There are many issues around raising a child that I still have to figure out but feeding is among the things that are crystal-clear to me. I know from sad personal experience that it is not a good thing to develop a deeply emotional relationship with food. There are too many people (especially in this overfed culture) who have an extremely unhealthy body image and a truly diseased relationship with food, and I want to spare my child this suffering.
So my philosophy of feeding is: let the the kid eat whatever, whenever, and however s/he wants. If s/he wants to eat once a day while hanging from the chandelier, yip-dee-doo! Small children by definition have the healthiest approach to food possible. If you don’t believe me, try to remember the last time you saw a toddler obsessed with losing weight in order to look like another toddler on TV and fretting that s/he has gained another pound. Also, try to think of a two-year-old’s body image and compare it to your own. So who’s got a healthier attitude to food?
I’m not afraid that my child will learn to eat unhealthy food because we never have any nuggets, frozen pizzas or chips in the house. We eat fresh fruit and vegetables in industrial quantities, so I don’t need to make any extra effort to introduce a child to them. They are just there, all the time.
As soon as the baby learns to crawl, I will buy several beautiful bowls. I will fill one with pieces of fresh fruit and another one with chocolate and candy and place them in the baby’s room where s/he can reach them easily. A couple of years later, I will add a bowl of nuts. I will replenish them as they empty out. Depriving children of sweets is counter-productive and very controlling. One area where my relationship with food is ultra-healthy is the area of sweets and desserts. My great-grandparents always persecuted me with requests to eat one more piece of candy or “just this little chocolate bar, why won’t you?” So I never saw desserts as forbidden fruit.
Today, I see people create very weird performances around “just one more piece of cake, why can’t I”, and know that I’m blessed to have a healthy relationship with desserts. Recently, I saw an acquaintance actually talk to a dessert (in a scary baby-talk way, too). She was begging it not to be so attractive to her. I asked what her parents’ policy on desserts used to be, and she told me that she only got a piece of cake or an ice-cream as a reward for behaving well or getting good grades. I really don’t want my child to have to talk to cakes 40 years from now.
It is absolutely, completely, totally crucial not to make a child eat against her or his will or try to trick the kid into eating (by reading stories or telling fairy-tales while s/he eats, for instance). It is also extremely damaging to promise rewards for eating (let alone punish for not eating). There are no recorded cases of a child dying of starvation in front on a food-filled refrigerator in a developed country. So the anxiety of “OMG, s/he is not eating!” is not about the child. It is about an adult’s neurosis.
Until puberty hit at about 11, I rarely ate at all. I was a very small child and needed a lot less food than adults thought I should need. So they went out of their collective way to feed me. They danced, sang, begged, cajoled, read, promised, etc. to make me eat. Of course, they did all that from the best possible intentions. However, today I have a massive freak-out – I mean, an actual freak-out – if I can’t eat exactly when planned, have trouble eating in front of people, have a number of very bizarre rituals surrounding food, and spend a lot of time imagining what I will eat on the next day, until the end of the week.
The best, the healthiest approach to food anyone can have is that food is a very enjoyable way of maintaining existence. Babies and toddlers can teach us all about that because they don’t yet know* how to eat for prestige, to alleviate boredom, to self-medicate, to stifle down unpleasant emotions, etc. So it’s completely ridiculous that we, people who have accumulated a bunch of unhealthy eating practices and preferences, should impose our weirdness on those who still know when exactly, what exactly, and how much exactly they need to ingest to survive and feel good.
* Unless we are talking about the babies of extreme neurotics born in horrifying conditions, of course. I don’t see any reason to discuss such extreme cases on this blog, however.