I recently attended a family gathering that was full of young children including a couple of preschoolers from the same family. Unfortunately, my entire meal (and theirs) was ruined because their parents' spent the whole time micromanaging the kids' eating. This whole scenario culminated in one of the children sitting alone at a table sobbing over an adult-sized plate while everyone else, having finished dessert, had moved off to other entertainments.

This broke my heart. It was all I could do not to interfere (I didn't exactly manage to not say anything, but I did manage to not physically interfere…). My Grandmother felt the same way. I could tell by the way she hovered around looking stressed and repeatedly promising the poor little boy that we'd play a game as soon as he was done.

Food is life. I truly believe that someone's attitude toward life can be measured by their attitude toward food. When someone is sitting their crying over their plate, that is a very sad commentary on his life. Parent often forget, I think, that children are people too. That being forced to sit at a table when everyone else has left is humiliating. That each of us has our own senses and our stomachs can tell us when we are full or hungry, not our parents or anyone else.

I realize that many young kids go through phases where they won't eat certain things or they seem to eat very little and I realize that this can stress parents. My two older children went through it, and I clearly remember my Grandmother wringing her hands over me when I decided that I would not eat potatoes, no matter what. (My Grandma served potatoes at nearly every meal. Most conversations with Grandma occur while sitting at the kitchen table peeling potatoes.) However, I was never forced to eat. None of my siblings were and none of my children were. My husband reports he also was not. If we didn't want to eat we simply didn't eat. There was, of course, no dessert if we didn't eat and no snacks till the next designated mealtime. But we were never forced to eat.

With the exception of a few genetic issues, my family is pretty healthy. Nobody is grossly overweight or underweight. We have no eating disorders to my knowledge. And we always eat our vegetables. Yes, I even eat my potatoes. And my older kids and husband occasionally complain, but they eat their vegetables too. If there is something on the plate they don't like, they eat it first, to get it over with. Some folks won't eat meat, some skip the dinner rolls, some have two pieces of pie, nobody bats an eye. This is the first time we've had a scene like this- maybe that's why I can't get it out of my head.

Now, I couldn't say anything then, because it would've been rude, but this is my blog and I can say what I want here. Those parents set that kid up for failure from the start. Here are my criticisms:

First, they piled a whole bunch of food on a very large plate. The plate was actually too big for an adult, to be honest. I don't understand why giant plates are fashionable these days but it's really a bad idea. Children should have child-sized plates and be served child-sized portions. And it also helps if you let the child choose the portions. "Take what you want, eat what you take" is a pretty decent rule.

Next, they started out hostile toward the food. They sat the child down and put the plate in front of him and said "Now this is spinach pie and it has green stuff in it, but you're going to try it anyway. And I know she (that is, me) ruined this macaroni by putting broccoli in it but you're going to eat it anyway."

Then, when the child tried the spinach pie, finished it off and said triumphantly "That was good and I couldn't even taste the green stuff". Instead of praising him for trying something new, they immediately jumped on the rest of the plate. "You haven't even touched your salad."

And they spent the entire meal saying "Sit up straight" "stop slouching" "no pouting" "Is that whining I hear?" "I don't see you chewing." I wanted to tell them to just let the poor child be and enjoy their own meal! (And let the rest of us enjoy ours in peace.)

Food is meant to be enjoyed, not muddled through. I find that if you present the food positively, children will react positively to it. Micromanaging your child's meal and forcing a small child to eat adult sized portions is an eating disorder waiting to happen. Enjoy your meal, let your child enjoy his and in the end, everyone will be happy.
(1/31/12)

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