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Part II: Q&A on tiding over a two-year-old before dinner

February 24, 2010 4 comments

This post is the second installment of my answer to the question of a reader, Jen, a few days ago:

My two-year-old eats really well most days, and we only have real food in the house. There are times though, when I’m moments away from having a meal ready, and he has the refrigerator open pointing at the yogurt or applesauce. I often tell him that after he eats the soup, spaghetti, red beans and rice, or whatever it is we’re having, then he can have the yogurt. I’ll say, “First we’re going to eat the soup, then we can have some yogurt.” Is this wrong? Is this like offering a reward? He usually complies without much of a fuss, though occasionally he throws a bit of a tantrum. I think the problem is he’s hungry, but the food isn’t on the table yet. If it’s going to be a while before dinner is ready, I’ll let him have the yogurt or applesauce to tide him over. Thought? Thanks!

Here I want to address something that jumps out at me, jars me in the above scene: it’s the image of a two-year-old, standing before the open refrigerator door, pointing at what he wants, unchallenged about taking that liberty.

This scene reminds me of the time one of my daughter’s friends came over. She was about 10 and it was one of the first times she’d been to our house. She opened our fridge wide and peered inside and said, “I’m hungry.” I said nothing, but I thought, “What are you doing in there, kid? You don’t belong in there!”

I have a thing about an open fridge door. My mom always got after us for standing there with it open, browsing, letting all the cool out. So it bugs me for that reason.

But my discomfort with the image goes beyond worrying about the fridge itself. Some one standing in front of an open fridge, particularly a small child, is to me the picture of eating outside of meals, of random snacking. Neglected eating. A kid fending for himself. The open fridge opens the door to mindless eating. To me it speaks of a utilitarian view of food, food as simply animal fuel. It’s also a depiction of bored eating, purposeless, solitary. It symbolizes the culture of food as background noise, eating while watching TV or while working on the computer, or while playing a video game.

All those things are everything I think eating shouldn’t be. As much as possible, eating should be purposeful, deliberate, celebratory, civilized, organized. It should be done with our full attention and in the company of friends or family.

Now I can tell from your messages, Jen, that you are careful and watchful of your family’s eating. So that’s also part of why the image of your toddler sticking his nose in the fridge stuck out like a sore thumb to me.

So here’s my advice, to take for what it’s worth, or not. To create a home atmosphere where respectful, healthy eating is the norm, parents need to be the gatekeeper of the food source at least until good habits are well ingrained.

The structure of regular, definite meal and snack times is one of only a couple of effective tools available to a parent to get kids willingly eating what the parent wants them to eat. It’s a powerful one, though: the best way to train children to be hungry when it’s time to eat and to eat what the parent has planned for them to eat.

Meals and healthy foods are more appealing when you haven’t been foraging and nibbling on whatever you found in the kitchen before mealtime. The more we eat outside of meals, the less we eat during meals. It’s a cycle, for better or worse. Snacking prevents good old anticipation for meals from ever building.

“You’re going to spoil your dinner,” my mom would say when she caught us “piecing,” as she called it.

Kids don’t usually give a darn whether they spoil their dinner; they don’t have that kind of longer-term thinking or understand the bigger picture. Not leaving the choice up to them is an effective, gentle way of hemming in the child to eating the way you know best that he should. Consider also the various habits you can build: of self-control, of awareness, of orderliness, of patience.

Now my kids are older teenagers and they are always hungry. I tell them they’ll spoil their dinner, but they just laugh and say, “I’m always plenty hungry for dinner.” And it’s true. They have healthy habits established and they are completely unpicky. But I still let them know I prefer they keep all their appetite for the good dinner I’m preparing.

I’d recommend making the fridge off bounds for your little guy unless he asks permission for something particular and you’re OK with it. You might also ask him to get something out of the fridge, as you involve him in preparing a snack or a meal, always under your direction.

Part I of my answer to Jen’s question

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 24 February 2010 / All rights reserved

Question & Answer on how to tide over a hungry two-year-old before dinner

February 21, 2010 6 comments

A question from Jen, a reader:

My two-year-old eats really well most days, and we only have real food in the house. There are times though, when I’m moments away from having a meal ready, and he has the refrigerator open pointing at the yogurt or applesauce. I often tell him that after he eats the soup, spaghetti, red beans and rice, or whatever it is we’re having, then he can have the yogurt. I’ll say, “First we’re going to eat the soup, then we can have some yogurt”. Is this wrong? Is this like offering a reward? He usually complies without much of a fuss, though occasionally he throws a bit of a tantrum. I think the problem is he’s hungry, but the food isn’t on the table yet. If it’s going to be a while before dinner is ready, I’ll let him have the yogurt or applesauce to tide him over. Thought? Thanks!

Jen, Thanks so much for that question. It gave me a good launching off point and a lot to think about. I have quite a lot to say in response, which I will discuss starting here but continue with another couple of posts.

First off, I think it’s great that your son is good and hungry for dinnertime and that you only make real food available. That right there is a great start.

The main thing to consider is what kind of habits do you want to establish for your son? Now is the time to build good healthy habits such as not eating randomly outside meals and having a sound appetite for nutritious food and proper meals. It sounds like you’re working on those goals already.

Furthermore, you can also set the stage for good habits such as being patient and keeping his cool when he doesn’t get his own way. We certainly do not want him to get in a pattern of throwing a fit to get what he wants. Mealtimes offer opportunities to teach all these lessons daily. Those good habits that will set him free as he grows older should begin now. Feeding is a perfect vehicle with new opportunities every day to teach our child both healthy habits and good character.

A key opportunity in the scenario you describe is to instill in your son the ability to wait with grace. Even at his age, he can begin to learn to cope with delayed gratification.

A two-year-old can certainly can and should be trained to wait “moments” more for the meal. You might try saying something like, “No, sweetie. We are about to eat dinner. You’re hungry, aren’t you? I have some nice hot soup almost ready for you. It’s going to be so good. Can you smell it? Wait just a moment.”

Your little tike needs to learn to understand and accept the idea of waiting, though he might not like it the first time he hears about it.

Be pleasant but firm, and keep the focus on the meal. Talk about his hunger rather than whatever other thing he wants to eat at that moment. I would avoid trying to placate him with a promise of getting later the thing he’s after. The snack itself is not really the issue. Also, you do not want him to begin valuing the snack more than the good, substantial meals you want him to eat willingly.

Tell him he is a big boy and that big boys are able to wait a little while. Give him a job to do to hasten the wait, like bringing something to the table, or going to tell Dad it’s time to eat. If it’s going to be longer than a few moments, offer a drink of water.

You might talk about why he’s hungry: was he too busy to eat well at snack time? Is he growing a lot?  That idea can distract him for a few minutes. Let him know you understand and sympathize with his anguish. Then at dinner, you might make a point of telling Dad how Junior waited patiently for his dinner.

In the famous “marshmallow test,” a researcher left four-year-olds in a room with a marshmallow and told them they could either eat it as soon as they wanted, or they could wait till the researcher came back, in which case they would score a second marshmallow for resisting the first one that long.

The researchers followed those same kids, and years later, found that those who had been unable to delay gratification for the greater reward at that tender age grew up to have more problems with school performance and behavior, and lower SAT scores. They also demonstrated less skill in dealing with stress. Learning self-control early will continue to give your son a valuable advantage in life.

I don’t really think this describes you, but many parents seem afraid to let their kids to ever suffer hunger for any amount of time. They rush to feed them something—anything—as if they were worried the child would pass out. This problem comes up often after the child has refused to eat a meal. A cycle is quickly established of the child not eating when and what he should and instead eating when and what he shouldn’t.

The older the child, the longer he can be expected to wait for meals or for anything else they want. ____________________________________________________________________________________

A good book on this subject: Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in our Homes and Schools by William Damon

Coming up:

· The problem with kids feeling free to browse in the fridge.

· The importance of the big-deal meal

Part II of my answer to Jen’s question:  https://sacredappetite.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/part-ii-qa-on-tiding-over-a-two-year-old-before-dinner/

Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 21 February 2010 / All rights reserved

Better behavior through better eating? The high price of cheap food

February 17, 2010 2 comments

Sure it costs more to feed your children real food than processed junk. But what price might you be paying to feed your kids cheaply? How about lack of focus, bad behavior, poor school performance, even violence or crime?

“Can we cut crime by changing cafeteria menus?” is the question Christina Pirello answers in the Huffington Post this week.

Pirello tells about several instances that prove that feeding people better can result in dramatic improvements in their behavior. From schools to prisons, garbage in means garbage out, but healthier eating can clearly net measurably better behavior. School performance was also shown to improve with better eating.

Being treated with respect, being deemed worthy of decent food, might contribute to better behavior, I believe. But clear results tied strictly to nutrition were also found in a study with placebos.

A better diet dramatically transformed student behavior in a Wisconsin school. In over 800 low-income schools in New York, better food brought the academic testing results up from 11 percent below average to five percent over.

In a prison, feeding inmates better brought a 37 percent reduction in violent misbehavior.

“Can it be a coincidence that the dramatic increase in crime, violence and lack of civility has grown hand in hand with the dramatic move toward processed junk food in our modern Western diet?” Pirello asks.

Between what Pirello calls “the zealots who believe that food cures all ills and the equally zealous skeptics who say it’s all nonsense” is the proven truth that eating better and good health means better behavior and a better functioning brain.

Good food costs more because it’s valuable.

Related post: “Top 8 things to cut expenses on so you can spend more on quality groceries”

Child obesity task force: stacking the deck against parents and health

February 11, 2010 8 comments

As of Tuesday, a White House task force made up of cabinet secretaries and other officials has 90 days to come up with a strategy to reduce childhood obesity. It’s a worthy use of their time. One-third of American 8- to 10-year-olds are now obese.

I’m sure the first thing this bureaucratic task force will no doubt tackle is the government’s own role in causing the problem. Our food system, which includes government subsidies for growing the ingredients of processed foods, notably the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup, has conspired to make junk foods the cheapest eats option. We pay the huge food companies to grow and produce junk food, and they in turn spend millions on advertising to kids and the rest of us.

I bet the first thing the task force will do is to insist we quit subsidizing processed junk food. The obvious answer is to tax junk food makers instead and turn around and subsidize fruit and vegetable growers, so that what’s good for us is cheaper than what’s making us so fat. Or maybe they’ll do something about the way junk food is pushed to kids. They could outlaw advertising to kids like they do in Scandinavia, for example. Or they could put real money into real food for school lunches, instead of feeding the kids cheap junk at school.

I’m a little worried, though, because Michelle Obama, the figurehead of this effort to reverse the obesity trend, seems to be focused only on empowering parents to take charge against obesity. She wants to make them responsible for the solution.

“Our kids don’t choose to make food products with tons of sugar and sodium in super-sized portions, and then to have those products marketed to them everywhere they turn,” Mrs. Obama said. “And no matter how much they beg for pizza, fries and candy, ultimately they are not, and should not, be the ones calling the shots at dinnertime. We’re in charge.”

Our first lady has certainly got a point. That’s all true. It’s not our kids’ fault. They don’t know what’s good for them, and we parents do, or we should. We do have to be in charge and we are responsible. But how much the government can do about that part of the problem is questionable. And, what about the government’s own contribution in creating and providing those food products that make us all fat? Can we do something about that?

It all seems suspiciously like one of those cases when the investigator looking for the murderer is the murderer.

“Many parents desperately want to do the right thing,” Mrs. Obama continues, “but they feel the deck is stacked against them. They know their kids’ health is their responsibility, but they feel like it’s completely out of their control.”

All that’s right, too. But what exactly is this “deck stacked” against parents to feed kids well? Why are parents so powerless? Of course, they do have some choice in the matter, but why is the government making it harder to do what they want us to do, and what is good for us? If the deck is stacked, and it is, we can thank the government itself for a fair chunk of the deck. It’s like enticing a dog with a treat and then smacking him when he reaches for it.

ORGANIC, LOCALLY GROWN fresh produce at the farmers' market is expensive. But it's the best thing for us. Hey, government task force on obesity, how about some subsidies? Photo by Anna Migeon

My only hope is that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and that the task force manages to clean up the government’s role in this whole thing.

Then we parents will be freer to do our part.

Related post:

Dinner Table Lessons from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

©  Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 11 February 2010 / All rights reserved

This post was featured on Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday on 12 Feb. 2010.

New Sacred Appetite discussion/support group starting next week

February 10, 2010 Leave a comment

ARE YOU hoping to get better results this year as you try to get your children to eat more healthfully, without turning the dinner table into a battle ground? Anna Migeon, author of the blog “Sacred Appetite” and mom of two teens who have always eaten anything put on the table, from cow tongue and liver to tofu and turnips, with never an argument (well, once there was an argument), is starting a free discussion /support in her home in San Antonio, where one in three kids is obese. Starting Feb. 19, she’ll share her successful techniques for raising kids who eat absolutely everything. Topics to be included:

· Key common mistakes to avoid if you want your child to eat healthfully now and for life.

· Masterly Inactivity,” or how to do far less and achieve far more.

· How to leverage children’s natural appetites to get them to want to eat what YOU want them to eat.

· How to replace bad eating habits with good ones, without anyone feeling deprived.

· How to have more fun in the process of feeding your family.

Five one-hour sessions. Fridays 10:30 a.m., Feb. 19-March 19. Limited to 10 participants.  Send me a message to sign up.

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