Eat or die

That, of course, is the first rule of nutrition. And there are no other rules.

I just read this fabulous post over at Spilt Milk: Let us eat cake, and in the comments, in my own rambling, I had something of a revelation, immediately followed by a reality check:

I said that the Boychick never “doesn’t like” what we have for dinner, and then joked that I’d regret saying that later. But then it occurred to me — it is often the case that he doesn’t eat what we have for dinner. Or rather, he’ll eat only part of it (say, only the broccoli, or everything but the broccoli — don’t ask me!), or will eat only a very little bit of it, or, very very infrequently, will decline to eat with us at all (which on the two or three occasions that’s happened has been more about him wanting to run and play right then than a commentary on the meal itself).

And my revelation was that some parents might frame that as “not liking” what we served. Because he’s not eating it. Or because, tonight, unlike the three hundred nights that preceded it, he says he doesn’t like noodles. Or broccoli. Or chicken. Or whatever it is he’s declining to consume on this particular night.

But never, not once, has it crossed my mind to conclude that, thus, he “doesn’t like” what we made. Because I know that toddler tastes change by the day — sometimes by the minute. Because I know that his choice to not eat something right then doesn’t say anything about whether he’ll like it at some other time. Because I know that he ate it yesterday, and even if not, he’ll probably eat it tomorrow1.

But mostly because we trust him. We trust that he’ll eat what he wants, and how much he wants, when he wants. It’s how we fed him as an infant — as much breastmilk as he wanted whenever he wanted, in which he got tastes of everything I ate — and it’s how we introduced solids2 — whole foods, the same foods we were eating — and it’s how he eats now. He eats spicy black beans and chicken makhani and mushroom stroganoff and pretty much whatever we eat. Except for when he doesn’t. Which is ok, because he’ll eat something else later.

The reality check is that there is absolutely privilege in this: we completely have the first rule of nutrition covered. If he doesn’t eat what’s on his plate right now, no one’s going to starve. No one’s going to go hungry because he wasn’t interested in that food right then. There will always be plenty more food later, and different food, and enough food to fill him up, and enough food to waste.

And that is not true for everyone all the time. That is not true for many people within just miles of me. That may not be true for all the people reading this.

Which is something we need to remember — I need to remember — when extolling the virtues and joys of unconstrained living, of intuitive eating, of whatever privileged philosophy3 is being promoted that day. Some of us simply do not have those options. Some of us must make our children eat whatever is in front of them right then because who knows when or what the next meal will be.

Sometimes, it is eat this — or die.

  1. Even zucchini, which for quite a while was the one food we knew he would consistently decline. Until the night he ate it and wanted more.
  2. Mostly. In retrospect, we could have eased up on avoiding the “allergen” foods a bit earlier, but according to mainstream America, we were already neglectfully blasé about the whole thing, what with letting him eat off our plates, even if we did pick the nuts out first.
  3. Yes, even when it is a social justice philosophy, intended to work against fatphobia and sexism and age oppression. Because this is how kyriarchy and intersectionalism work: privilege in some areas can shield us from the worst of oppression in others, or can give us the ability to negate the effects some. Under capitalism, money makes up for much.
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19 Responses to Eat or die

  1. You are so right!
    I often think about the privilege bound up in being able to access a range of fresh foods, and of having the money to buy them and store them, and the time and skill and knowledge to prepare them. There is a lot of snobbery involved in the judging that goes on around food- I hear people talking about ‘those parents who feed their kid fast food’ as a euphemistic statement of classism. But what I don’t often think about is what a huge privilege food security of ANY kind is. What a privilege it is to choose how I want to feed my kid in a world where so many parents have to watch their children go without.

  2. YES. This. I used to worry a lot less about Bertie leaving stuff when I didn’t have to worry about money. Now, it does make me anxious when he leaves things at meals, when he doesn’t eat much or when he doesn’t eat at all.

    And I have to be honest, I do see a lot of snobbery sometimes with attachment-style parents around food. E.g. “I did BLW and that’s why my child eats everything” is one I hear a bit, especially on twitter! – well, I did BLW, too, and my child doesn’t eat everything. In fact, there is a lot he won’t eat, or won’t eat much of.

    (I think with BLW, it’s more of a likelihood kind of thing, kids who were weaned via BLW are probably a bit more likely to try new things and eat more foods, but that’s all it is. Same with breastfeeding; in general breastfed children might be more likely to eat a greater range of foods than formula fed children, but on an individual level, a breastfed child could be the fussiest eater ever.)

    And yes, in things like BLW and unfooding (and even, to an extent, breastfeeding – it’s a weird one, because although mothers who breastfeed are discriminated against more than those who bottle feed formula, at the same time, in a society that normalised formula feeding, in order to be able to breastfeed you probably did have to use some privileges to do it) there is a tremendous amount of privilege involved. Because if you trust your child is taking the right things for their body, fair enough, but what are you meant to do with the food they leave? Throw it away?!?! The kind of person who suggests throwing food away is the kind of person who really does need to check their privilege!

    And this is why parents, good parents, end up feeding their children chicken nuggets and chips for each meal. Because at least they’re eating. Because at least there will be no waste. Because it is not going to cost them money they don’t have. Same with those oh-so-dreadful (/sarcasm) parents who spoon feed their children. No waste.

    And so on. I’m really glad you wrote this, because sometimes it does annoy me when people come out with judgemental stuff around children and food (not you, I see it often though) and how we should all be trusting our children and trying them with new foods and if they don’t eat them just saying “that’s fine I’ll get you any one of these other foods I have in my fridge (and, having a fridge, even there, there’s privilege in that) …”

    Sorry, that was the longest comment ever.

    • I fully agree on the likelihood thing. That’s true of so much of what “natural/crunchy” parents advocate for: good birth practices and confidence increase the LIKELIHOOD of successful breastfeeding, BLW increases the LIKELIHOOD of a healthy relationship with food and a broad palate, etc. There aren’t any absolutes, we can just influence the outcomes.

      But we still, first, have to obey the first law of nutrition.

  3. Maybe your son (and my daughter) feel able to reject food at mealtimes because they know there will be something else later. If food was in short supply and I had always encouraged her to eat every little bit, she might have grown up with a different attitude to food to the one she has now. I love the BLW philosophy but you’re right; it works because we know we don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from.

    • “Maybe your son (and my daughter) feel able to reject food at mealtimes because they know there will be something else later.”

      Yes, exactly. Which, as a side note, is one of the multitude of reasons that Diets Don’t Work (ever, but especially when imposed externally, like from a parent to a child). When we aren’t sure we’re always going to have enough, we eat everything we can when we have the opportunity. Because our hind brains know the only law is eat or die.

  4. we are kind of compulsive about not wasting food (or anything), so we end up making a lot of meat-free (i.e. compostable) one-pot meals. if one of us doesn’t finish our food, we can either compost it or just return it to the pot (family germs?). my medications sometimes make my appetite rather unpredictable, so the kid isn’t the only one who sometimes doesn’t finish what she takes.
    one possibly unpleasant side-effect, though, is that my partner sometimes ends up finishing SD’s food (or mine)–he’s had to learn to say no (or “i’m not a human garbage pail”) when he really doesn’t want any more. i wonder if a lot of parents feel compelled to finish the food their kids leave, so as not to waste.

    • FWIW, I only finish my kid’s food if I’m still hungry.

    • I know a LOT of parents for whom that’s true. I think I’ve mostly skipped it, but I know The Man sometimes does that (with my food, too), because of the food issues he grew up with. With any luck, we can spare the next generation that compulsion, without encouraging waste. (I think that part will come later, when he’s able to dish up his own food. Having grown up only ever eating as much as he wants, and not feeling compelled to not eat more/to finish it all, he’ll be better able to take just what he wants. I hope.)

  5. Ellyn Satter’s book How to Get your Kid to Eat (But Not Too Much)* was recommended to me about the time I was thinking about offering the Infanta solids, and I love its overall message that presenting food is the parent’s job, and eating (or not) is the kid’s, and that’s more or less the philosophy we use. DH, being vastly more “traditional” and conservative than I, does try some feeding persuasion, but for the most part she eats by hunger, not force. She also eats nearly anything we put in front of her**, and if she doesn’t want it, we (mostly) don’t push it. I visited my mom a few months ago, and a friend of hers was astonished that my then-18-month-old ate “mixed foods”; I was a little bemused, because she’s never eaten anything else!


    ** This is not to say she doesn’t have preferences, but I’ve learned not to expect her to eat, say, avocado, so I don’t offer it often.

    • I would add that I disagree with Satter’s take that breastfeeding for more than a year is indulgent (what are we supposed to do then, switch to formula?! the Infanta wasn’t interested in solids til after a year! …and btw, pushing them on her before she was interested would have been counter to Satter’s own philosophy).

      I also want to add that I agree that we are very privileged in that we don’t have to worry (much) about where our next meal is coming from, and that we can afford indulgences like avocados and eating out from time to time.

      In terms of parenting around food, though, I’m not so worried about privilege. If I think about it, yes, I see it there, and I’m grateful for what I have. I’m much more worried about ensuring that my daughter grows up with a healthy relationship with food and her body image. I have good relationships with both, but many people around us don’t.

      • This is one of those cases of privilege where I fully expect and encourage those of us who have it to use it — raising our children with disordered (unnecessarily controlled) eating habits would do nothing for those children who experience eating coercion in order to obey the first rule of nutrition. Should we be doing what we can to help abolish hunger around us? Yes, absolutely. But creating false scarcity in our own homes is no way to accomplish that. (“There are starving children in Africa” is a phrase that, uttered at a dinner table, makes me see red, for a multitude if reasons.)

        Where I think it matters we remember the privilege inherent in this philosophy is when we are promoting or advocating for it. Because it’s not just the objectified and mythologized “children in Africa” who are at risk of starvation, whose parents struggle to fulfill the first law of nutrition for their families, it is people right here, reading this, participating in online discussions, loving parents who are looking for tips on how to encourage their children to eat zucchini not out of a desire to control or because they don’t trust their children’s hunger signals but because it’s the only vegetable they can afford this month.

        When we forget this, when we argue for intuitive eating (which is a good thing!) as though the only reason someone would choose otherwise is ignorance and not perhaps structural oppression, then we are acting like privileged douchebags and deserved to be called on it.

  6. I remember when Rachel was a baby and still waking up hungry in the night a lot and I was getting very little sleep (and feeling very grumpy about it); it was then that I saw “If the World Were a Village” on Treehouse. (For those who haven’t seen it or read the book, it takes percentage statistics about the people of the world and depicts the percentages as individual people in a village of 100.) At one point the narrator points out how many people in the village would never have enough food to eat and it was a huge lightbulb moment for me. I realized how incredibly lucky I was that when my child cried for food that food was always there immediately. Before that moment I hadn’t really thought about how many mothers hear their children cry and can’t feed them, nor how many children are so weakened by hunger that they can’t cry. I never felt the same about getting up with Rachel at all hours of the night again.

  7. Arwyn: (got to respond) I love this article. No disagrements. My response to ‘starving children in Africa’ was If I dont eat it, they still wont get it. I see the same red. I can remember hiding food, sitting at the table for an hour not to ‘clean up my plate’. Ive been, still am, guilty of the ‘no desert, you said you were full’ argument. And all this is due to a very privileged life. I can and lived on just ensure, but it is expensive. As for good nutrition, Ill never forget the day I learned my body knows what it needs: I hate raw cooked spinach. Always have. Still do. But one needs those nutrients somehow, and I have to force myself to eat veggies. Except one unforgettable day in the college commons. The spinach smelled delicious! It was the same as ever, but my body was insisting I eat some of what I needed. On the other hand, humans are designed to crave sugar, and refined sugar is not really a nutrient. Which is why the candy companies are so irresponsible. Sigh.

  8. I agree generally with this post and I think with most kids it works. I believe in balance over time and not everyday. So if my child eats next to nothing one day and a ton the next day, I don’t worry. If she eats nothing but olives one day and nothing but strawberries the next, that is fine too.

    My son is an exception though (as was/is my brother). If left to his own devices, he would eat nothing but protein and carbs. My brother was mostly left to his own devices and ate pretty much exclusively protein and carbs, is not particularly healthy as a result and has suffered from various health problems. He has been working out and trying to eat better recently, but for the first 30 years of his life, his diet sucked. So with my son, we do insist on some fruits and veggies. We do not force any particular ones, but serve ones we know he is willing to eat and insist that they be part of the mix of what he consumes. Often serving them before anything else is served helps, because he’ll eat them while waiting for the rest of the meal to be ready.

    With my daughter where I’ve had to compromise/bargain is with regards to dinner/night nursing. She would prefer not to eat dinner, but to nurse all night long. So if I know she didn’t eat much at lunch, didn’t have a snack in the afternoon, and doesn’t have an upset stomach, I sometimes have to insist that she eat at least some of her dinner otherwise there will be no nursing at bedtime. It isn’t a tactic I particularly like, but it is preferable to nursing an almost 3 year old every 30 minutes all night long or resorting to something like CIO to “show her” the “consequences” of not eating her dinner.

    On the issue of food and affordability, we went to a wonderful exposition recently at one of our local museums that had pictures of families around the world with their groceries for the week. It showed what they ate and listed the price. It was a great opportunity to talk with my kids about how different people eat different things and how some people cannot afford the types of things that we have.

  9. Wow, it’s so refreshing to see people who aren’t judgemental about parenting. In my former life as a non-parent, I had my share of ill-informed opinions about the “best” way to raise kids, but becoming a parent was a huge wake up call to reality.

    Going through the daily struggles of parenting I can’t bring myself to judge other people for living according to their own unique situations. Unfortunately, that’s not a universal realization among parents.

    Anyway, Arwyn, I have to say that I just stumbled onto your blog and I’m hooked.

  10. Great post, Arwyn. My husband and I both have “eating issues” that we can trace back to childhood, from not having enough food to being forced to eat what we didn’t want to eat.
    I am resolved not to force foods on my toddler or resort to bribery or punishment but I’ve found that having my own issues with food make it difficult. And, like Annie @ PhD, my son will skip meals so he can nurse (an enormous amount), which is frustrating because I’m also nursing his infant sister and sometimes I just get “touched out”.
    But these are just little challenges! Thank you for reminding me of the number one rule “eat or die” and how lucky my family is to have enough to eat. None of us is worth any more than any other human on the planet and some how we got lucky enough to have this discussion.

  11. Pingback: My parenting style did not make my motherhood a prison; my society did « Raising My Boychick

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