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Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Lie About Baby Food We Feed Ourselves

I'm thinking about food a lot this week. . .partially because I happen to have some very special events coming up and partially because I overheard part of a disturbing conversation today while waiting in line at Walgreens.  Despite myself, I couldn't help but hear one lady tell another that her son would only eat fries, fish sticks, and bread.  I almost fell over when the second lady, who looked mature, educated and, well, sane, replied something like: "that's all five year old kids are capable of eating, so I wouldn't worry too much."


Seriously?  I was really upset for this poor kid and what his future would look like. . .and I thought about it all the way home.  It reminded me of something that happened more than a decade ago:

When our daughters were 4 and 2, we took a trip to visit relatives and friends in the UK.  (This was before we moved there when they were 7 and 5 and we had added a 2 year old, too)

At the end of a lovely few weeks, we decided to repay our many friends' kindnesses by taking them out to dinner.  We chose a favorite Indian restaurant and made reservations.

When my husband and I arrived a little early to make sure all was set to receive our guests, the restaurant staff seemed very. . .very. . .startled.  They looked at us, then at our daughters, then back at us and seemed unsure what to do.

The host, obviously flustered, toddled off to consult with the manager, and the waiters all stood about the room we had engaged looking uncomfortably at their shoes.  We had no idea what was wrong.

Finally, the manager came back, with the host close behind him.  He hemmed and hawed and sputtered a bit before he was finally able to articulate his concern.  Haltingly, he asked, um, exactly what we were intending to do with our daughters.

We didn't understand the question.

The host and manager looked at each other helplessly and then the manager tried again.  "What will they do?  What will they eat?" they inquired, hands wringing and clearly dreading our reply.

Ah.  We finally understood what they were getting at.

In that time, and in that place, children largely did not accompany their parents to restaurants.  They might in more casual eateries, but proper restaurants, which were usually quite pricey (as all eating out tends to be in the UK), were usually devoid of children.  Especially very young ones.

Add to that, this was an Indian restaurant.  They did not serve fish sticks and french fries.

So, clearly the panic was caused by two worries:  one was that our children would disrupt their other guests and the other was that there would be nothing suitable for them to eat.

As best I could, I calmly assured them that our daughters would eat whatever we did, and that they would be quiet and respectful the entire evening.

I believe there was a slight eye roll as the manager feigned relief and backed away from us.  I don't think he believed there was a chance in hecky-darn that our two tiny daughters would eat such flavorful cuisine and be remotely well behaved through a long meal.

Our guests arrived, the meal began and staff stood around the perimeter of the room, clearly on high alert, watching the whole procedure. . .ready to clean up any spill or try to minimize a tantrum if need be.  The first hour I could literally feel their tension.

They relaxed in the second hour, though, as our daughters remained happy, quiet, and in their seats.  When the food was brought out. . .from garlic naan through to chicken tikka through to many other fragrant dishes, our daughters won the hearts of the entire staff as they happily tucked into all but the very spiciest of dishes.

Smiles erupted on all the waiter's faces and even the chefs were brought out to watch 'the little American girls' as they devoured, with obvious glee, every single morsel set before them.  So many people came just to watch the girls eat, I wondered who was cooking for and waiting on the other guests!

By the third hour, we were part of the family.  Everyone had become so enamored with our daughters, still seated and happy and quiet, that they began to bring out all manner of extra dishes and desserts and other freebies.  We had a hard time extricating ourselves from the restaurant. A very hard time.

I was so puzzled by the whole experience, I couldn't wait to debrief when my husband and I had a chance to be alone.  I'd lived in the UK before, but that was before I had children.  This visit had been my first with little ones and I totally unsure of what had just happened.

My husband explained that children's menus in the UK at the time (and still are, mostly)  based around items such as chips (fries) and either fish fingers (fish sticks), hamburgers or chicken nuggets.  At home, children are often fed these same foods, along with other pretty bland,  carbohydrate-y foods like toast and porridge.

Add to that, the typical British diet, outside of more cosmopolitan cities like London, is relatively plain and simple: bangers and mash (bland sausages and mashed potatoes), cottage pies (minced meat and veggies in a gravy with a mashed potato topping), roast dinners (plainly roasted meat and potatoes, as well as simple plain vegetables, all covered in gravy), etc.

So, the expectation is that a child's palate isn't able to handle complex flavors or strong seasonings of any kind.  Bland, carbohydrate-laden foods are the expectation. 

But that is a lie. And a dangerous one.

Children around the world eat a variety of 'adult' seasonings and foods and textures from a very young age.  Western cultures tend to impose our beliefs on what a 'baby food' is, but what that bias does is really severely limit their developing palate. . .which is sometimes a lifelong sentence.

Early exposure to a limited soft, bland diet bends the palate in that direction. And that means that most of the world's cuisines are shut off to a child, as will many interesting local flavors and textures.

If this is what happens in their early years, as a child grows, they will naturally continue to gravitate toward processed, bland foods and avoid healthier, more varied options.  They will struggle to eat foods capable of providing the nutrients they need.  They will struggle if they travel and are faced with unfamiliar flavors. 

It will be soooooo limiting.  It will be soooooo unhealthy.

Presenting children with a variety of options, not just once, but regularly, and letting them explore different flavor profiles and textures will open up a world of both health AND happiness to them.

So don't buy into the lie.

Back away from the fries and the white bread.

Embrace the hummus and coconut curry!

Your kids will be so much the better for it!

(photos courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net and can be found here, here, and here)

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