Anyone remember the classic (and slightly odd) British comedy, “The Fast Show”? It’s referenced at least weekly at our place as we lean into what everyone is currently eating. This week, per the title of this post, Peggy is mostly eating oranges. She’s currently munching on her fifth. This morning.
Along with sleep and teeth brushing, food must surely be one of the biggest challenges parents face with young children. I’m into my thirteenth year as a parent and I think I’m finally working it out. I’m going to share with you what my children continue to teach me about eating, how food connects us to our instincts and how rethinking what you know about food might liberate you in more ways than you can know.
There was the year one of my children ate mostly peanut butter sandwiches. On reflection, that might be the year the same child decided that he ‘hates’ butter (yes, he is definitely related to me – you should see our toddler photos!). Early this year, my orange sucking 5 year old spent a good month only eating mandarins and nutella foldovers. My 12 year old eats avocado on sourdough every morning. Like, every morning. And broccolini for lunch and dinner. My 8 year old barely eats anything at the moment, sitting at the table just long enough to eat half a slice of honey toast.
This isn’t just a story about my kids strange food habits. It’s also about how my own identity as a mother had become so intertwined with my need to provide what I genuinely believed was a wholesome diet, that I’d obtained my ORGANIC SUPERMUM cape in exchange for liberty.
A few years ago I would have been in a state of significant anxiety about my kids enjoying a glass of lemonade at a kids birthday party or eating a piece of cake that wasn’t made from quinoa. We were a family that proudly declared ‘’we don’t go to Mcdonalds”. Even my kids bragged about it in an annoyingly sanctimonious way. Not many would have noticed my anxiety around food – I had become fairly expert at keeping my wildly paddling legs hidden underwater! I’d almost made it a full time job actually – rarely sitting down to eat, instead picking at homemade raw delights while slow cooking organic beef casseroles, baking bread, making sauerkraut….there was plenty of fun still and in fact, cooking delicious and healthy meals formed the basis of my community with many shared meals and communal cooking sessions. But providing nature’s delights for my family and for others, had started to feed my ego. I enjoyed the thrill of appearing at every event with handmade snacks. I loved sharing recipes but started to notice that the exchange had become more about whether people wanted my recipes.
At the same time as my exhaustion from living out this identity as ORGANIC SUPERMUM was really getting to me, my kids started questioning why other kids drank softdrink and why even our potato crisps had to be organic?
I started asking deeper questions about food and our modern relationship with it. I was already very much on the ‘question everything’ path, but it’s always easier to question things that lead us to a change that’s easy to accommodate! Or that fits with our existing beliefs. It had been easy to adopt an organic lifestyle because that was within my control. It was easy to adopt the fairly radical notion of only eating homemade bread because that fit within my existing beliefs around eating natural foods. Challenging the food pyramid though? Questioning whether kids really do need a rainbow of foods everyday? Reframing ‘gum’ as a food group? These were places only my kids could take me! And those of you who know my kids, will testify that they make compelling arguments!
I started to really notice how they would choose to eat when given a higher degree of autonomy – and it often did not involve a rainbow pick platter with homemade hummus (although sometimes it still did). They would, each of them, gravitate to the same group of foods everyday. And I reflected on past habits and wondered why I had felt it necessary to intervene when my second child went through his apple phase at 3 years old. Or tried to move my oldest away from existing purely on grapes and cashews as a toddler. My intentions were pure of course. I had simply believed that children need a far wider variety of foods than they naturally seek.
As I move more deeply into a life of partnership with my kids, I see so much evidence that children need very little instruction at all. They know far more than than we realise. And so if you believe that, it makes sense that they will also know what they need to eat. Not only what their bodies need for fuel but what they can tolerate in terms of foods that sit outside of the framework of nutrition.
Surely our ancestors didn’t eat 7 different varieties of fruit and veg everyday? Or grains from South America (don’t get me started on that one…)? I imagine they ate a lot of whatever was in season and that there was a glut of. And then grew tired of it, just in time for the season to change and a new food to become available. People who lived on the coast would have eaten alot of fish. People who lived inland would have eaten quite differently. Of course there would have been natural regional differences even within the same country, based on soil and rainfall etc and some regions would have offered more fertility for growing a wider variety of foods. Going back even further to pre-agricultural life and diet would have been based entirely on foraging (although small scale agriculture is quite ancient and would have related closely to what grew naturally in that place – more about cultivating than controlling).
In any case, dietary need would have aligned with seasonally availability. Consider how oranges grow in winter, right when we need higher levels of vitamin C. Nettle grows at the end of winter, just as the days are warming up and we are coming out of hibernation. What if our children know exactly what their bodies need and when? Right now, Peggy’s body needs oranges. And apparently popcorn. Which leads nicely into how liberating our family from the ‘should’s’ of childhood eating habits has freed me from internal judgment and my need for ‘goodness’.
What does the term ‘good mother’ mean to you? How does it make you feel? I know it used to make me feel validated and proud. I now see that the weight of that was transferred to my children. If they ate ‘well’ (read: variety of natural foods, appropriate servings of fruit and veg) I was a ‘good mother’. Obviously I know this because I was told it often and this was reinforced by many books and articles on the subject! Living a life where the behaviour of our children and even their personal preferences are directly related to your value as a person, brings little joy. In fact it can bring significant suffering if we agree that the opposite of ‘good’ is naturally ‘bad’. If a child chooses not to eat their broccoli or instead wants icecream for dinner, does that make one a ‘bad parent? To a mother whose child spent much of last summer scanning every footpath for pre-chewed gum, I say no.
Not only am I confident that children, when given autonomy over their bodies, and thus their preferences, are programmed by instinct to care for themselves, I am also choosing a life where my validity as a human is not defined by my how many penguin bar’s my child has for breakfast. Three – the answer is three.