“The kitchen is a place of life and of possible relationships, a vital space inhabited on a daily basis by adults and children, a space for thinking and research and learning.”
-Madedalena Tedeschi The Languages of Food: Recipes, experiences, thoughts
The most basic part of your relationship with your child is that you are their food provider. It is the first thing they come out of the womb wanting from you, and for the first few months it seems it is all they want from you! You create your child’s relationship with food because you are their food. Their relationship with food and their relationship with you are one and the same. This is why we will always have such a strong emotional attachment to food no matter how much we try to look at it as nothing more than fuel. The more we ‘perfect’, package, and process our calories, the more empty they feel. But that doesn't mean those calories don't taste good going in.
This is the problem for parents of small children, the bad stuff is delicious. How do you explain that something that tastes good is bad? How do you do this while also avoiding the pitfall of body shaming? How do you do this while fulfilling your primal desire for them to EAT SOMETHING. One way is to return to making food about relationships and bonding, not just about fueling up. This may seem contrary to the current trend of treating food as medicine; that we should try to make our diet biologically and chemically perfect and independent of culture, emotions, and even taste. Food should still not be used as a reward, punishment, or comfort, but it should be a special experience.
You can never compete with the taste and quick satisfaction of a Hostess Cupcake or a Happy Meal, but you can create more exciting experiences centered around healthy food. Keep fast food fast. When you do have time to spend with your child, spend it in the kitchen. Children are drawn to the kitchen because it is a sensory paradise full of textures, smells, tastes, and tools. It is also a place where they see you spending a lot of your time. Or maybe it isn't...even more reason to make an effort to cook more with your child. Unlike coloring or building blocks, cooking is an activity where you and your child can both improve your skill-set.
I am a testament to that. I was not a cook. I am still not a cook. But the beautiful thing is, my son does not know that. He enjoys the slightly-overdone, spinach muffins because he got to be the one to wash the spinach. He doesn’t care that all of his baked goods are sugar-free, because there are still plenty of other ingredients he gets to scoop and pour. He’s enjoying the process, which means that even if the product isn’t good, he is still associating positive emotions with whole, healthy foods. As am I! I love a quick sugary pick-me-up, but now that I have become comfortable in the kitchen, I find myself whipping up a snack instead of grabbing a candy bar.
The other bad habit that I have broken for my son’s sake is eating on the couch in front
of the TV. I place more importance on meal times, and even if I am not eating with him, I will sit at the table with him. We both practice switching-off and focusing on food, conversation, and each other. When we eat out I also focus on table manners and trying new foods, instead of distracting him with a screen. This does not make for a relaxing meal, but it does mean that my son is learning that eating is an experience in itself, not something to do mindlessly.
My hope is that by focusing on food as something that brings us closer together, just like it has since he was first placed on my chest as a baby, that he will have a healthy relationship with food.