that she had sallow face and sunken eyes as a result of a lack of nutrition, and of course, my parenting, or lack thereof.
When she hit 3, her ‘attitude’ was steeled by her innate stubbornness of character combined with the courage to lash out with epic meltdowns every meal time. Meltdowns that consisted of kicking, screaming, and ultimately writhing on the floor like an eel topped off by a puddly mess of tears and wild hair.
And not exactly what a mother could deal with. Especially one who recently had another baby (why oh why!!!) who refused to accept that she had exited the womb and now had to exist separately from the being who owned the womb and therefore stubbornly insisted on being held by said being. All. The. Time.
Now, my eldest is bordering on age 4 and things have started to change. She eats her food. She eats EVERYTHING on the plate. Not without consternation of course. But at least she doesn’t merely LOOK at it and turn away. She eats the green lentil soup loaded with veggies. She eats the pizza. With the topping. She has become more courageous in trying what’s on her plate as opposed to down right rejecting it.
And it has given me an opportunity to reflect on why. On what we (my husband and I) actually did right for this transformation to occur. Because I have come to accept that maybe, just maybe, we did SOMETHING right.
So here goes:
We continued to offer her the vegetables. We didn’t stop giving her veggies just because we “knew” that she didn’t like it. I once read about how the French teach their children table manners, and one of the ideals that struck me was that they kept offering a child the same food over and over, because apparently, a child has to try something at least SEVEN times before they can decide whether they like it or not.
Giving your child the ‘easier’ but deep-fried, processed food because “at least they are eating something” might work for you in the short term, but it will set them up for bad eating habits, weight gain and behavioural issues.
I know the desperation a mother feels when their stubborn child refuses to eat the organic, steamed vegetables arranged as a spaceship on the child’s plate. Especially a mother who has not slept properly because of a little baby who is teething, with stacks of laundry, stumbling on food particles and toys that send shockwaves up the body, who has to make it to work and drop a child off at childcare.
I know. I have been there. I have felt the acute tiredness and restlessness and utter helplessness that a mother feels in those moments. To then have your child not eat the nutritious food that you spent hours preparing is basically the last straw. And you want to throw your hands up and say, “that’s it. I’m over it. HAVE THE DAMN CHIPS.”
But a lesson that I have faced over and over again in the past four years of my parenting career is perseverance. If there were ever a test of your character, of your selflessness, it is trying to raise a child. Because over and over again you have to make the choice between what is best for them, or what is easier for you now.
In those moments of sheer exhaustion and that sense that you are overcome by the mountain of your responsibilities, such that you actually lose part of your sanity, know that if you make the conscious decision to persevere and make the right choice, your child will be a better person, and so will you.
We have to fully understand that we have a responsibility over our children to protect them, nurture them, and raise them in the best possible manner. And what this means is that sometimes, we have to be the ‘bogeyman’. We have to be that figure of authority in our children’s lives that delivers truth to them. The truth of the cost of making bad food decisions. Because when they are teenagers, or adults, after a lifetime of making bad food choices, they will wonder why their parents did not teach them that this was wrong.
Of course we must discipline and raise our children with kindness, gentleness and love. But at the same time, we must be stern when we have to be.
We must be authoritative.
So many times over a battle at meal time did I hear relatives say to me, “just let her have the cake!”, “just let her eat what she wants!”, or “She’s just a child!”
And in those moments I felt the guilt, I felt that questioning voice of whether I was being too stern on my daughter. Questioning whether it would be easier to just let her do as she pleased, to eat what she wanted.
But you know what? I didn’t give in. Because as a parent, my ultimate concern is not what is easier for us now, but what will make a better person in the future.
The other day my husband took the girls grocery shopping.
When he got back my husband related this incident to me…
We were at the grocery store. The new one that I haven’t been to yet. I happened to wander into the confectionary aisle lined with chocolate and lollies. J (my eldest daughter) didn’t say a word until we had made it towards the middle of the aisle. She turned to me and said, “Baba, why are you in this aisle? Don’t you know that lollies and chocolate are bad for you?”
When he told me, I cried. Literally.
Perseverance paid off.
And believe me when I tell you dear fellow parent, that you are capable of persevering through those excruciatingly difficult moments when you are faced with a choice. A choice between allowing your child who has not even been in the world for five years and therefore knows nothing about it, to do as they please, or making the right choice for them because you are the adult, you know better, you want what is best for them, because YOU are the Parent.
What are some ways that you have navigated the dietary demands of your children?