About 2 and a half years ago, I wrote this post about giving up on the feeding therapy program I’d tried to institute. Not much has changed since I surrendered to convenience foods and making three different recipes at every meal…until now, that is.
In the last two posts in this Feeding Therapy series, I describe the Ellyn Satter Institute approach to eating and how it shed light onto my own struggles with eating and weight loss, and I outline their program for feeding children. In learning about the program, I came to realize that I was responsible for my son’s weight problem in ways that had never occurred to me.
I had started with such lofty ideals as a new mother: How did I get to be a Feeding Failure?
It starts, as eating issues usually do, with my own childhood. My mother was a war survivor who suffered through hunger and food scarcity as a young child. She used to make us stay at the table until our plates were cleaned. It made for many an unpleasant evening as I tried to force myself to eat foods that made me gag and sat alone for what felt like hours after everybody else had left. I vowed that I would never do the same to my own children.
My kids started out as great eaters, but they soon dropped one food after another until their diet was startlingly limited. It’s called food jagging, and it creeps up on you slowly and unexpectedly until you suddenly realize that they’ve backed themselves (and you) into a food corner that is now making it difficult to provide balanced nutrition for them.
At first, I tried to fix this by following the advice of others to make them “try a bite” of vegetables and other foods that we all thought they should be eating. This, combined with their sensory issues and attention deficits – none of which were recognized by us at the time – made for some really horrid mealtimes. Lots of crying, screaming, arguing, cajoling, and full-on body tantrums.
I tried…I really did…pressured by my husband, my mother, and my own ideas about what feeding children should look like. But my gut told me that so much stress for everyone could not possibly be good for the kids or our family. So I gave up, and began cooking and serving separate meals to the kids and the adults. Lots of work for me, but at least it was peaceful.
I reasoned to myself that, since we were a homeschooling family with a husband who worked largely from home, we got enough “together” time that not having sit-down meals together wasn’t a problem. Feeding the kids separately from the grownups also offered us the only apparent hope for eating our own meals in peace. Every now and then we’d give it another try, and it always ended in misery and failure.
Then they were diagnosed with autism, which I took as further justification for giving up on family dinners and hopes of a varied diet. Cue the gummy vitamins.
We moved into a tiny mobile home, and the dining table quickly morphed into a workspace for me. The kids’ bedroom was right off the kitchen, and it was just easier to serve them in their room, rather than having them come into the already crowded kitchen to pick up their food.
My mother came to visit us one week and asked, as neutrally as she could (I give her credit for that), if I served the kids their meals on a tray every day or was this just because she was visiting? (nope, I did it every day, for every meal). It was then that I started to realize just how far into crazy-land we had come.
I told myself that when our new house was built, I’d make them eat at the table or breakfast bar like normal children, and stop serving them like a waitress. But it’s unlikely we would have eaten together. I’d have served them first to get it out of the way so I could enjoy a peaceful dinner with my husband.
You can imagine that making so many meals, so many times a day, quickly became exhausting. When convenience foods no longer cut it, I moved to making them prepare their own meals. It started with me telling them I was no longer making lunches, then progressed to breakfast on weekends, and then I made the ultimate deal: in exchange for pizza twice a week, I created “make your own dinner night” twice a week. That was four nights a week I didn’t have to make a bunch of different dinners – win for me!
But despite the appeal of the pizza, the kids never embraced the concept of making their own meals (they eventually changed it to one night a week; that’s how much they hated making their own dinner). Miss Em simply didn’t make anything on those nights, and turned instead to her stash of junk food (she regularly cycles to the corner store, buys food with her own money, and saves it for just such an occasion). Mr. Boo made himself dinner (usually some double or triple stack salami sandwich creation), but he complained and stomped around every damn time. And he left a mess in the kitchen that I was loathe to make him clean up, since by then he had only just calmed down and would likely have had a full-on meltdown if I’d pushed it any further (by end of day, that is the last thing I feel like dealing with).
So that is how I got to the point where I was able to say “yes” to every item on the following checklist for kids who are overweight (or have other eating issues):
- meals and snacks occur at irregular and unpredictable times
- meals are not eaten at the table, but in front of computer or TV
- the kids tell the mother what they would like to eat and mum makes it (short order cook)
- the kids are responsible for feeding themselves without having achieved Eating Competence (which is the end goal of the feeding program)
- the kids binge on certain foods, sometimes even hiding the evidence (one day I discovered a stash of snack wrappers underneath my son’s bed)
- the Division of Responsibility is not being followed
I was a Feeding Failure. And because of it, both my kids had diets that were severely limited and limiting (for example, visiting friends for dinner always meant I had to bring food for my kids). And worse, my son was obese.
But now I have hope, because the information I’ve learned has given me the tools I need to make family dinners a success. I now understand that the family dinner is about so much more than just connecting as a family (which is nice anyway, even when you are a homeschooling family):
- It exposes the kids to the presence of new foods, which is the first step in overcoming limited food preferences, and essential for kids with sensory issues around food.
- Kids don’t tend to enjoy hanging around the table too long (especially if they have ADD), which gives them a motive to eat just enough, and not too much.
- People tend to eat less when they focus on their eating than if they eat while performing other tasks (like being on the computer).
- Having food in serving dishes means everybody can decide for themselves how much to eat, rather than being served a portion that tempts one to “not leave anything wasted” and thus eat beyond satiation.
- Having food in serving dishes allows kids to pick and choose from the nutrients in front of them: research shows that kids will naturally choose foods their bodies need and, over a period of days, will naturally balance out their nutritional requirements.
- Being at the table allows kids to learn the social norms and expectations around eating in their culture, which will allow them to function better when in restaurants or eating at other peoples’ homes (especially important for kids with social disabilities).
- It’s less work for mum to have one place where eating and messes take place, and not have to collect dishes from all around the house.
So after an initial wave of guilt as I realized all the ways I’d gone wrong in feeding my kids over the years – and that this was directly related to my son’s weight issues – I took comfort in recognizing that I didn’t have the knowledge and guidelines I needed to be successful back then. And I was excited about this new information, because I believed it really could work with my children.
And once I believed that I could make this happen, that we could sit around the table together as a family and enjoy a meal, that my kids could learn to try new foods, that my son could return to the weight that is right for him…I realized how much I’d wanted this all along.
In my next post, I’ll talk about the baby steps needed to go from being a total Feeding Failure to the end goal of Eating Competence and happy family meals.