First of all, I am not writing this as a trained nutritionist, nor am I any expert in pediatrics. I am certainly not the know-it-all parent. Children’s eating habit is a HUGE concern for almost all modern parents, one that leaves them (me included) scratching their heads and pulling their hair. Despite being told multiple times “Wow, your kids eat so well!” I have had my share of pleading, bribing, threatening, and shoveling food down their throats, trust me.
So, back to the title. I am sharing a compilation of what I think have worked for our family in our attempt to raise the girls into happy eaters who enjoy mealtime around the table. All of these are wisdom from the past generations (the seniors we consulted with) and cultural observations documented in books.
1. Food is relational, it is not merely nutritional.
The table has a special place in community. It is general knowledge that food is associated with fellowship in any culture. A shared mealtime is when people come together sharing not only food but also their time and lives. There is a reason to why it is said “Food tastes better when shared” and “Family that eats together stays together.” Some of my fondest memories are those that happened during shared mealtimes with families and loved ones, I believe this is not singular to my experience. Make effort to create that wonderful association. Eat together as a family.
2. Food is a blessing, eat with gratitude.
I spent a big chunk of my childhood eating with my late paternal grandma whom I dearly called Ah Po. Being a tough woman who had single-handedly raised eight children through the hard times, she would make sure we all understood how privileged we were to have food to eat. Not a single grain of rice was to waste. The same expectation was enforced by my father, and so it was the kind of tables we grew up with. How, you may ask, did they instill such attitude in the children? They guarded against the sense of entitlement. The mantra was always “Ai ciak ciak, mai ciak suak.” A Hokkien remark for “eat if you want and starve if you won’t.” And so they never hesitated to let us go hungry.
3. There must be a time for play/work, and a time for meal.
Common sense has it that when one is hungry, one will eat. And a reasonable and good way of how that maxim operates is seen in a healthy cycle of energy exertion and energy re-fuelling. In our home this is translated into a routine of starting the day with breakfast, letting the children play and exert their energy, eating again only at lunchtime, napping for the youngest and quiet activities for the eldest, followed by snack time in the afternoon, outdoor playtime, and finally dinnertime. We do not snack around the clock nor eat apart from the four appointed mealtimes. This way, the children are hungry when they do eat. They will not not eat.
4. Food is pleasure, enjoy it.
I had the other big chunk of my childhood spent around the table of my late maternal grandma whom I dearly called Ah Ma. The opposite of my Ah Po, she doted on her grandchildren very much, to the point of indulging them. I cannot recall any memory of her raising her voice at us. She would cook our favorite foods all the time, always whipping up whatever dish we asked of her. She did not make much fuss on nutritions, and from her kitchen we learned that food is pleasurable. Indulge your children sometimes, whip up tasty meals if you could. Also, a dash of MSG and an occasional plate of deep fried processed food will not kill them. Let them taste that food IS delicious.
5. Food is nutrition, eat healthily.
When it comes to food, nutritional value is normally what parents are most concerned about, and rightly so. After all, who wouldn’t want their children to grow up healthy? Our parents believed that there needs to be a wide variety of food served for meals. There were always rice, 2 meat dishes, 1 leafy vegetable dish, and 1 soup dish for lunch and dinner. This, they believed, provides a balance and complete nutrition for the body. The rule was, “You don’t have to eat much of all but you must try all.” In the words of my father, eat more of those you like and less of those you dislike. It is unsurprising to find that the Japanese and the South Koreans, the two cultures with non-picky eating population that boast the lowest obesity rate in the world – at 4 percent (Christine Gross-Loh, “Parenting Without Borders” p. 62), share the same meal philosophy, both in their emphasis on dish variety and their insistence that children should try at least one bite of all the dishes served. Now, I am not saying we must prepare 4 different dishes for every mealtime, I can’t. But we can encourage the children to try out a wide variety of different foods. Children love what they know. And they can know only what they try.
And finally, I have to acknowledge that we Asians often associate a chubby child with a good eater. The logic is a child that eats well must eat a lot and therefore must be chubby. This. Is. Not. True.
Many moms have endured the unnecessary pressure to pump-feed their kids in an attempt to fatten them up and felt like a failure when their kids stay lean. We don’t have to, we should not. The goal is not to produce the most plump little Michelin’s mascots. If they are healthy, are thankful for and enjoy their food, and have a warm table fellowship, they will be happy eaters. And you’ve done well, Momma! 🙂