Saturday, October 6, 2007

Setting Boundaries for a Seven-Year-Old

Our daughter used to eat everything and we were so proud. She loved spicy. The spicier, the better. Wasabi peas? Loved 'em. Thai food? She was an addict. She would gobble Altoids by the handful. We thought we had a junior food adventurer on our hands. Not like other people's kids who wouldn't try anything.

Well, as the years wore on, our little foodie started eliminating things from her diet one-by-one. Once she had been in love with mushrooms. All mushrooms were "takk-ies," meaning Shitakes. Then one day she spurned anything resembling a fungi. Once she had a particular fondness for "bone meat," which meant any kind of meat. Then a day arrived when any meat at all turned her stomach, with the possible exception of certain immaculately prepared chicken. Or Pho, the famous Vietnamese beef and noodle soup--but only if served without any of the traditional vegetables.

One after another, selected food items fell by the wayside until, in her seventh year, you could count on one hand the things she would actually consume. Fruit smoothies were okay in the morning, but not all the time. Pasta worked, but just plain pasta--she wouldn't even consider a red sauce any more. She still loved the broccoli and the Brussels sprouts, but anything else green she would toss aside. What she really wanted was canned soup and packaged Ramen noodles. Otherwise she would consider ordering a pizza or possibly dinner out at the local Thai place.

I thought, She's only seven and she's already eating like a college freshman. How can this be?

As a treat after school I would take her by the convenience store. I'd give her a quarter and let her purchase whatever she wanted. Up to a few months ago, you could still buy popsickles and packaged cookies and certain chips with 25 cents. But then she started bringing her own change purse with her allowance and buying more and more. "It's my money," she said, her arms wrapped around a load of chips, cookies, sodas. "Why can't I buy what I want?"

Dinner became more and more of a battle. The choices became more and more narrow. It was either pasta, canned soup or Ramen noodles. I thought things had definitely gotten out of hand. The final straw came when my sweet, 7.5-year-old daughter refused to eat a vegetable soup I had made from scratch with our own home-grown produce.

"I don't like that chicken broth!" she cried. No amount of explaining on my part could convince her that my homemade broth--made with a free-range chicken, no less--was every bit as good as--better than--the stuff she was eating out of a can.

Enough! Something had to change....

My wife likes to point out that I had worked myself into a somewhat awkward position, professionally speaking, since I was doling out advice to people on how their kids should be eating yet had completely lost control of my own daughter's diet. I was not engaged, she said. So I decided to become engaged. NO MORE JUNK FOOD, was my first decree.

I'm coming to believe that at least half the problem with the way kids eat starts with the way adults eat. It was, truth be told, the adults who started bringing the Cheetos and the Doritos into the house. It was the adults who were addicted to bottled sodas (diet sodas, to be sure). It was the adults who ordered pizza when making dinner didn't seem convenient. It was the adults who went for Thai when cooking was just too much bother.

The whole damn thing had to change. In one all-inclusive tempest, I declared there would be no more processed food brought into our household. We would no longer be patronizing the local convenience store. And for good measure, no more television during the week. Too many nasty commercials. We would bite the bullet and start making our own healthy snacks. We would buckle down and dedicate ourselves to making meals from wholesome ingredients on a daily basis.

I expected our daughter to throw a fit, but she seemed to love the new order of things. Without a single tear or even a pout, she actually embraced all of my terms. We drove straight home from school, skipped the convenience store and started making scones and smoothie pops and other more healthful snacks. The television remained dark. We actually played dominoes and Scrabble as a family. We returned to a more ritualistic family mealtime in which daughter helped set the table and prepare the food on a regular schedule.

I could hardly believe how well she was behaving. Then a light went on. Duh! This is exactly the kind of things kids want, what they thirst for. They want boundaries, clear directions. They want to be part of the team, pulling in the same direction as Mom and Dad. They want the positive attention.

Okay, I won't claim that she started to like green beans, not even the green beans we grow in our own garden. I'm hoping that will come with time. She still won't eat the yellow variety of carrots we grow. She will actually pick through her carrots and move the yellow ones to the side to get to the orange carrots. And she's still a chicken-only girl and Pho without vegetables and a Thai food freak and a lover of pizza. But we've gotten rid of the chips, the sodas, the canned soup, the Ramen noodles.

Now that I think about it, she's much happier eliminating things than adding new ones. And I'm starting to feel good about being more engaged, being more of a decider where her food choices are concerned.

I call it a good start.


Joanna said...

Hey ... good post, good work

Love them, give them time, laugh with them - they'll turn out right. And if you do all that AND cook for/with them - well, that's being a good parent. Just don't expect them to mind about the things you mind about ... they don't have to be foodies, they just need to know what good food is, and be prepared to eat it.

Good luck with it!


Janet said...

Having raised a very picky eater who was picky from her first bite, you have my sympathy--and encouragement. We didn't have a junk food problem, but we did, I think, have a power problem with my little darling (who I'm suspecting may be a "supertaster," which didn't make it easier).

The good news: she didn't starve to death or get malnourished. She's now 20 and has in the last three or so years significantly expanded her mind and mouth. We wouldn't have survived without processed foods though: no cereal? no pasta? no bread? (You might notice a pattern there.) Poor thing would have starved without 'em.

GBVC said...

So much of what you wrote struck a big chord with us here in rainy West London. Our last year has been a similar process of deciding what is important to us as a family and sticking to it. The food is connected to the tv which is connected to the need for more time outdoors and so on - change stimulates more change.
What Freddie and Alex love above all else is the feeling of being involved. Cooking a meal together is the best thing. Sadly we dont have a vegetable garden but dream of owning one one day.
Freddie is facing his worst enemy, peas this week. If youhave a pea recipe up your sleeve let me know and we will link to it.

Daphne said...

"It was the adults who were addicted to bottled sodas (diet sodas, to be sure). "
Depending on who's reading the label, diet sodas are worse for you than regular, especially if you can find the ones sweetened with just sugar - not hi-fructose corn syrup.
The artificial colors and the artificial sweeteners play havoc with your metabolism, too.
I try to stick to water these days, unless I need a Coke "fix", and I do treat it just like drug ;-D
Cheers - Daphne

Kevin said...

> being more of a decider

I'm just checking because I'm concerned... Do you ever have urges to clear brush? It may be a warning sign.

Ed Bruske said...

Joanna, that's very good advice. Our daughter can be very level-headed about what's healthy when she wants to be.

Janet, you're right. These struggles often involve power issues. Still, kids want clear boundaries. Some processed foods--breads, pasta, etc.--we consider staples. But we look for the least processed among them, such as whole grain breads and whole wheat pasta.

Charlotte, I've found the same thing in my "food appreciation" classes. Kids are much more likely to enjoy certain foods when they involved in the making of it. But there are still certain things they just don't like, and often it's age-specific.

Daphne, couldn't agree with you more. If I had my way, there'd be no sodas at all. Or bottled water.

Kevin, Dick tells me to stay the course, don't cut and run, we'll stand down when the kids stand up, mission accomplished, heh, heh, heh...

The Baklava Queen said...

Not having kids myself, I haven't a clue on how to persuade them to eat good food, so I watch my friends and their various methods. Hats off to you (and all the other parents) who succeed now and again! :-)

By the way, Ed, I'll be in the DC area next week... would it be possible to check out the school garden? It sounds like such a great project, and I'd love to know more! Drop me a line, please: baklavaqueen AT yahoo DOT com.

Ed Bruske said...

Jennifer, it takes persistence, patience, imagination. Some days are much better than others...