We had an older fella’ over here most of the summer. A man in his seventies, still full of piss and vinegar. A wiry and wily sort full of the good health and strong work ethic that would put many a young man to shame. He’s the type of guy that’s up for a conversation on most anything, but is especially fond of mischievous tales with a bit of a gritty edge. The first time I met him, he took off his glasses so I could get a better look at his incredible, glowing blue eyes and told me, “My dad used to call me ‘Snake’ because of these.” He then rolled up his shirt sleeve to show me the tattoo of his affectionately (I hope) dubbed nickname impregnated in the flesh of his arm.
On our last visit, Mr. Snake and I got into talking about feeding kids. “In our house, we ate what was on our plate or there was no way we were gonna’ eat later,” he told me. “Well, yes, of course,” was my reply. But that got me thinking as I walked away from our conversation. It’s not really “of course” at all, not even close. Not anymore. It’s anything but “of course”.
It seems to me that along with everything else in this world, there’s been a major over-correction to how we parent. We seem to think that there’s a couple of ways to raise these little beings - ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ or to simply stand back and shine the spotlight on these wondrous kids who come into this world perfect and angelic, our only job to make sure we don’t mess them up. Neither is right and we can see the effects of one, and the growing results of the other, all around us. We use the worst case examples of our past as reason to indulge the worst case practices of today.
I could go into every corner of parenting here, but I’m going, instead, to write about the thing I get asked about the most - feeding kids. And while an essay on feeding kids may be expected to include foods and when’s and why’s, that’s not what I’m here for. That’s the superficial stuff. That’s the easy stuff. You can get all you need to know about that from the Weston A. Price Foundation. Seriously, that is your primer on the right fats, proteins, and foods to feed your family. It is a sad testament to where we are that we need to put in the equivalent of a part time job to source nourishing, whole foods today, but it’s so. We can bemoan our lot or get on with it and have extra gratitude for those still working so hard to make those foods available to us. Build your foundation of unprocessed, home cooked meals around nourishing, pastured animal fats, animal organs and meats, whole, organic, raw dairy and seasonal, local, foraged foods. Once the foundation is built, you can branch off from there to decide what works or doesn’t work with your family. If any of this is new to you, there is a lifetime of information on the aforementioned website where you can begin learning.
What I want to address here is the psychology of feeding your kids. The real, genuine issue around meal times and food fights. We like to put band-aids on these issues. Glossy magazines and perky “influencers” will show you how to hide nutrition in a cupcake or how to navigate a kid that refuses to eat, or things you can do to make food more “fun”. That’s not real. And if you’re still trapped in that world, please, stop feeling like a failure. There are no answers there. Not really. Not if you want your child to be well nourished and familiar with real, wholesome foods.
So, who am I to dole out feeding kid advice? No one, really. I was a practicing nutritionist, yes, but that holds zero sway with a kid. But as a woman now in my fifties, I can say that I’m grateful and proud of the effort (and pain at times) we went to in prioritizing the health of our children. And it’s nice that they are effusive in their appreciation of our efforts as well. They grew up to appreciate robust, complex flavours and continue to pursue health. Not because we stood over them with iron fists, but because they genuinely loved what we ate. I have a hard time thinking of a single food our kids were (or are now) fussy with. And when I say that, I should clarify that what we ate was all sorts of hearty stews, bone broth based soups, patés and organ meats, stuffed beef heart and drippy, sticky oxtail. The weird stuff. They loved it all. But the real proof in the pudding is that our kids grew into adults that continue to source and eat real, nourishing foods. It’s an absolute delight (and relief) for us to see our eldest daughter, now just six weeks away from having her first child, nourishing herself, her husband, and that developing little babe on the most nutrient dense food available.
To see values we try to instil in our kids becoming something important to them, especially in a world that does its best to lead them astray, is a very rewarding feeling as a parent. We are in a battle with marketers and screens that feed a very abnormal as normal. Somehow, not wanting to feed your kids junk masquerading as food makes the parent the weird one. How did that happen? Well, we all know how that happened, but it doesn’t mean you have to bob along on that lazy river. You can do differently and with that comes the psychology bit.
Some of the most oft asked questions I get go like this:
“How do I get my mother-in-law to stop taking my kids to McDonalds?”
“My daughter is never hungry at meals, but snacks all day.”
“If I don’t feed my kids all the foods they’re going to rebel when they’re teens and go off the rails.”
“My friend said her mom fed her only health food and when she grew up she just binged her way through university and still eats worse than anyone I know.”
My answers to these questions might not fall in line with some PC idea of raising kids nowadays, but I don’t care. When my own daughters tell me that they will feed their kids using the same structures and educational approach we used with them, that’s about the best accolades I could ask for. When I get questions like those above, I sense the common thread through them all - a parent that needs to step into their rightful parenting role with confidence.
Honestly answering so many of the questions around nutrition could keep an advice columnist happy for decades.
Dear Slowdown Tara,
What do I do about my mother-in-law feeding my kids McDonalds?
Signed, Fed Up
Dear Fed Up,
Why does your mother-in-law think she can bring your child to McDonalds? Have you clearly vocalized to her that you do not want your children to eat McDonalds? Do you bring them there? If you have clearly told her that you don’t want her to bring your children to McDonalds and she continuously undermines you, the issues here are much more profound than the burger and fries. Why would you accept someone disrespecting you in such a way? In what other ways in your relationship does this disrespect show up? What are the consequences of her bringing your kids to McDonalds? Have you calmly and clearly had that conversation with her? Are there alternatives to McDonalds that she could do with them? Could she pack them a picnic and go to the park? Maybe she doesn’t know what you want them fed. Is she receptive to that conversation? Is she open to learning? If not, then you will just have to ensure that the kids are not fed by her. But, like I said, it’s not about the food. There’s much bigger things going on here.
Signed, SD Tara
See? Where to even start. Here’s what I will say. I was never in a situation where someone, watching one of my kids, would have brought them to McDonalds. The people I would entrust my children with knew how we fed them, what we valued, and, importantly, they were never left trying to figure it out on their own. When our kids were small, I always packed food for them. When there were class birthdays and sports team celebrations, I found out what was going to be on offer and brought a treat version very like what everyone else was eating. Hockey or rowing or rugby tournaments saw us hauling about our multiple coolers. For potlucks I’d bring a couple dishes so we always had something to eat.
Eventually, the time of the teenager arrives and with it the experimenting with eating things like pizzas and whatever other junk gets passed around at sleepovers or parties. But the gift that comes from raising children without these foods is that they grow up knowing what it is like to have a clear mind and robust health. They grew up athletes, able to tie their function to their nutrition. They grew up being educated about why we didn’t buy corn chips deep fried in seed oils, but instead made our own fried in lard or tallow. They were told and understood the difference. But no three year old cares about that. They’re little garburators, happy to eat whatever sets off those little fireworks on their tongues. And if those hyper-palatable foods are introduced when a child is small, it’s pretty hard to break free later. That’s where it’s our job to actually parent.
What happens at the dinner table is what happens in all of your home. Those dynamics are inseparable from all the ways we set our children up for their lives. We cannot mechanistically pluck out pieces of parenting in search of shortcuts. Those little wildlings can sniff that out like bloodhounds on a hot trail. Our homes filled with our people are their own little microcosms of culture. Living examples of the virtues we want to instil. We set the cadence. We set the rules. We endorse them with consistency. Through that comes a child that doesn’t need to constantly lash out and disrupt and be testing for the weak spots. And that is a child that has room to expand and grow knowing the structure around them will hold fast. They are safe. They need not take over from their parents. That’s not their job. They get to go about the business of exploring and growing and being their little selves knowing that the parents are taking care of the parenting bit.
Effective discipline results in calm and security in the home. Punitive, threatening, and yelling are not only damaging but ineffective. Equally so are bribes and scuttling about trying to please an insufferable child while resentments and frustrations reach a boiling point in the overrun parents. In one of those scenarios you have a fearful insecure child. In the other you have a brazen insecure child.
Parenting is full of joys and beautiful moments but it is not intended to be a feel good endeavour. When did we ever start thinking that? I suppose when our culture started telling us everything should feel good or it’s somehow wrong. Look where that’s getting us. Look where that’s getting our kids. No. Parenting is full of moments where what is asked of us is to go beyond our comforts to do the right thing. There is nothing to distinguish it from the rest of life in that way.
In today’s world of convenience and empty foods, we must put forth a great deal of effort just to find actual nourishment and not just tummy fillers. It’s imperative that we lead by example, eating and having in the home only the foods we value. It means actually developing a value set around nourishment and speaking of it, educating our children, and exposing them to where their food comes from regularly. That may look like them going with you to pick up the raw milk or beef shares. It may mean getting them involved from seed to harvest in your backyard or community garden. It means conversations about the butter they’re smearing on their carrots or having them beside you while you’re cooking so you can share space and time and closeness around your food. Go to the grocery store and, when age appropriate, explain the difference between a few common foods. What’s in that margarine tub? Why do you avoid it? Know some basic nutrition facts and share them.
Make eating a joy. Make food, real food, a joy. Foods that harm the body are not a treat. Avoid calling them that. Tell your kids why they aren’t. When special occasions call for it, make your kids alternative treats from real, whole foods. It’s amazing how fired up little kids can get from some raw milk custard or a little bowl of raw whipped cream and some berries to dip into it. An actual treat. When other kids are having birthday parties, I would always talk to the parents and find out what they were having and send along something similar looking for our kids. Hotdogs and chocolate cupcakes? Okay, no problem. I would cook up an organic beef hotdog, put it in a thermos to keep it warm and send along a cupcake made by me.
Make gratitude the spice that accompanies all of your meals. We always ate our meals with a blessing and a conversation. Our kids liked to know what animal we were eating, where everything came from etc. Like I said, we had a culture around food and they were part of it.
Today, our girls are in their twenties. They have raw milk shares and buy their food from their local organic, grass based farmers when they’re not raiding our freezers (admittedly, we don’t mind those adorable bandits one bit). They are bright, healthy, and beautiful young women. Even with limited funds, they don’t eat garbage foods. They don’t have disordered eating and they don’t rely on some authority to tell them what’s wrong with their bodies. They have autonomy via awareness and connection to themselves. And, I believe, that awareness of their bodies has been aided by eating in a way that doesn’t fill their bodies and brains and emotions with static. They are lean and strong and eat their food without thought to regulating or measuring or withholding. They eat great gobs of animal fats and lick their fingers clean. They are the embodiments of the values around food that we always encouraged.
We never gave options at meal times. I wasn’t a restaurant taking orders, I was a busy mom, looking to nourish growing bodies. Meals came to the table and that’s what was eaten. If our kids didn’t want to eat, that was fine, they didn’t have to eat, but there was no plan B. The food was the food. No snacking. No “I’m hungry” one hour later. I mean, yes, there could be an “I’m hungry” to which I would point at the uneaten plate on the counter.
Speaking of “I’m hungry”, it’s okay for kids to be hungry sometimes. I’ve noticed parents frantically whip out the crackers and bars the second a kid says “I’m hungry” as if it’s a five alarm fire. One of our goals was to always provide our kids with slow burning fuel rather than the hit of sugary, refined carbs all day long. All of those sugars simply instigate a high blood sugar surge that would crash down below baseline (hello screaming kid in aisle ten) before being jacked up with the next goldfish cracker. Animal protein and animal fats with some unrefined carbohydrates was our go-to in every meal. We ate at mealtimes when eating is appropriate. If our kids were being especially active and were actually hungry between meals, we’d give them something to tide them over. A good maxim for us all: true hunger means you’d eat some veggies in dip or a few slices of cold meat. If you’re looking for the treats, it’s not actually hunger at all.
For everything there is a choice. Mealtime is sacred. We come together as a family to share in time and space together around the pleasure of eating nourishing foods. The choice of whether a child wants to eat their food or not is theirs, but the practice of coming together and celebrating our food remains mandatory. Either way, meals are communion with our loved ones. Whether the child eats or not, they are expected to join the rest of the family. Choices and consequences. Relevant consequences to the issue at hand, just like all of life. And that is what we’re teaching, yes? We have the power to make choices for ourselves, but with those always come consequences. When we shield children from relevant consequences, we hinder their ability to head out into the world with fortitude and confidence. The first time something challenging comes up, they crumble at an unfavourable result. As parents, we need to trade our need to be liked for the lessons our children need to learn. Best to let them experiment and learn in the loving environment of home. The wild world awaits.
But all of this, every last bit of it, starts with the parenting of the young child. It is such a forward thinking gift we give to ourselves as young parents to set expectations and then consistently enforce them. If you’re wishy washy, they’ll figure it out. If you are scared that your kids won’t like you because you have to be the heavy at times, they will definitely figure that out, too. In fact, they will rule you by that superpower.
Consistency bring ease and peace. The self discipline to enforce discipline is one of those hard but necessary tasks of parenting. It tells the child that you are good for your word. When you say something, it will be carried through, always. They may not always like it, but they will come to depend on it. You ever see kids who are just left to rule the roost without any leadership or guidance? It’s an awful feeling and a terrible thing to witness.
What this all looks like in action:
First and foremost, ensure you are feeding your children diets full of nourishing animal protein and fats, organ meats, raw dairy, organic/local/seasonal foods. If your child is constantly snacking on high carbohydrate, refined foods, they’re going to be miserable and cranky and hungry. That’s no place to start. It’s also tough to beat those cravings and patterns once they’ve been put in place. It can be done, but avoid doing it from the get-go for a much smoother ride.
Meal times should be eaten as a family. No devices. No distractions. Talk about the food. Talk about your days or something interesting you read. Be a good role model. Manners make digestion all the sweeter. My husband and I always say please and thank you to each other and it just naturally became part of the way our family communicates. By the way, manners never mean not eating with fingers. Fingers are the best utensils around.
Make meal times convivial. If one child doesn’t want to eat allow them to make that choice. “Okay, you don’t have to eat, but there will not be anymore food until dinner.” When they’re young, they’ll call your bluff. Stick to it. Mean what you say. I can honestly say that even now, I just say something out loud and everyone in my family knows I mean it. No nagging or repeating necessary. It’s quite nice actually.
Get comfortable with being the weird one. Yes, for some unknown reasons, there will always be people that see what you’re doing as a personal affront to what they’re doing. Doesn’t matter what it is. If you you do something different, they take it as a condemnation of their actions. I, personally, think this comes from a place of shadow - somewhere in them they know they should be doing something different. Alas, even if you don’t give two figs about what they’re doing, they will likely react that way. It will happen for the rest of your life. Get used to it. It still happens to me today. It doesn’t even phase me anymore, but when I was a young mom I felt ostracized and lonely at times. There’s bigger things at stake here. Keep your sites on that.
There is no way that you can hope to sow seeds of good practices around health if you are not leading by example. You can say whatever you want, but if you’re eating junk foods or bringing them into the home, you will be no match for the effects of those foods on those little bodies. Children believe what you do, not what you say.
The dinner table dynamic is no different than the bedtime dynamic than is all the other parts of raising kids. It’s just a saturated and condensed moment that highlights weaknesses in our parenting. And that part is indeed up to us. Parenting is full of those moments of self reflection and evaluation. Or at least it should be. That’s the stuff we have to take on. Suggesting that it’s shaming someone is a tactic to keep us all small and stuck and has nothing to do with anything. Stand straight, spine strong, take on the things that need addressing. You are capable and meant for this, otherwise, life would never have dealt you your hand.
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