Preschoolers: Let them (not) eat!

Every day was a struggle. Every. Single. Day. It didn’t matter what I served them or when. It didn’t matter if it was one of their “favorite” foods or not, The girls just never happily finished their food. They sat down in front of their plates three times a day with a grunt of disappointment and an hour or more or complaining, bargaining, mess making, and goofing around. I was 5 months pregnant and at my limit. I gave the girls a bowl of rice and daal (lentils), something they sometimes love and sometimes hate and, unfortunately for me, that turned out to be a hate day. Both Medina and Amaya whined as I put the bowls in front of them. I was low on patience and just turned around to take a breath. As my back turned towards them, a bowl crashed to the floor- then silence. Amaya somehow knocked her bowl off the table and all the food was spread out across the freshly mopped floor. I wanted to cry. I was literally holding back tears over the spilled food. At this point the girls, ages 2 and 3, had mostly stopped napping but I decided to end lunch and send them to bed. They weren’t happy about it but I needed a moment to think about what was happening and, quite frankly, to cry a little bit without little judging eyes watching me. I knew there had to be a better way. There had to be something I could do differently because I just couldn’t go on fighting with them every day. As it turns out- there WAS a better (and so much easier) way!

 

I sat down to do a little research and there were a lot of things I learned that day. I studied the food pyramid and realized I was feeding them too much of the wrong things and that, most days, they were probably not getting much more than grains and dairy. I learned that their bellies are small and that a full sized serving for them is TINY. So much less than I thought it was. Do you know what 1/4cup of loosely packed rice with chicken looks like? It basically looks like crumbs. However, learning about what to feed them wasn’t my biggest takeaway. My epiphany of that day was that I wasn’t respecting my children. Not only was I ignoring their feelings, I was teaching them to disregard what their bodies were telling them too! Let me explain….

 

Here are some examples mealtime conversations we would have:

 

Medina: I’m not hungry

Me: you haven’t eaten in hours, just eat your food please

 

Amaya: I don’t like this

Me: Well, I’m sorry but that’s too bad. That’s what we’re having for lunch today so you have to eat it

Amaya: *Takes a few small bites while crying*

 

Medina: I’m full

Me: there are just a few more bites on your plate, don’t waste your food

 

Amaya: I’m thirsty

Me: You can have something to drink when you eat some of your food

 

 

Typing that out made me cringe. There is so much wrong with the way we, as a society, treat our children. Like they know absolutely nothing. As though we know what they’re feeling better than they do. I stumbled upon an article while the girls were “napping” that day. It explained how we have such a broken bond with our own bodies that we don’t know how to tune in and listen to what we need to nourish it. We are actually born with the ability to know when to eat and how much. When a baby is born they literally need only drops of food. They know this. But even then, we sometimes try to get them to eat more. WHY?! Why do we do these things?? What is our obsession with not only over eating, but also OVER FEEDING?! Over the years we ignore our kids when they tell us they’re full. OR they don’t like something, or that they’re not hungry and over time they start to just ignore what they’re feeling. How sad is that? We actually teach our kids to ignore their own bodies. We are essentially breaking that bond for them. It broke my heart. Once I realized that it was my approach that was causing all this chaos in our lives, I started to think about how I could give them back their power and autonomy. I immediately implemented a few meal time changes:

 

  • Best decision EVER: I bought portion plates. They’re plates that have 5 small sections. So a typical lunch plate would be half a chicken sandwich, three raw spinach leaves, 5-6 strawberries, 4-5 raw almonds, about 2 ounces of yogurt (half of a kid’s yogurt cup). This way, they’re getting the nutrition they need from all their food groups every single day. The reason this made such a difference is that I realized just looking at a pile of one food was very overwhelming to the girls. The variety gives them the feeling of choice and when they finish the small portion size in a little section makes them feel accomplished! They eat the food in any order they like, and however gross their order might be to me sometimes, they love it! It’s especially fun if I put pudding or some other sweet in one portion and they have the choice to eat it first if they’d like to. Funny thing is, they realized all on their own that eating sweet first is no fun because it makes the food taste differently so they almost always save it for last now.
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  • I ask them if they’re hungry. If they say no, I don’t serve them. I want them to feel hungry and know what that feeling is.

 

  • They always have 2-3 choices to choose from. “would you like a chicken sandwich or veggie pasta” Always things I already have on deck.

 

  • They have to try at least one bite of EVERYTHING on their plate. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat it but they’re not allowed to say they don’t like it if they don’t try it. This has worked SO much better than I could have ever imagined it would and has added a whole new world of foods to Medina’s list. But the key is truly being ok with them not eating it. They have to trust I won’t make them eat all of it or make them feel badly about their opinion in order for them to take the bite. My research taught me that sometimes a kid has to try the same food 10 times or more before they develop a taste for it. So as long as they take that one bite I have hope. I keep putting new things in their plates and having them take that one little taste. My biggest fear doing this was that it might teach them that it’s ok to waste food. But the truth is that they definitely waste less overall and every time they don’t want to eat it I just remind them that it isn’t nice to waste food so that they have it in mind. I trust that, in the long run, if they have a healthy relationship with food they will be less wasteful adults.

 

  • If they say they’re full. They’re full. I have no way of knowing why they don’t want to finish their food so I have to trust what they tell me. I don’t want them to ignore their sense of being full just to satisfy my need to make them eat. My response to “I’m full” before the plate is cleared is always “That’s fine, but no snacks until the next meal time” Sometimes they’re ok with no snacks so they’ll walk away and sometimes (especially if a sibling is eating a yummy snack) they’ll go back to the plate and finish it on their own!

 

  • ALWAYS provide water. They need it and are most likely not getting enough of it. I give them one kids cup full of water with their meal (more if they feel it’s spicy) and as much as they’d like whenever they’d like the rest of the day.

 

  • They have full access to healthy snacks all day. Yogurt, fruit, veggies, and nuts are available all day everyday (except when they don’t finish a meal).

 

 

We are going on 2 years of this new approach and this has been completely life changing for all of us! I no longer dread meal times and both girls try any where from 1-5 new foods every week. More than that, though, I love to see them making good food choices all on their own. I make it a point to keep a food pyramid in the kitchen so that they can point out what food groups they’re eating from and we can talk about the effects of sugar and fats and how eating has an impact on how they feel now as well as how they’ll feel in the future.

 

The concept of children and their bodily autonomy goes so much deeper than food, too. I’m still learning how to go about it just the right way but my goal is to guide my girls into trusting their feelings and intuition. As they grow into young women and make their way out into a world that likes to make women second guess themselves, it can provide them with a comfort and confidence….and that can be their super power.

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It isn’t silence. It’s compassion.

On my quest to become a better, more patient, connected, and loving parent, I’ve come across many wonderful resources. I can’t remember which one it was that recently brought to my attention the importance of being silent. More specifically, being silent when the kids are hurt or having a hard time. Just being there for them. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t already doing that. I truly didn’t know how badly I needed to have that brought to my attention. So, I’ve spent the last couple weeks focusing on being silent. Just keeping my opinions and “guidance” to myself. IT WAS SO HARD! I mean, damn near impossible sometimes! It made me realize that I can be really annoying! **insert eye roll from close family friends who already know this**

Basically, the idea is that if my child is hurt, either physically or emotionally, just allowing them to come to me for comfort without me judging what got them there and/or telling them how they can avoid it next time. Here are a few examples of what that looked like this past week:

Scenario 1:
Medina (5 years old) likes to sit at the edge of her chair while she eats. She just fell off the chair for the THIRD time in a week and hurt her elbow/knee/hand. She came running to me screaming and crying.

What I wanted to say (and usually would): “Shhhh, it’s ok. You’re ok. My love, if you would just sit in the center of your chair this wouldn’t happen. How many times have I asked you to sit nicely? Do you see what happens when you don’t sit nicely?”

What I actually said: Nothing. I hugged her, kissed her where it hurts, and let her walk away when she was done being comforted by me.

Let me tell you, it was hardest as she was walking away. She was walking back to her chair and, in my mind, she was just going to sit her little butt right back at the edge of that chair and eventually fall off again. I lost it a little in my mind. She was walking away and I was holding back a ridiculous number of thoughts that wanted to spew out like incoherent babble at that point just to get out of my brain. But I didn’t allow it. I took a deep breath and went back to what I was doing without addressing it as a problem that needed to be fixed.

Scenario 2:
Medina and Amaya (3 year old) were playing in the basement. Medina wanted a snack and came upstairs. Amaya didn’t realize Medina left and got scared. Mind you, this happens almost everyday. Amaya ran upstairs crying uncontrollably because she was scared of the noises coming from the water heater closet.

What I wanted to say: “There’s nothing to be scared of, my love. We’ve talked about this before and It was just the noises coming from the water heater.” (in a frustrated and exhausted tone of voice, of course!)

What I said: “I’m sorry you were scared.” Then I hugged her until she let go.

Scenario 3:
Medina was running with a snow globe we got on our trip to Turkey. She slipped, fell, and it shattered on the bathroom floor. She started crying and saying “BUT I LOVE THAT SNOW GLOBE!!”

What I wanted to say: “Well WHY were you running with something made of glass? You know better than that! I’ve told you before to play nicely with it because it can break easily. Well, that’s what happens when you’re not careful with your things.”

What I said: “I’m sorry your favorite snow globe is broken.” I hugged her until she let go. Then I asked her if she would help me clean it up by getting the things I needed to clean it so I could keep Lana (1 year old) away from the broken glass.  She did.

So, here is what I’ve learned so far: All I was doing, by addressing the situation right away, was kicking them while they were down. It didn’t help anything. It didn’t teach them anything because they’re not really listening while they’re so upset and it made them feel worse than they already did. I’m ashamed to admit that “correcting” them was probably just a stress reliever for me. The fact that it was sometimes ridiculously hard to keep my “corrections” to myself proved to me that I was just looking for a release. As a matter of fact, there was one time I just couldn’t control it and that’s when it really hit me. I wish I wrote down the scenario that led up to it because I can’t remember it at the moment, but the result hit me hard.

Medina was upset about something and, as I was hugging her, I went through a whole mess of thoughts and told myself I wasn’t going to say anything but even as I was thinking not to, my mouth opened and the I told you so came out. That’s when I noticed it….as soon as the words came out of my mouth, she clenched her body, and her cry got a little louder. She already knew. She didn’t need me to tell her. She needed me to hold her. I wasn’t even doing it right but she still wanted to be there with me. ONLY me. That’s the sadness of it all for me. For most of the day, they only have me to run to. I AM their comfort. So when they come to me for comfort I just turn around and make them feel worse?

Most of all, I thought about all the stupid things I do in a day and how I would feel if I had someone watching me all the time telling me that I knew better and what I could do differently next time. I thought about if that person was my husband. The first person I run to for comfort. I thought about how damaging that would be for our relationship. How unloved I would feel. Why would my children feel any different?

It’s hard, sometimes, to think of such little people as human beings with complex thoughts and feelings. It really is so simple, though, at the same time. They are me. How I like to feel, they like to feel. They only want to be loved and respected they just don’t know how to express to me what they need from me in our relationship. Deep down I already know. It’s just a matter of controlling my need to control them and make loving them and respecting them a priority.

I’m a work in progress but I am intent on progressing.