Why is one kid picky and another a gobbler? How can we prevent them from becoming emotional eaters or overeaters or junk-eaters-on-the run—oh, while keeping a healthy weight and making friends with broccoli too? Are they doomed if, cough-cough, we were finicky in extremis ourselves as kids, or closet chocoholics now?
I know I’m not the only mom obsessed by food. A friend recently shared this meme in my Facebook feed: “I may look like I’m having deep thoughts…but 99% of the time I’m thinking about what I’m going to eat later.”
Can you relate?
You can see why I was drawn to Bee Wilson’s First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. Here was a chance to think about food for page after page, while maybe getting some answers to those burning food questions.
I wasn’t disappointed.
A feast of ah-has!
Unlike most books about feeding and kids, First Bite dishes up barely a word of advice. No lectures about nutrients. No hide-the-zucchini recipes. What Wilson, a food historian, offers instead is a whole new way to think about eating:
- Eating is a skill, just like any other, that we need to learn. (No, we’re not born destined to eat a certain way.)
- Many different things, not just one, shape our eating habits—from family traditions and siblings’ preferences to the subtle (and not-so-subtle) things parents say and do. So there are lots of opportunities for change.
- Absolutely anyone can keep learning—and re-learning—how to eat better. At any age.
That’s pretty reassuring. There are no magic tricks to becoming a good eater. It’s do-able. It’s supposed to be enjoyable. It’s never too late.
(Her welcome definition of a good eater: Someone who manages to eat in ways that support health but also bring lots of pleasure.)
Here are just a few of Wilson’s insights:
Most of our approaches to feeding children are too short term. We worry about the next five minutes when we should be thinking about the next five years.
One more bite… Try it, you’ll like it…No dessert until you finish your dinner… What am I going to put in that lunchbox?
We tend to fixate on the immediate eating problem—getting food down our kids’ gullets and moving on to the next tick-box in the day. But Wilson reminds us to step back and remember the big picture: Our real responsibility as parents is to teach kids how to eat for the rest of their lives, she says.
That lifts a lot of the stress out of every little power struggle and fraught decision. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” applies to feeding too.
Wilson’s a fan of Ellyn Satter, the dietician who brought us the “division of responsibility” in feeding: From toddlers to adolescents, the parent is responsible for “what, when, where” kids eat. Kids are responsible for “how much and whether” to eat.
Ignore the face.
She means those faces our kids make when tasting a new food for the first time—at anywhere from about 4 months to the day they leave for college. You’ve seen it: scrunched up eyes, extruded tongue, the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me grimace.
Her answer: Push right on through. Keep offering the same foods, without comment, just a tiny pea-sized dab at a time. (That makes it less pressured.)
It helps if you can take advantage of some windows of opportunity. Babies are born liking sweet things. But around 4 to 7 months, humans are especially open to new flavors. Studies show that when babies get tastes of vegetables then, they’re more accepting of them later.
Ages 1 to 3 are when kids’ basic food preferences tend to be set. Keeping up with the nonjudgmental offerings can help you power past neophobia—the fear of trying new things—that peaks from ages 2 to 6.
Missed it? Keep trying anyway. I have a 16-year-old who avoided fruit for her first 14 years. Then her friends introduced her to smoothies. Now she eats apples and bananas. It sometimes takes… a lot of patience.
Girls eat better when food stops being something forbidden.
Boys eat better when their parents continue to expect them to eat vegetables and include them in home-cooked meals as they get older.
As a mom or step-mom of three boys and three girls, my experience is that Wilson is totally right about this one. There are some messed-up gender messages about eating in our culture.
Studies have shown that college students think of “boy foods” (Big Macs! steak!) and “girl foods” (cottage cheese, pink cupcakes). Boys are urged to eat protein, take seconds, get big. Meanwhile when girls’ bodies curve out in puberty, they’re teased or nagged to diet.
But boys can get too big, and nobody notices. And girls often don’t get as much iron (from, say, meat) around puberty as they need. There’s a happier medium here.
Skip the “kid food.”
By that she means the colorful, bite-sized, sweet, salty, fun, “undemanding to chew and swallow” stuff invented in just the last couple of generations. It’s usually heavily processed. And it’s not real food, Wilson reminds us.
By definition, kid food is different from foods for adults. But in order to outgrow the food of your childhood, you have to break a powerful habit—which, in the case of kid food, is really hard because it’s so addictive. Why not just start our kids on the pleasures of real food from the start?
Bonus: It saves a lot of money too.
No one is too busy to cook.
“Most people eat better when most of what they eat is home-cooked. But this principle only works if you learn to make at least a few things other than cupcakes,” Wilson writes.
I used to hate cooking myself. Taste drove me to it. I discovered that when I bought and fixed things I liked, they tasted better. And that made me want to do it more.
It’s a huge myth that cooking takes a lot of time. If I can get a hot, yummy meal on the table from scratch in 20 to 30 minutes, anyone can.
Sugar is not love. But it can feel like it.
So much of eating happens on auto-pilot. Movies mean candy. Soccer practice means granola bars and donuts. Birthday parties mean big slabs of cake. Grandma’s house IS pasta.
Emotional connections to food are powerful, but we don’t have to stay stuck on them. “Not every occasion needs to be marked with a gargantuan piece of cake smothered in sugar,” Wilson writes. “You may find equal joy in a smaller piece, a basket of cherries, and a victory dance.”
Knowing that you don’t have to eat a certain way is freeing. Why should we insist on a big frosted cake if we have a kid who prefers fruit tart or chocolate pudding?
Up until age 3, kids only eat until they feel full. After that, we start losing the ability to tell how truly hungry we are. Enter soup. It’s the best way to trick our bodies into feeling fuller, longer, Wilson says.
Everybody loves some kind of soup!
Nothing tastes good when it’s eaten in a spirit of coercion.
“Cajoling, urging, and hinting don’t change how people eat,” she adds. “These techniques don’t work with children, and they don’t work with adults.”
If you want to eat better, just keep trying.
We pretty much don’t eat—won’t eat—what we don’t like. But if we keep trying new things, right into adulthood, we really do develop new tastes, new ways of eating.
“It is genuinely possible to reach the point where you desire broccoli more than fries and whole-grain sourdough more than sliced white bread,” Wilson writes.
The goal for all of us, she says, should be to see food as “a daily source of delight rather than something to fight against.”