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Archive for January, 2010

The right strategy to get kids to eat: Put gas in that car

January 28, 2010 3 comments

“Is this wrong?” my new friend Ginger asked me today.

Last night, she said, her kids had refused to eat dinner. She knew it wasn’t that they didn’t like it. Rather, they just wanted to have power over her. So, at breakfast this morning, she made them eat the food they didn’t eat last night.

Right or wrong, Ginger’s strategy is about as useful as any when parent and child are locked in a battle of wills about eating. It’s not so much a question of whether the strategy itself is sound. What’s wrong is that such strategies are used at all and that a power struggle has formed around food.

Getting in the game of making kids eat is like running out of gas and deciding you want to save money by never buying gas again. So you ask whether it’s better to push your car or pull it down the road from then on. Pushing’s probably a bit more effective of the two options, but both ways are highly ineffective. That’s working against the natural order of things. It’s like carrying a boulder down a hill when gravity could take it down for you.

So, Ginger, it’s not that this particular battle strategy needs to be improved; it’s that you need to end this war. It’s going nowhere.

The more kids are pressed to eat or not to eat, the more food resistant they’ll tend to be. New strategies will continually have to be found on both sides to show who’s boss, with no end in sight until someone surrenders.

Like Ginger’s kids, they may refuse to eat even when they want to. (see “Foolish freedom”)

You might even find yourself dealing with food disorders or obesity.

The real problem is that, like attempting to move your car when it’s designed to move on its own, you’ve taken on something that’s not your responsibility. It’s hard. It doesn’t work very well. It’s just not necessary. It’s like nagging your husband when you want him to be more romantic: it’s not only extra work—it’s also counterproductive.

There are plenty of things we parents have to make children do, for their own good and for the good of everybody around them.

Eating is not one of those things. Eating is a self-propelled, self-regulating natural urge. Kids have to eat and they naturally want to eat, so you’ve got them where you want them. That’s what a parent needs to know, without talking about it.

A child’s appetite is a supremely well functioning system if it’s not messed with. The growing appetite is your main tool in getting a child to eat whatever it is you want her to eat. Any other methods—rewards, punishments, bargaining, begging, forcing—risks causing the appetite to malfunction and the power struggle to kick in.

When a kid’s appetite is small is the time a lot of parents start getting pushy, and it’s an uphill battle from there. Urging is the most counter-productive thing a parent can do with feeding. It’s a wide-open invitation for children to assert themselves against the superfluous control.

I’ve had my share of battles with my kids, but it has never been about food. If they don’t want to eat, let them get hungry, without being unpleasant about it, and believe me, unless you tell them what you’re up to and turn it into a power struggle again, they will eat whatever there is to eat.

The parent giving up the food fight is the best strategy for everybody to win.

Other posts about effective strategies to get kids to eat:

“How to use ‘negative reverse selling’ at the dinner table”

“Just work around it: how to neutralize a child’s food resistance”:

“Taking a detour: one good way to neutralize a kid’s food resistance”

“Masterly Inactivity: using sphinx-like repose to end the food fight”

“The best way to the stomach is through the heart”

The false dilemma of controlling what kids eat”

“How to get kids to the dinner table: Get an attitude”

“Why children should learn to tune in to their own bodies”

“Hunger: To Fear or Not to Fear” (Leveraging the appetite)

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 28 January 2010 / All rights reserved

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How we cured our son’s ADHD

January 20, 2010 11 comments

My son, left, in first grade, dressed to recite his sonnet at the Shakespeare Festival.

Much of what I have to say about feeding children comes from my experience with my son, which I haven’t said much about here at “Sacred Appetite.”

Almost from birth, my son had symptoms: of what, we didn’t know. I later came to blame it all on him being put on antibiotics at birth and the hospital failing to give him the breast milk I was pumping faithfully while he couldn’t nurse because of the IV stuck in his head. I also wonder what role the immunizations he got as a tiny infant (who stayed home with his mom, risking no illnesses) might have played.

Starting early and continuing, he had asthma, insomnia, enuresis (a fancy word for bed-wetting), digestion-related ills, crusty eyes, ears and scalp, and occasional temporary tics. He was hyperactive and had other behavioral problems like temper tantrums and purposely bothering people or just being socially clueless. He was often belligerent, peevish and oppositional.

He was eventually diagnosed with candida overgrowth, allergies, ADHD and Asperger’s. Looking for cures, we took him to traditional doctors, alternative doctors, allergists, chiropractors and psychiatrists.

He was subjected to shots and medications including Ritalin and Nystatin, and various diets. Dozens of supplements and vitamins were prescribed by different specialists. We tried acupressure. We took him to speech therapy. We signed him up for karate. We took him to art and music camps and made him play soccer. We bought a Rainbow vacuum, an air purifier, and armloads of blue-green algae and Mannatech Phytobears, powder and pills. We spent thousands of dollars.

We read books on allergies and parenting and sleep problems and difficult children. We worked to correct our parenting errors. We took him to church. We read to him. We spanked him. We reasoned with him. We learned how to listen so he would talk and talk so he would listen.

I learned a lot about optimally healthy eating in general. We improved and restricted our diet, radically. We ate organic. We ate only whole foods and whole grains. We went vegetarian for a while. I learned to cook all kinds of stuff I’d never heard of before. We ate no junk food or sugar whatsoever for quite a while.  I remember telling someone that my kids hadn’t had a grain of sugar in six months. Food seemed to be the one thing I could control, and boy, did I. I never had any trouble getting him to eat what I wanted him to eat, at least.

But we never got clear results. Sometimes he was better, sometimes he was worse, but we could never really trace effect to cause.

On top of all this, by the end of kindergarten, he had grown bored and disillusioned with school.

Ready to play the soothsayer in Julius Caesar, fourth grade.

So I looked for a private school that would reclaim his lost love of learning, turn him on to school again and maybe deal more successfully with his misbehavior.

I discovered a little church school called Parkview Christian School. It had classes of 12 students and half-days in the younger grades (that was actually a bit of a drawback for me, to face dealing with him myself half of the day again, I must confess).

Before we could even apply to the school, we had to read a book called For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School, by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay. It was all about the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason, a British educator from the early 20th century.  As I read it, it was clear to me that this kind of education was just what my son needed. This approach aimed to present children with a broad and varied feast of the best materials possible: real stories and books, not dry textbooks filled with dull facts to be memorized and regurgitated. Real music, art and objects, and, above all, ideas: to engage children’s minds, stimulate their appetites and lead them to want to know more.

The purpose is to foster the child’s innate appetite and natural affinity for knowledge and learning rather than intellectual force feeding of boring materials by use of entertainment, games, trickery, distraction, manipulation and external motivators (such as grades or rewards). It all made perfect sense to me. I’d been presenting food, art, music and literature to my children with generally that approach all their lives.

So my son started first grade at Parkview. Within a few weeks I knew that we had finally managed to hit upon something that made a clearly positive and significant difference for him. He loved school and came to be interested in more and more good things as the years went by. He still gave his teachers and parents fits at times, but the improvement we saw in his attitude and behavior was remarkable. I like to say Charlotte Mason education cured his ADHD.

As Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, eighth grade.

Charlotte Mason’s central metaphor for education is feeding. The more I learned about her ideas on education, the more full of sense and meaning I found them to be, both about educating children and feeding them. Her approach expanded upon what I already knew about getting kids to eat the right foods without battles or manipulation. It pinpointed what was going wrong with so many parents I had observed trying to get their kids to eat as well as what had gone wrong for my son in his previous school.

Charlotte Mason’s approach to education helped my son with school and with his eating habits. I’m sure he was better off for eating the super-healthy diet I fed him than he would have been otherwise. If I had tried to “make” him eat what I wanted him to eat using the standard methods of rewards or punishments, I’m sure I would have had a major mess on my hands.

The title “Sacred Appetite” refers to respecting and encouraging a child’s natural hunger for all good things by way of the best possible real food, rather than trickery or distraction.  My goal is to teach children to enjoy what’s good for them, not just get them to eat it. It’s not disguised or sugar-coated food, or food entertainment we need, but fresh, flavorful, natural and varied food, and never as a means to getting a reward, but as a reward in itself.

A couple of many posts about feeding children Charlotte Mason-style:

Feeding children made easy

How to get kids to the dinner table

Or see the category “Masterly Inactivity”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 20 January 2010 / All rights reserved

This post was featured in the Charlotte Mason blog carnival at Wholistic Homeschooler on March 5, 2010:

Categories: Uncategorized

Ratatouille: Everybody can cook

January 11, 2010 7 comments

Anybody can cook, right? That’s the main message of the animated kids’ movie Ratatouille. That message seemed pretty sound to me at first glance.

But what the film actually means by “anybody can cook” gave me plenty of food for thought. I wish I could rewrite the film to convey instead, “everybody can cook.”

The story tells of Remy, a rat of humble origins, who becomes more than human through a superhuman genius for cooking.

Remy gets his inspiration to rise above the garbage-eating gluttony of his rat culture through exposure to humans, in particular their cookbooks, TV cooking shows, higher quality foodstuffs and discriminating tastes.

Without condemning or rejecting his rat family and friends, Remy the rat deliberately chooses to turn from the habits of his fellows. I particularly like that part: it’s a vote for Real Food. It’s an example to youngsters to open their minds to the possibilities of better choices, regardless of their own family’s habits.

Instant Ability

Fate brings our rat hero to the real-life kitchen of his TV cooking show idol, the famous Chef Gusteau, and at the same instant, our supporting hero, the too-human Alfredo Linguini, is thrust into the kitchen as well.

Even at the risk of his life, Remy can’t resist coming to the rescue of the soup that the inept Lingini is in the process of ruining. The pair end up forming a symbiotic partnership, and Remy’s uncanny ability to cook combined with Linguini’s “ability to appear human” produce dishes that amaze everyone.

Remy’s sudden cooking skill reminds me of a character in Erich Segal’s novel The Class. This foreigner who knows no English is able, through sheer natural brilliance, to literally tap into the English language. The first few words are taught to him and then all the others just begin to follow, as if from a spring whose source has been found. According to Segal, who obviously never learned a foreign language himself, new words and an entire language can materialize out of nowhere in a sufficiently fertile brain. A code-breaking word or two is sufficient to trigger the magical chain reaction.

That is not how these things happen, unfortunately. In cooking, as in language acquisition, no matter your genius, you must have exposure. There’s no way around it. If you’ve never heard the word, you don’t know it. It’s not all up there in the noodle waiting to be awakened like a dormant seed by adding a little water.

No such shortcuts exist even for the natural genius. Likewise, nobody, no matter how gifted, can improvise and create amazing food through native talent alone, no matter how vast that talent. Talent in the kitchen is more made than born. You must cook, you must work at it. You must learn, discover and experiment. The ability to do a few things doesn’t suddenly enable you to do everything else. If you’ve never smelled or tasted something, the knowledge of it is not in your head. Nobody could walk into the kitchen with as little experience and learning as Remy is represented as having and create with the assurance and results we see, right off the bat.

Remy’s giftedness also reminds me of Harry Potter, who is struck by lightning and granted all kinds of powers. Such exciting fictional giftedness requires no persistence in the face of failure. All children, most of whom are not above average, need to hear that it’s OK to fail, to not be the most talented human on the planet. That it’s normal and good to work hard to achieve. All us wanna-be cooks need to hear it, too.

You’ve Got it! Or You Don’t?

While nobody’s born with Remy’s instant abilities, neither are normal humans born with Linguini’s total lack of potential.

In spite of Linguini’s extraordinarily promising pedigree—he discovers he’s the son of the famous chef Gusteau—and in spite of being the full-time puppet of the great chef Remy for quite awhile, Linguini makes no progress at all as a cook. He remains the passive tool of the master from start to finish. He doesn’t learn a thing. His cooking skills improve not a lick, and he accepts that as his fate. He knows the score. “I can’t cook,” he tells Remy the rat, “but you can.”

What do these two extremes in ability tell kids about cooking (and maybe other disciplines)? That you either have it or you don’t.

“Not every one will be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere,” the film tells us directly near the end. Sounds good. But so origins don’t determine one’s fate, but rather talent? That’s only half true. The problem is that neither superhuman rat nor subhuman human is realistic. Neither the extreme giftedness for cooking nor the lack thereof we see in Ratatouille is found in nature, but are purely the results of nurture. Both are, in fact, acquired through experience—good or bad.

I’ve heard that even the good is the enemy of the best, so this half-truth is the enemy of the full truth. A better message would be that becoming a great artist depends even more on hard work and focus than on native talent.

And because all of us fall between the two extremes of our Ratatouille heroes, the best message, the wonderful truth the movie shortchanges kids on, is that any reasonably normal human can be and should be a good cook, a successful and contented one.

Anybody or Everybody?

This movie may open a few children’s minds to the excitement of cooking as a profession or even inspire that small number of kids destined to become great chefs. If that’s all the inspiration these kiddos get, though, they will probably give up the first time they try to cook something in their kitchens at home. They’ll figure that, like Linguini, they just don’t make the cut; they haven’t got it.

Would it not do more good to tell the vast majority that they can cook than to attempt to speak to the elite few from humble origins who are destined to become extraordinary chefs?

Happily, since we all gotta eat, cooking is not an ability for the few and the gifted. All normal humans truly can cook and enjoy it, regardless of “talent.” I’d even venture to say all humans are born wanting to cook to some degree. It’s a desire to be cultivated and nurtured. Cooking is one of the most universally doable skills, more than drawing, writing, making music, acting or playing sports.

All it takes to be a “good cook” is good recipes. Anybody can cook a great many delicious dishes, with no skills whatsoever beyond cutting, stirring and measuring. At the same time, it’s something you can get better at your whole life. Cooking will reward anyone to the extent to he or she cares to invest in it.

Few of us have the patience or interest to become a truly great chef. I know I don’t. I’m quite happy to cook a variety of decent food, pretty consistently, sometimes some really simple stuff, but still satisfying when we’re hungry. I make some pretty delicious dishes at times. Even amazing, if I do say so myself. That’s a pretty great thing, I think.

The Remaking of Ratatouille

The story would have been better (if less marketable), if it had shown Remy more focused than talented. Hard at work, he reads Gusteau’s cookbook a great deal (in the movie he denies reading it much, and it was clearly a risky business for him) and tastes all kinds of ingredients. He would watch dozens of cooking shows, well beyond those few inspirational moments we see with Gusteau. We would see him experimenting with cooking way beyond one lightning-struck mushroom on the rooftop, with a blend of disaster and triumph.

We would witness his pleasure in meeting and combining new flavors. We would share his excitement the first time he managed to make ratatouille (a truly fabulous dish that anybody can make) or some other simple delight.

Remy the rat would gradually begin to create his own fabulous recipes based on his vast experience. We’d see how he’d increasingly challenge himself, and how much his rat family would come to appreciate the new way of eating (after a few tragicomical false starts).

He would spend weeks observing the goings-on in Gusteau’s gourmet kitchen, then start sneaking in there at night and creating little surprises for the kitchen staff, who would give instructive responses. They would increasingly marvel and wonder  who the ambitious and inspired mystery chef could be.

As for Linguini, he would start being less involuntary before the first week passed of his service as Remy’s robotic sous-chef. He would be pleased to find he could do a good bit without the rat’s promptings. He would become an active and valued cooking partner. He’d start having his own opinions about how things should be done, and discover they were sound. He would definitely catch the genuine excitement of being an active part of creating that marvelous food. He would rescue Remy from some fatal cooking error, though his own growing knowledge and abilities in the kitchen.

Instead of being one of the majority of cooking can-nots in the film’s fictional cooking world, our Linguini would be one of the real-world majority of can-dos. In my new version of Ratatouille, Linguini is the one who would discover that he is an anybody who can cook.

Related posts:

How to relieve stress by cooking dinner

What if you don’t like to cook?

French kids don’t get fat, but do they cook?

Kids in the kitchen: Cooking as its own reward

Why a child’s place is in the kitchen: Relating to and through food

This post was featured on Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday on May 14, 2010.

Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 11 January 2010 / all rights reserved