Thursday, October 15, 2009

Feeding the children

This morning pretty much sucked - attempt # 1,200,000 to get Internet failed miserably, then a book I need somewhat desperately was not in the stacks as the online catalogue claimed, and all sorts of other minor annoyances added up to blech. So I decided the only way to improve matters would be to head out in the rain and get a giant piece of lemon layer cake for lunch. When at a Bleecker Street bakery with my wholesome meal, I overheard a conversation between two mothers of toddlers, chatting about, among other things, not keeping bread at home and ooh the food in France. (Contradiction much?) One was particularly adamant about nutrition in her discussions with her own child, who I'd place at at oldest 3, who was of normal size but wearing a seasonally-premature snowsuit. First, the mom held forth on how "just one" roll was enough with soup, and what exactly was her child thinking, wanting a second one? Then I zoned out for a while, but when I zoned back in, she was explaining to her child that "cake is only for special occasions, like birthdays," and I thought that this was verbatim from one of those NYT-online Health threads, where those who practice especially depressing-sounding extremes of "moderation" preach to the converted.

And then I was trying to figure out what about this was wrong, and maybe I was the problem, sitting in front of young, impressionable children, giving them the mistaken impression that one can eat cake for lunch and not be overweight. (What they couldn't see was that I was too angsty - not to mention too pressed for time - for anything more involved.) After all, in a typical day in NY, one sees all kinds of atrocious behavior of parents and guardians towards their children, everything from soda-and-Fritos being given to them at 7am to "spare the rod, spoil the child"-gone-unambiguously-too-far on a rush-hour subway. So what if this mother wants her child to only have one roll, and to eat cake no more than once in a blue moon? Childhood obesity is, they say, rampant. When I was a kid, I was the sort who had to be actively encouraged to eat, and while this is what I've observed with most young children at meal times, if Frank Bruni's message is to be learned, some kids are just born hungrier than others. Maybe this was one of them.

But at the same time, I remember kids growing up whose mothers couldn't just go on diets of their own, but had to project these diets onto kids who were themselves at most chubby-for-the-Upper-East-Side. And I thought about how, if you want your child not to constantly want cake, you might not want to take your child to a bakery that specializes in just that. How on earth do parents teach their kids good nutrition without coming across as walking Well Blogs? An argument in favor of dachshunds, perhaps.


PG said...

to eat cake no more than once in a blue moon

I assume the mother meant other people's birthdays in addition to one's own. My mother didn't keep sweets in the house when we were younger (I never had dessert with meals until I went to college), and "cake only for special occasions" is how my youth went. This was before Atkins, though, so I was not limited in the amount of bread, rice, etc. I was allowed. Limiting a child's intake of regular carbs seems a lot worse to me than saying, "Sweets are for special occasions." I find it so much more awful to tell a child who is hungry that he's not allowed to have something that any prior generation would have thought perfectly acceptable (a piece of bread), than to tell a kid who wants cake that he can't have it, but he can have a roll instead.

Phoebe said...


I was thinking that too, that 'I'm still hungry' is an expression that should be encouraged, unlike 'I want cake', but then I remembered that under the nutritional guidelines currently fashionable and not necessarily that far-off nutritionally, 'white flour is sugar', as in, white bread - and even wheat bread is typically wheat mixed with white - is junk food. (None of this quite adds up with the let's-be-more-French ideology - French people eat white bread, for sure, and French schoolchildren have sweet snacks at 4pm after school and not just on special occasions. So do French-department graduate students, at least this one, at least if I remember come 4 o'clock.) But yes, the child wanting to eat enough is different from the child wanting a pastry.

I guess the issue that left me puzzled was how one should broach the subject of nutrition with children. I think parents should 99-100% decide what's in the house and (although this is trickier) how big a portion is, at least for their kids' early childhoods. Ideally, though, this should be more about setting a tone than enforcing rules. It would simply not occur to a child used to getting a quarter pound of meat with dinner that steak should be a pound. A child accustomed to vegetables with dinner will come to think that for better or worse, this is what a meal looks like.

Where this gets complicated is that conflicts will arise - a kid never given candy will try some at school, etc. - and then the parent must do something. But is it better to explain nutritionally why Snickers shouldn't be dinner than to just say 'this is how we do things'? I don't like the idea of withholding useful basic information from kids, but nutrition's tough, because 'health' in our discourse, when used in reference to food, means 'not being fat'. A toddler won't think about this unless a parent brings it up, but a 10-year-old instructed on cake-eating habits will, and if the kid is not in fact in need of weight loss for health reasons, this can be bad news. I think the 'this is how we do things' approach, from the get-go, is a way to avoid making food about any one family member's weight, and to get around potential over- or under-sensitivity in such matters. But again, ideally no one's saying 'this is how we do things', just doing things in a given way so that the kid, whatever his eventual eating habits, is at least starting from a point that makes sense.

Tangentially related, cake for lunch was a terrible idea. I felt great until I crashed somewhere around 4, and so was relieved that today's lesson plan involved showing a movie. Nutrition, not a myth after all.

PG said...

I definitely liked going to my best friends' house specifically because they were allowed a lot more sweets than were available at my house. These friends lived a 2.5 hour drive away, though, so just getting to see them was a special treat that happened to have Coco-Puffs-for-breakfast sprinkled on top.

My dad is a cardiologist, but he was the most likely to bring sweets into the house (e.g. he'd be coming home, feel like picking up a beer to drink during "Larry King Live," and then grab an apple pie on his way to the checkout). So we had a weird combination of highly medical knowledge about the effect of too much fat and cholesterol (my 4th grade class went to see my dad perform what was explained to us as "balloon surgery," i.e. creating a passageway through a blocked artery), and then coming from my mom we had a more traditional "sugar rots your teeth" instruction.

In any case, both of my parents thought "because I said so" a perfectly sound rationale. My husband keeps telling me that my parents had it easy and child-rearing usually is a lot more difficult because most kids aren't as cowed by their parents as we generally were. Only once did my parents ever resort to professional advice on parenting: when I went through a phase of not doing or not turning in my homework, they got a book called "Homework Without Tears." I don't think either of them ever read it, but I did and highly approved the suggestions. Getting *rewarded* for doing what I knew perfectly well I ought to be doing anyway? Sweet!

I think parents today want it both ways: they want to treat their children like rational beings whose preferences deserve consideration, but they also want the relative ease of a dictatorial parenting style.

Phoebe said...

"I think parents today want it both ways: they want to treat their children like rational beings whose preferences deserve consideration, but they also want the relative ease of a dictatorial parenting style."

I don't know if it's necessarily so greedy. Some parents (reasonably enough) don't want their kids running the show, but just want to teach their children reasoning skills, and that means allowing enough leeway for at least some decision-making early on. And in most regards, that's a good thing. The problem is that Reason, for all its worth, doesn't ultimately determine fundamental, day-to-day things like what we consider to be a normal meal. Part of why we eat as we do comes from what we've learned from health class, Self magazine, or Tara Parker-Pope is the way to go, but so much more, I think, comes from what we learned as children, not as "nutrition" but via osmosis. Which is why I think if parents want kids to eat well, it's better to just put the food in front of their kids they think should be there, and not to give very young children too much explanation of calories, carbohydrates, 'good' versus 'bad' foods, and the like, unless a kid really does have a weight problem and need this information.

PG said...

But if you are feeding your kids outside the home, it's a lot more difficult to control what's in front of them. If they're 3 years old, they remember birthday, and they remember cake, and they remember that cake is tasty. (Indeed, children are far more sensitive to bitter tastes than adults, and have a much greater preference for sweet tastes.) So as you said, if you take them somewhere with cake, they're predictably going to want cake.

I think you can teach reasoning skills that aren't based on the child's doing a great deal of decision making on topics like "What am I eating at each meal?"

Phoebe said...

"I think you can teach reasoning skills that aren't based on the child's doing a great deal of decision making on topics like "What am I eating at each meal?""

Absolutely. Just asking a kids what they prefer of two options that would be either of them just fine to you - this could be pasta or rice at dinner, or something non-food-related - would get the job done.

In terms of food consumed outside... one could always go the strictly-kosher route, and teach children that nearly all the food they will encounter in the Diaspora (and much of it in Israel) is not as good as not edible. But this has some obvious drawbacks. Still, how much eating do most children do outside their homes and away from their parents? Enough to impact attitudes towards what's normal? What sets the tone is the typical meal, as well as the meals consumed before a kid is out with friends making decisions on its own.

I take it given the cupcake ban that this is not a popular view these days, but I don't see what's wrong with a child having something sweet (made with white flour, butter, the works) even every day, assuming the 'something' isn't an entire pie meant for 10 people. If eating habits otherwise are fine, no harm done, and if they're not, it's not the one cupcake that's the problem.

Matt said...

then a book I need somewhat desperately was not in the stacks as the online catalogue claimed

Not checked out but not on the shelf (or at least the right shelf) was long one of my own personal hells. Extremely annoying, especially as it might be only 4 or 5 feet away, but impossible to find. them the mistaken impression that one can eat cake for lunch and not be overweight.

I'm pretty sure that if you want to eat a lot of cake and not get over-weight you have to eat it for breakfast. At least that's what I keep telling myself.

Britta said...

The Regenstein is the worst library for the missing book vortex, I blame the god-awful lockers for that. Who allows people to put books under lock and key without checking them out (hence allowing for recall) first???

In terms of food, I (again) agree with Phoebe. Flour, and even *gasp* sugar is not so evil a child cannot eat at least a little every day and not be healthy, or even thin. My rail-thin grandfather spent the last 20 years of his life eating cookies and cakes every day, and putting butter on everything--he even used it as potato chip dip. He died at age 92 from cancer caused by asbestos exposure during the war. Certainly I'm not advocating that diet (nor probably could that many people do as well on that diet as my grandfather), but refined carbs and saturated fats are not automatically instant death and obesity.

When I was growing up my parents in general ate healthily, cooked meals from scratch every night and were strict about eating at least a little of everything served for dinner, but other than that were not particularly restrictive of food. We certainly ate our fair share of sweet foods and candy, but my siblings and I are all healthy and thin adults, and I think modeling of behaviors was more effective than any overt indoctrination. (They did partake in the, "no, you'll spoil your appetite for dinner" commands). Now, even if I don't always eat healthily, eating like total crap or not eating vegetables with my meal feels a bit like not brushing my teeth, i.e., vaguely icky.

I do have a funny anecdote about nutrition and little children though. When I was little, my parents made a policy that one night a week each child would have to plan and prepare a dinner (with help), and the meal had to include something from each food group (this was to teach us how to cook). Every time it was her night, my 4-year old little sister would insist on serving yogurt, raisins, and peanuts for dinner. There was grumbling, but as my sister pointed out, it was a balanced meal.