The most important value regarding eating in our home is that it is ultimately for each individual to determine and navigate their relationship with food; this means when they eat, where they eat, how they eat, what they eat and also why.
Being that we are a family and our children still require some assistance regarding food; namely. financially and physically, there are certain conflicts that can arise when trying to figure out what our role as parents is within the equation. How much influence is valid?
Figuring this out is ongoing, I have to admit that food is one of the areas I find particularly difficult to detach investment from but this is our approach so far in honouring our children’s autonomy…
As adults, we have spent more time existing and that generally means we have acquired more information about a topic than our children possess (not always and we should be open to their information too but generally). We feel it important to share this with our children; casually and detached from as much bias as possible. This isn’t a lecture but an ongoing conversation alongside their own observational practice.
We talk about the role food plays in supporting our bodies and we talk about how we use the way our bodies feel to help us make choices. We also talk about the joy of food and it’s preparation, food is ultimately fuel but also an experience.
I know there is the popular suggestion that what is provided and when is determined by the adult and then which part and how much of that is eaten is the responsibility of the child but we take a different approach. Food isn’t something we want to set conditions about so our children are involved from beginning to end.
What we purchase to have in our home is determined together, as is the preparation of this food. Our children are not required to join us but they are always invited and welcome. From an early age children show interest in the things that we do in an attempt to understand and often out of fear (knifes, hot stoves etc) or convenience (often cooking it is slower and messier with inexperience), this is discouraged. We made a conscious effort to be committed to our children having a place in the kitchen.
Children are in the process of figuring out what they like, what they don’t like, what helps them feel good and what doesn’t and that involves a lot of exploration. Many will reassure you that food before one is just for fun to remind us of this fact but I don’t believe that that aspect of eating dulls in importance past toddlerhood even if the nutritional requirements become more important as breastmilk consumption begins it’s decline.
If our children want to try something, we are always open to that; even if it doesn’t seem to go together and knowing that there is a possibility that it won’t be consumed entirely. And we also embrace that food is about more than our sense of taste; food is about texture and smell too. Personally, I believe eating with your fingers is a very different and worthwhile experience.
I find that accessibility can be a valuable focus for parents, it is in essence how we open up the world to our children. Having food and the tools needed for them within easy reach of children is not only relevant in assisting their navigating of their relationship with food but something they deserve; an act of dismantling childism and investment in their relationship with themselves.
Another aspect I consider is appreciating that for myself and others I have spoken with, sometimes the barrier to eating certain foods isn’t the food itself but the process of deciding and preparing such so sometimes we also do just present ready options for all to consume without obligation. I do find easy availability is something that seems to influence intake considerably.
The idea of making each individual specifically tailored meals can sound really overwhelming. In some cases, it isn’t that people intentionally choose to control food but more seek to reduce the requirements placed upon them in cooking it. We have found though that there are ways beyond control that one can make accommodating everybody easier.
Firstly, we embrace platters or deconstructed meals; this is where you prepare many elements of a dish and either keep them separate for each individual to dish such as with tacos or dish them separately as you continue through the process of cooking say if you are cooking a curry but some find that too spicy you can put aside some of the cooked protein before it is combined and some of the chopped vegetables before their are cooked.
Secondly, we invest time in bulk meal preparation when we do have time to make this simpler when we don’t. We cook bulk batches of certain sauces and condiments that are generally the longest process of a meal so that that aspect is covered and we have more space to accommodate everybody’s needs.
Thirdly, don’t discount your children’s input. As our children age and their ability grows, they are of their own volition beginning to shoulder some of the responsibility of meal preparation. Whilst it was an investment earlier in their life when including them could entail more work for the adult overall, it has seen them grow confident and capable and their contributions are becoming more mutually beneficial.
Avoiding Shame & Scarcity
This is perhaps the most aspect for us. Our approach is not a way to manipulate children into eating in a certain manner, it is about supporting them in navigating their own relationship with food. Shame and scarcity have no place within intentional decision making and so it is of utmost importance to us that we are conscious about processing our fears to reduce these. We do not have limitations on food, there is nothing that is disallowed. And I find when children understand that everything is an option, they are in a better position to make choices based on their actual needs and desires, rather than a fear of missing out (this could present as sneaking food or stealing it from others) or a fear of impending restrictions (this could present as gorging when available to satiate them in times of predicted lack).
Our children have had ice cream from breakfast, they’ve also forgone the opportunity to eat donuts. They’ve eaten a packet of candy in one sitting and nursed others for a month. They have had days that are devoid of vegetation and days where that was all they ate. Sometimes they request to make a chocolate cake, sometimes they request mangoes. All of this is part of the process, their process.