Feeding Children

For those of us with children, feeding them may be the most insistent demand we face. The regularity of preparing meals can often seem relentless, and the pressure to put nourishing food on the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner can leave us feeling inadequate. The fact that feeding a family feels challenging, however, does not reflect on us. It doesn’t feel hard because we ourselves are limited; it feels hard because it is hard. The task is intrinsically challenging and can, at times, be a struggle for every one of us. I have built my personal and professional life around food, yet there are still days when I want to hide under the covers as dinner time nears.

When kids are at an age or phase that makes them more selective about what they eat, the task looms still larger. It’s demoralizing to shop for food, prepare it, and then watch it be pushed away; and it’s disheartening to finally find nourishing food our children will eat, and then have it wiped off their list because peers deem it uncool.

Finding the fortitude to face the challenge squarely and to meet its demands creatively takes a lot of energy, especially when food manufacturers spend millions selling us quick and cheap “solutions.” Time is the great commodity, after all. We might resist giving up what precious little we have when our efforts are unappreciated or rejected. “Not worth it,” our small internal voice may say.

©Photo courtesy of: DTR@Ruhlman.com

After spending more than two decades feeding my own children, who range in age from twenty-one to five, there are still questions I wonder about:

  • What is nourishment really? When I was growing up, my grandparents lived an hour away. Each time I visited, they had a ramekin-filled treat waiting for me: either jello with sliced bananas or chocolate pudding. I enjoyed these equally and, despite their few nutrients, they nourished me. Even today, I have one of the special ramekins on my desk holding odds and ends and within close view. My attachment to this culinary memory makes me wonder what actually constitutes nourishment. Maybe a loving attitude and loving gestures, and a feeling of having been considered, are among the most important nutrients we offer. Perhaps even jello served with love can help sustain a child by passing on the caring that went into its preparation. In the ideal, I wonder if food needs to express both good intentions and love to nourish us on the deepest level.
  • What is our responsibility? How much looking away when our children are not eating well is all right, and how much is an abdication of our responsibility? When is giving into their demands for what their friends eat all right and when is it simply surrender? And when is it okay to care a little less when the caring becomes too difficult, or when our ideals and efforts are rejected too many times? As parents, the responsibility for making healthful foods available to our children probably falls to us; if we don’t do it, who will? But, after that, we may need to let go and give children room to express their preferences, respecting the normal push-pulls of early childhood and later peer group pressures that affect what children eat. Maybe our most important responsibility is to focus on eating well ourselves, on embodying the ideal, and trust that, with exposure and gentle guidance, what our children eat will work itself out in time.
  • How much choice do we give our children about what they eat? The answer to this question probably needs to change over the years and with each child. It may be that our role is to arrange our tables so that children, on their own, can reach for and select whatever they need for their growth and nourishment. This would mean filling our tables with healthful options that increase as children grow and then any choice is all right. We decide what to offer and they choose what to eat. Young children might eat only salad one day and soup another, but over a week or so they would likely get the balance of nutrients they need.

It is because I still have questions, and because I still wonder at the challenge of it all after decades of food gathering, cooking, and dishing up food for children, that I can offer this: If feeding a family is a struggle for you, know that it is for most of us. We press on on, not because it is easy, but because we all must eat. When we eat well, our bodies are nourished. When we eat as a family, we are all kept circling in the same orbit. It’s not only the food that works this magic. It’s the food and the talk. The food and the laughter. The food and the encouragement and validation that get dished up day after day. Each one of us, no matter how big or small, deserves a place around the table. To make room is empowering and deems each of us worthy. And making room now is important because the really dependent days of children are few and fleeting. Sports and music lessons and clubs soon narrow our window of opportunity.

In the end, the best way to feed a family may be to care and prepare, and then let go, just as we do when a holiday approaches. Think about how we work to complete all we can ahead of time. We take care of the details that will make the holiday memorable, and then we let go and allow it to unfold, enjoying the experience no matter what happens because we know that we can control our own contribution–what we give to the experience–but we cannot control the outcome. Family meals work the same way.

Our role may be to put in energy and care when we gather and prepare food, at a level that we enjoy and can sustain. When we can’t cook ourselves, we can find sources of good clean food and buy it, and we can try to find pleasure in the process. Without being negative or overly-controlling, we can also set standards that we believe are necessary and true. I am certain of this: if we can find a way to enjoy the time we spend in the kitchen, and if we can keep the struggle away from mealtime, our children will come to appreciate the foods we serve.

In the end, the foods children eat or reject (their autonomy) and what we want them to eat (our agenda) are less important than our willingness to keep at the task: eating well ourselves, offering food joyfully, and letting go of the rest.

Here is a recipe that makes everyone in my house happy, including me. It’s as easy as real homemade pizza can be. It tastes good, and it’s an extension of last month’s post because it’s whole-grain baking that really works. No-Knead Whole-Grain Pizza Crust

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul