How often do we hear that children won’t eat? No one loves this message more than the food industry, which is ready to jump in with factory-tested flavours and bliss points, adding salt, fat and sugar, flavor, color and stabilizer in indsutrially calibrated quantities to design foods that hold mass appeal. “Kids today don’t eat food!” declares an advertisement for a popular packaged meal. On the screen we see a child pushing away a plate of vegetables, dal and roti and brightening up considerably when the packaged bliss comes forth in steaming digitally enhanced ringlets.
How often have we seen parents or grandparents run behind a child with a bowl of food or hire someone to perform this task? Typically the parent or hired help will follow the child as s/he plays and watch for moments between bites to insert another mouthful, to be chewed as s/he goes about her or his activities. Or, seated at the table, parents will coax, cajole, distract, bribe or threaten their children until they eat.
In contrast, last night, I saw an almost 1 year old baby sit with a plate and bowl of food for more than half an hour. Meanwhile her parents were attending to her elder sister, eating and talking with guests in their home and planning for an event they were organizing that weekend. The baby alerted people when her bowl of ragi was empty, through a reach of the hand or an urgent whimper. One of us would then refill her bowl or offer her a piece of khamand or watermelon. She gobbled these up steadily, until at one point she didn’t and the piece of watermelon remained on her plate. She was done. She sat, satisfied, and soon her mother too was done.
No one really knew how much she ate. No one needed to know. She ate as much as she ate. No one doubted that she would ask if she wanted more. She was free to eat and she was free not to eat. No one had to wait for her to finish eating so that the adults could eat.
When babies eat from the same plate as their parents they are also free from tracking. No one tracks how much the baby is eating or how much the parent is eating. Even a family meal can be planned this way, with one central plate of food for all to share. Who ate what and how much? Who cares! Relax and enjoy the togetherness, the conversation and the food.
How children learn to eat:
1. Breastfeeding is the first introduction to the flavor of everything the family eats. The longer children breastfeed, the more time they have to get acquainted with foods through their mothers’ milk. This helps when they try eating these foods on their own. This makes sense, but you can check out the research as well.
2. Breastfeeding serves as a safety net ensuring that nutritional needs are met regardless of outside food consumed. The longer a child breastfeeds, the more leisurely s/he is allowed to develop an appetite for the wide world of food without any pressure of having to eat a certain quantity by a certain time.
3. Freedom makes the food taste better! Parents who coax, cajole, bribe, threaten or otherwise monitor and evaluate the quantity, speed or efficiency of a child’s meal consumption interfere with the pleasure and in some cases, even the digestion and nutrient absorption of that meal. Such parental surveillance may even lead to overeating and interfere with the ability to tune into one’s own body and develop good eating habits.
4. Eating as a family, with conversation being an equally valued part of the meal as the dishes served. Good for digestion (and, perhaps, for civilisation!)
How children do not learn to eat:
1. Being told: “eat!” or “eat fast!” or “eat now!”
2. Having character evaluation tied to quantity or speed of consumption. This means: hearing “good girl, eat fast” or “good boy, eat all of it.”
3. Same goes for the dreaded “good job!” Eating is not a job and the parent is not the project manager evaluating the progress of the job.
4. Not being allowed to decide whether to eat or how much to eat.
5. Having food used as a bribe or reward for something else such as doing homework, going to class, doing chores, writing to grandma, playing with junior, or eating some other food.
6. Being coaxed, cajoled, praised, bribed, threatened, or rewarded for eating.
The reward for eating is the pleasure of the meal and the energy and well-being that follow.