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Eating Wisely

Nutritious Food Choices and the Older Child

Kathryn Major
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 17 No. 1, January-February 2000, pp. 17-18

When your child reaches a certain age (and it varies for every child), it suddenly hits you: I no longer have control over what she chooses to eat.

For our family, it was when our daughter, Celia, started 3rd grade. I realized midway through the school year that she was sometimes choosing not to eat the food my husband was packing in her lunch. She would trade with another student, give it away, or not eat it at all. Some days when we picked her up from school she would complain of having a headache, or feeling sick to her stomach. She wanted to "stop for a snack" on the way home—usually something sweet. I suspected that she was not eating enough of the nutritious foods her growing body needed.

At home, she often asked for snacks that I considered too sweet. My suggestions were turned down one after another—usually while we stood in front of the open refrigerator door! My frustration grew as she rejected more and more whole food options while preferring highly processed ones.

As in many families, we have a minor conflict when it comes to eating habits; my husband prefers foods he is comfortable with, like store-bought white bread. My exposure to LLL has led me to gradually add more wholesome choices, like baking other types of bread in our breadmaker. It's been challenging. But we all recognized that poor food choices were making Celia feel unwell, and we needed a change. We started a family discussion about improving our eating habits and eliminating some of the less nutritious choices in favor of more wholesome foods.

But one stumbling block remained. I couldn't force her to eat the foods I thought she should eat.

We often have a quick discussion about "what do you want for dinner?" Since my husband and I ride together from work and pick up Celia on the way home, she hears us talk about what we "feel like" eating, and she shares her preferences as well. Since fast food with a toy is not a regular option, she has to accept other choices. We try to consider her likes and dislikes, but just because a child liked something last month doesn't mean she likes it now. It is very frustrating to fix a meal only to have somebody say, "I don't like that!" And when they get big, you can't "convince" them to eat something they don't want.

Sharing my feelings with another mother helped me recognize an important stage in my daughter's growing independence. Selecting what she eats is more her responsibility than mine. She spends a lot more time away from me now than she did as a three-year-old. My co-worker has a fourteen-year-old daughter, and she pointed out that the students in middle school were able to select from a variety of foods for lunch. Some kids chose salads while some kids chose ice cream sandwiches and a soda. Our discussion really got me thinking. The experience of decision-making is critical to being able to process information and make wise choices later as an adult. How do children learn to exercise good choices in eating habits when we always make decisions for them?

Celia had a copy of the USDA Food Guide Pyramid from school. They have discussed nutritious foods since kindergarten, and she has heard me state LLL's food guidelines many times:

  • Eat a variety of foods.
  • Eat a variety of animals and plants.
  • Eat a variety of the parts of the animals and plants.

But she had never had the responsibility for deciding what she should eat to make those choices. An idea began to develop, and I shared it with my husband.

Doctors often tell mothers not to worry about the foods toddlers eat at a single meal; over the course of a week, the balance usually works out fine. Why not a nine-year-old? What if she could choose what she wants to eat every day and when she wants to eat it? No more arguments over whether a snack is appropriate or not.

That weekend I brought up the idea with her. I asked her "How do you think Dad and I decide what to eat for breakfast?" She was stumped. She had never considered how we decide what to eat and when. We talked about all the options we have, and exceptions to the typical decisions, like having something special or unusual because "we feel like it," or dividing "dessert" up over the course of a day, a spoonful here and there.

I offered Celia a new option: following the guidelines on the Food Pyramid, she could eat what she wanted, whenever she wanted. She would mark it down on a chart, and we would check to see if she was choosing wisely. If she wasn't eating enough fruits or vegetables, she would be able to see it on her chart, and she could make up the difference by choosing an appropriate food to eat.

Aside from being so excited by this idea she jumped out of bed to go make a list of what she'd eaten yesterday, she was intrigued by the opportunity to learn about what foods belong in each group. I created a tracking chart, and made sure it was easy to copy and stick on the refrigerator.

We quickly found a lot they hadn't covered at school. On the Pyramid, I pointed out how fats, oils, and sweets were to be eaten "sparingly." I also explained how some foods, like fruits, have naturally occurring sugar, and some foods, like meats, have naturally occurring fats. These are represented on the Pyramid by small circles and triangles in the other food groups. Over the next few days, we also discussed how the sugar or fat you add to foods affects your diet.

For example, when trying to categorize fried chicken strips, she figured out the meat and the grain, but she didn't know what "fried" meant. She had no idea how "french fries" were made, because we never do deep fat frying at home. She began to see the hidden fats and sweets in foods. A glazed donut is obviously a grain and a sugar, but she didn't realize they were also fried until I reminded her of how we'd watched them being made at the Krispy Kreme store. Charting it helped her see when she was eating too much of some things and not enough of others.

Some Nutritious Food Choices for
School Lunches

  • turkey slices on french rolls
  • applesauce
  • baby carrots and ranch dressing
  • graham crackers
  • salad
  • cheese cubes or string cheese
  • flour tortillas with grated cheese
  • peanuts
  • pasta with parmesan cheese
  • bagels and cream cheese
  • peanut butter and jelly
  • tacos

It also created the opportunity to review the Nutrition Facts guidelines on many of the products we eat. She began to look for sources of iron in her food, and she quickly realized how little iron most processed foods contain. She did a comparison of breakfast cereals. It also pointed out the reality of advertising: some of the products she sees advertised as containing extra vitamins and iron actually have very little after all.

Did she immediately go wild and eat ice cream for breakfast? Nope. We talked about the possibility the first day, but she's yet to try it. She has had a hard time adjusting to the idea that she doesn't have to ask for permission, though. The other night she wanted some cookies after dinner, but she'd already had some ice cream. She asked me if she could have the cookies, and I had to bite my tongue—a week ago I would have immediately said "no." Instead, I suggested she look at her food chart and see how much sweet stuff she'd already eaten. She did that, and then she asked me again. She clearly wanted me to tell her whether she should eat the cookies, although it was obvious to her that she'd already had enough. When I wouldn't tell her one way or the other, she finally had to decide for herself. It was a lot harder than arguing with your mother!

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