Tuesday, December 26, 2017

You Are What You Eat

Young children grow at a remarkably rapid pace. The foods they eat directly determine the quality of their mood, energy, growth, mental development and physical health. The right foods keep a child on the move, playing and learning, while simultaneously building healthy tissue, bone, muscle, etc. A well nourished child can think clearly, manage stress, and heal quickly.  The opposite is true of a child who eats too much junk.  She will be irritable and cranky and struggle to maintain focus and complete tasks.  She will be more prone to illness.  The quantity of food does not compensate for its quality.  A breakfast of sugar cereal, cookies and chocolate milk is almost as bad as no breakfast at all.  Without any real nutrients to feed her body, she will still be hungry.  We literally are what we eat.

Feeding our children is an act of love.  It is one of our primary responsibilities as parents.  Yet children vary in their appetites and tastes.  Some babies are "good eaters" and open wide for all types of food.  Others are picky and rarely seem hungry.  The former are a pleasure to feed.  My grandson Ephraim used to open his mouth wide, like a baby bird.  He'd finish a bowl of food, I'd give him more.  He'd finish that, I'd give him more.  When I thought he had eaten more than enough, I'd try to pull him out of the high chair.  Try.  He would hold on for dear life.  His mother had also been a good eater.  She once toddled up to the refrigerator, banged on it and said, "Mine!".

Other children can be very picky eaters, causing their parents anxiety.  We understand the importance of a healthy diet, but our child will tolerate only a limited number of foods.  We look for new ways to coax him to eat.  We pretend the spoon is an airplane:  "Here comes the plane, flying into the hangar"; or a train:  "chugga chugga choo choo" into the child's mouth.  I did all sorts of things to make healthy food more fun for my children.  The most memorable was adding whole carrots to their lunch boxes, carrots that still had the green leaves attached.  I thought they might pretend to be Bugs Bunny.  Instead, I think they may have been embarrassed.  They were the "only" children who didn't bring junk food to school.  Once, my son traded his sliced cucumbers for a fruit roll.  I was actually more concerned about the boy who gave up the fruit roll; what kind of diet did this poor boy have, where he preferred the cucumbers to candy?

Sometimes parents give children unhealthy food because it's simply easier.  It takes more time to prepare fresh food than to open a box or package of something ready-made.  Children love sweets (don't most of us?) and will whine and cry for it.  Treats are okay occasionally.  Part of the definition of a treat is that we get it once in a while; that it's outside of the norm. A steady diet of treats is a recipe for disaster.  The best approach is to simply not keep junk in the house, and to only allow it on special occasions.  Fresh fruit can be just as delicious.  I call it G-d's candy.  Some planning ahead can ensure that there are healthy options available when our children want snacks.  In addition to fruit, we can keep fresh veggies, sliced cheese, whole grain crackers and pretzels on hand.  

Regardless of our children's individual appetites or tastes, there are steps we can take to make sure that they are eating healthfully.  One suggestion is to limit the choices available at home.  In the early childhood programs where I worked, we offered milk or water to children at snack time.  Every year, parents would advise us that their children would not drink milk.  However, when the only choice was milk or water, the children inevitably began drinking milk. Stating that a child won't drink milk can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I was once in a classroom where the children were eating apples.  The teacher complained that they had been serving apples too often for snack.  One little girl was listening nearby as the teacher complained.  She put her apple down mid-bite and didn't finish it.  When my children were younger, I served salad at most meals.  Eventually, everyone learned to enjoy salad.

Parents' attitudes toward foods strongly impact a child's eating habits.  It's important to keep an open mind and to use neutral language.  For example, we can say that we don't care for a particular food, or it's not our taste.  We shouldn't label a food as "disgusting" or "yuck".  All food is a gift from G-d and children should learn to respect it.  Schools are not permitted to use food as punishment, and this should be true at home too.  Snacks and meals are necessities, not privileges.  Food should also not be the first thing we run to when we're hurt or sad.  We don't want our children to confuse their hunger for comfort with their hunger for food.  

Food is a basic necessity, one that we can't live without.  It is also one of life's pleasures.  Finding a healthy balance of nutritious eating will fulfill our responsibility of feeding our children, teach them self-care, and nourish their optimal development.

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