Today’s post is the second in the Around the World In Six Weeks Parenting Blog Carnival. Over the next several weeks, Deb of Urban Moo Cow, Sarah of Left Brain Buddha, Stephanie of Mommy, For Real, Lauren of Omnimom, and I will be writing about our reactions to Christine Gross-Loh’s Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us. And we’d love for you to join us!
We’ll be exploring parenting practices around the world. For more information about the Parenting Blog Carnival, and future topics, click here. And join us!
And here’s today’s post, about my struggle to raise a healthy eater.
I should have known it was too good to be true.
Until my son learned to walk as a toddler, he was what anyone would call “a good eater.” I was thrilled. I was proud. I was more than a little self-righteous. When other parents complained and stressed out about what their kids would or wouldn’t eat, I would give oh-so helpful advice, such as “We just let him try anything that we would eat.” (I’m surprised that someone didn’t hit me.)
My son loved hummus, tapanades, avocados, blueberries, olives, spinach, mangos, gnocci. Spicy food, cold food. He ate with wild abandon and joy. I assumed that I had somehow instilled in my son the eating habits that I had grown up with as a child.
I grew up on a small farm. We raised much of our own food, from cows and pigs to corn or tomatoes. We knew where much of our food came from, from the piglet being dropped off in the spring to the butcher where we took our slaughtered animals in the fall. We ate a lot of fresh food, but we were allowed to have treats — Doritos were my personal favorite — too. There was no “good” food or “bad” food. Just food. We all ate dinner together. You ate what was given to you on your plate — the same as the adults — and then you enjoyed it. End of story. (And if there was more to the story, my parents didn’t want to hear about it.) If you asked for something different than whatever was being served to everyone else at any time of day, my mom would refuse and tell us, “This isn’t a restaurant.”
About a year ago, once my son figured out that running around the house was much more fun than being strapped into a booster seat, his days of happy eating were over. Each meal has become a battle, and I don’t know how to stop the fighting. He is not interested in vegetables, in fruit, or in anything new. He will eat a bite of something here or there and then demand to get down, kicking and screaming. I will try to feed him anything that he’ll be willing to eat any time, any where, just so I’m reassured that he won’t starve himself. Other times he’ll shovel in so much steak — or pasta or some other food that he’s decided tastes good that day — that I’m afraid that he’ll throw up from overeating.
And after reading the chapter in Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us by Christine Gross-Loh about parenting and food habits around the world, I’ve realized it: My greatest fear has happened. In terms of how I feed my kid, I’m an American parent through and through. And my son eats like an American kid. I’m not proud of it, but I can’t deny it. My son is not on the path to being a French eater who doesn’t snack, or a South Korean kid who loves his vegetable side dishes, or a Swedish toddler who sits at the table until everyone is done eating.
According to Gross-Loh, here’s what makes my son’s eating habits so distinctly American:
1. He is used to being offered too many choices about what to eat. Gross-Loh says that “by offering many options (and then disapproving of what our children say they want) we run the risk of socializing our kids to fight with us over eating.” For many American parents — like me — our interactions with our kids about food is characterized by extremist thinking: we live in fear of “bad” food — over-processed, artificial or unhealthy food of all types — and think that picky eating is normal, when cross-culturally, it’s not.
2. I worry constantly about the components of what he’s eating. I worry if he’s getting enough protein, calcium, iron. (And when all else fails, I get out the Flintstones gummy vitamins to make myself feel better.) Other cultures don’t think about food like that. They think about food holistically in the context of a pleasant, relaxed, and healthy family life.
3. My son eats much of his food at unstructured meal times. He’s an American-style snacker and grazer. Other cultures — such as Japan — emphasize the importance of three square meals, each well-balanced, satisfying, and carefully planned.
But here is my favorite part of the chapter, the message that I hope sticks with me as my son grows older: American parents try desperately hard to figure out what their children’s tastes and preferences in food are — in other words, what they as individuals, like and will eat or won’t eat. In contrast, other cultures with much healthier attitudes about food (and healthier lifestyles) have a completely different attitude about children and eating. In their view, a parent’s job is teach a child to eat well, not to placate to their personal eating preferences at any given time. Kids learn to try to eat anything.
According to Gross-Loh, “a good parent helps her children to learn to eat anything, and she believes that they can and will become good eaters…”
Just like the lessons about sleep from other cultures, there is so much about eating better that is difficult, if not nearly impossible, for many Americans, given the realities of our lack of structural supports in our health care system, our schools, and our neighborhoods, to adopt to our way of life. But just the idea that being a picky eater is not biological destiny but is instead a cultural norm ( as well as a profitable business tactic by many American food companies) is something that all parents should remind themselves.
Not all of us are born good eaters. Just like many of us are not born great sleepers. But we can be taught to have a healthy, balanced relationship with food. For many kids, this is a skill — a “life skill,” as Gross-Loh points out — that will serve us well throughout our lives.
I’m not sure how much that is going to help me tonight when I try to get my son to eat and enjoy his peas with us. But I can keep trying and trying. And I can remember that many of the best lessons about good eating — eat fresh and varied foods, try everything — are what I learned as a young child on a farm.
- (Mommy, For Real) Feeding My American Family: The Path of Least Resistance
- (Urban Moo Cow) Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast
- (Left Brain Buddha) Mindful Eating: We Are HOW We Eat
- (Omnimom) Food, Glorious Food
We’re also giving away an autographed copy of Christine Gross-Loh’s Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us. To be eligible to win a copy of the book, just comment on one of our posts….