Once upon an ideal time, kids obeyed, never threw tantrums, always spoke with manners, and ate everything on their plate. Or so previous generations would have us believe.
But what was it really like “back in the day?” And even if kids were truly “better eaters” 30+ years ago, were the common feeding strategies employed then worth emulating today?
I’m no historian or journalist. So I’m going to take a stab at speculation based on memories of my “back in the day” as well as share the thoughts of two pediatric dietitians who, like me, are also mothers of young children.
The seed for this post was planted when my Romanian mother responded to my article on carrots. Here is what she said:
As a grandmother and a mother who didn’t raise my kids in this country (their first 5 1/2 years), I think that with too much food choices and wealth in this country the young mothers worry about things like these so much and they wouldn’t even imagine that all of these issues come as a consequence of our superfood stores and the too much offer on the markets, people are supersaturated; the same kids would not even whisper and complain and/refuse any of the offered great foods if they would be in places where there is not so much to chose from. I think personally that they have too much control and say in how and what foods they like and dislike. I am mostly sure that I am wrong in your young eyes, it’s ok, but I cannot understand then why my self, my siblings and my own kids never raised questions and fuss about the food we had been served with on our tables! It was never enough I remember ….
In many ways I think she is right about the time (and place: Romania) when I grew up. Things were much simpler than today. Most everything was made from scratch because few mothers worked outside the home. My mom never needed a babysitter because we lived with her parents and when necessary we’d stay with my dad’s parents. Mothers were not constantly connected to hundreds of other mothers via the internet. You could not look up recipes from around the world in seconds. Comparing dietary choices and their children’s eating was not the easy-to-fall-into habit it is now for parents. And even if they could compare with hundreds of other moms, the truth is the food was very similar from family to family. The huge prevailing fear of choosing ‘the wrong food’ or the ‘wrong diet’ was absent. This made food and feeding and eating easier. Today there’s a lot at work that makes eating and feeding far more complicated.
Lots of food choices
+ easier access to food
+ frequent advertisement of food
+ lots of health messages about what you should/shouldn’t eat
+ lots of body image/diet messages about what we should/shouldn’t eat
+ a lot of easily obtainable food has a bad reputation
+ fears about the safety of our food supply
+ social media/internet connection to all these things
+ pressure parents feel to get their kids to eat the “right” foods
+ much less “farm to table” interaction
+ working mothers (or fathers) who can’t/don’t spend as much time cooking
+ more hectic, busy, sped-up lives
+ more time driving to and from
= a much more complicated world today.
Of course some of the very things that cause concern to health evangelists allow us to live the fast-paced lives we live: frozen meals, food from boxes, drive-thru fast food locations, etc. I have a number of older adult patients who cannot do the physical work of cooking food from scratch because of a disability or medical limitation. They certainly appreciate the ease of microwave cooking. I’m glad I can buy pre-packaged dry cereal for those mornings when cooking oatmeal or scrambling eggs isn’t going to happen. I’m glad I don’t have to grow or catch all my ingredients. The quick availability of food, of all kinds, allows many the luxury of their modern lives and helps others get enough to eat.
It’s also plausible that people of past generations have forgotten how fussy kids can be at certain ages. It wasn’t that long ago that my 2 year old was a fussy, constantly crying baby. And yet, the details and extent of that is a very, very faint memory. By the time he’s a teenager I’ll probably long for the “easy” days of babyhood. So it’s very possible that our parents’ and grandparents’ recollections about mealtime fussiness is fuzzy at best. As far as kids eating what was served “back in the day,” I wouldn’t be surprised if that truly was more common because it was no small feat to offer alternate options when everything was made from scratch. Parents couldn’t just pop open a box of frozen nuggets for a child who didn’t seem interested in the casserole.
We’ve come a long way, in both good and bad ways. While we have not eradicated food insecurity in the United States, for the most part most people have constant access to food. Instead of cooking and food prep taking most of our day, we can drive to get take-out, use a microwave, and buy pre-chopped, pre-grated anything — without having to grow it ourselves. Our great grandparents didn’t worry about how much sweets their kids ate because sweets weren’t available at every corner, at school, at church, and at every bank drive-through. Vegetables just were (or were not) part of meals and most of it was grown at home. Feeding habits that may have seemed ‘fine’ and ‘harmless’ in days where getting enough food was difficult, just won’t work today.
And of course, I can imagine in a somewhat poor country, it would make little difference if parents were forceful with food and made kids eat every last bite on their plate. Because they would often not have enough anyway, let alone ‘too much’ to contend with. The learned inability to stop eating when full, would rarely have consequences.
In our country of abundance, constant diet messages, constant fear of doing the wrong thing with food…it is critical to help kids maintain their ability to self-regulate their food intake, to help them trust themselves despite media messages they shouldn’t, to set structure so they don’t learn to nibble all day long or soothe themselves with food and to help them become competent eaters.
Here are some of my memories from Romania, about age 5 and under:
Sitting on the table in the home of my paternal grandmother while she fed me. She used the window by the table as a distraction device in an effort to get me to eat more. I have heard that there was a bit of a competition between both sides of my family: who could fatten me up best? In our land of plenty, the USA, being thin is a status symbol. In poorer countries, it was not.
Running up and down the apartment complex stairs, playing, with food in hand. The ‘snack food’ I was enjoying? Thickly sliced, generously buttered fresh-from-the-baker white bread, topped with salted, oiled, hand-massaged raw onions. I’d finish one slice and run back in for another.
Bread was a staple, but it was almost always white bread and there was a bakery down the street from…everyone, it seemed.
There was a store in my neighborhood that sold these flavored vitamin caps that were added to water to make it fizzy and sweet. The first time I tried the soda “Squirt” years later in the States, it immediately brought back memories of the fizzy vitamin water I loved as a kid.
Foreign chewing gum and candy was a serious treat. Romanian gum was bland and brittle, but Wrigley’s was soft and heavenly.
Bananas were either rare or pricey or both. So when we had a layover in Italy (on our way to the States) I was mesmerized by the banana stands and wanted nothing more than for my parents to buy one for me. I don’t recall if I got my wish, we didn’t have much spare cash.
We had some berry bushes in our yard, along with a garden full of vegetables.
Memories from the States: I have more than I can fit in one blog post, but what stands out is that we were very unrestricted. If we wanted to eat between meals, it was not forbidden. While there may (?) have been times we were told to wait, eating, in general was always encouraged. We kids felt very deprived if our kitchen did not have the popular snacks of the time, and we were mostly indulged in our desires. We often ate meals in front of the television. I distinctly recall watching TV while snacking without limit on salty snacks, followed by a sweet snack, followed by salty and so on. We’d often visit my maternal grandmother’s home and our (the kids’) first order of business was typically to raid the fridge. What yummy grandma’s special did it hold today? And while I was always on the thin side, and I’m sure the ‘encouragement’ for me to eat was strong, memories of this pressure to eat more are very weak at best.
Some of the ways in which I was fed were great: a variety of fresh, home-cooked foods and no restrictive feeding. I was allowed to eat as much as I wanted. Some of the ways in which I grew up, I recommend against because of the food environment of today. And yet, I turned out just fine. But I did become a dietitian and had an interesting journey to the relationship I have to food today.
In Part 2 I will share what fellow dietitian, Natalia Stasenko, remembers from growing up in Russia.