Feeding Kids Today: Easier or Harder? (Part 3)

I’ve been writing about feeding kids today compared to doing so in our parents’ and grandparents’  generation and what some of the differences and potential pros and cons might be.  I introduced the topic by sharing my personal experiences growing up Romanian, then shared thoughts from another dietitian who grew up in Russia.  Today I want to introduce you to Tawn Thompson who holds a Masters Degree in Nutrition Education and is a Certified Nutritionist in Washington State.  She currently works as a nutrition educator and consultant for the Headstart program.  Her experience working with families offers some interesting insight into the matter of feeding kids in our current food environment:

“How were you fed as a child and how is it different from how you are fed now?”

 This is my favorite question for starting parent nutrition workshops. Many people have profound memories of eating and being fed as a child, and the influence of childhood eating into adult food choices is remarkable.
I hear all sorts of stories, from being made to “clean the plate” to seeing the same hated dish over and over again for each meal until it was eaten (or fed to the dog, squashed into a napkin, hid in the milk cup, or spread under the lettuce leaf.) I hear of tales of having to finish some foods, particularly vegetables, before other foods, particularly dessert or more starches, could be obtained.
Among immigrant parents who grew up in Mexico, I heard stories of food scarcity, particularly of meat. Many parents, who were children in the last 10-20 years, tell of having meat (chicken, pork, beef), once a week or only twice a month. Beans, squash and corn were the main meal components, for all meals, along with local seasonal produce. Some parents talk to hunting iguana, badger, or other small game for meat, and other parents speak of foraging for the seasonal fruit. Baked goods and dairy foods were rare and special for many parents who grew up in rural areas unless they owned a dairy cow.
When I ask how these parent now feed their children, I have not yet heard anyone claim to force children to clean their plates or eat hated food. However, bribery to get vegetables eaten is a wide-spread practice, one parent recently describing “I put the chocolate right next to their salad plate and tell them as soon as the salad is gone, you can have the chocolate.”
Among immigrant parents, one father explained (paraphrased for translation to English) “We have money now. We go to the grocery store and there are so many choices every day. There is yogurt, cookies, and bread. We buy what we like and what our children like. It’s probably not as healthy for us as the foods we ate growing up.”
From this summary of responses it seems most parents try to “correct” the food problems they grew up with.  Those who had food pushed on them, try to back off, but still might use bribery because they want to do right and know no other way.  Those who grew up with scarcity want their kids to experience the joy of abundance and fear putting limits on their child’s eating.  Perhaps limits feel too much like a reminder of poverty.  I didn’t have, so I want my children to have.
I know from talking with Tawn in the past, that part of the reason she asks her initial question is to help parents see for themselves how their upbringing might be influencing their feeding strategy.  But also to get parents thinking about whether their feeding habits are appropriate and effective considering the food and nutrition problems we are faced with today.  Being laissez-faire about food and letting children eat without limits or structure may feel refreshing to someone who grew up being forced to eat or who spent their life in scarcity, but their children and our children are not living in that world.  And there are options that don’t involve force, bribery, or permissiveness.
I believe that those healthier feeding options for today involve implementing the Division of Responsibility in Feeding (DOR).  Parents set structured meal and snack times that prevent grazing (structure), but allow a child to eat as much or as little (freedom) as they need within those eating times.  Parents also choose the food (responsibility in terms of nutrition) but aren’t dogmatic and restrictive (freedom) because they choose to include kids’ favorites (making use of our abundant food supply) in a way that pleases parents and kids.  There’s no bribery needed because kids are capable of learning to eat what the family eats — just like I learned to like the Romanian food of my youth and Natalia  learned to like her family’s Russian fare.
So is feeding harder today or easier?  I think it’s a little bit of both.  Parents have to learn to wade through so much more nutrition information (and misinformation) and have to contend with second-guessing themselves and feeling pressure to do more in terms of creating this super-balanced-eater with no food hangups.  Something nobody worried about in my parents’ generation.  But we have it easier because we can get virtually any food or ingredient, processed or not, and we have tremendous access to information.  It’s a strange and complex mixed-bag.  Being a dietitian and feeling somewhat confident about feeding my kids, I think I have it pretty easy overall.  But we don’t have network TV with its commercials and I am mostly a work-from-home mom.  Plus my kids aren’t in school yet … when they start school their lives will get busier and they will suddenly become influenced by people other than me and my husband.  That does make me a bit nervous.  In the meantime, I will stick with the DOR, implementing structure and trusting my kids to do their job with eating.
Posted by Adina
June 2, 2014

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