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.
- 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.