In the past I have worked hard to respect the fact that we all have different tastes and preferences and that sometimes we just don’t feel like eating. As a stay-at-home mother I have been relatively in tune to my children’s health and well-being; I know what they’re eating and when. No one is allowed to help themselves to food, they ask for fruit for snacks if they want something mid morning or mid-afternoon, they drink water all day and sometimes milk with meals, and the three meals are generally served at regular intervals. If, for instance, Royal is quieter than usual and says he doesn’t feel like eating, he probably is coming down with something and it would be foolish to make him eat. My ex used to make the kids eat everything on their plates and more than one of them threw up their dinner as a result.
It takes discernment to decide if they don’t feel like eating or if they just don’t like a particular food or if they’re just being ornery. I ask them to try two bites of new foods and if they don’t like it they can go hungry. For my little ones (three and under, or thereabouts) I’ve been more flexible, allowing them to have a glass of milk and/or piece of homemade wheat bread instead. Over time we’ve learned that Atira just can’t stomach bell peppers or the texture of quiche, and the same with Blue regarding beans or Mexican-seasoned food, so if I put these foods on the table I also serve something they will eat.
I have allowed the just-go-hungry option recently for the older kids, but the younger ones have joined in on it. What ends up happening now is that 1/3 of the table’s occupants opt out of the meal every other afternoon or evening and just wait until the next meal, hoping it’s something they like. Some of them pout about it and we deal with that separately; I don’t want attitudes like that around, not for any reason. There are two other issues we are concerned about; one is the ungratefulness for the food and the labor of the one who prepared it, another is that more often they are opting out of the more nutritious meals of the day.
Most months I plan ahead, creating a 30-day menu of evening meals (breakfasts are standard—every Tuesday this, every Sunday that, etc.—and lunches are leftovers or whatever easy, simple food we have around). I would keep it posted on the fridge. Denny observed that the children looked at the menu and decided to skip a lunch they didn’t like because dinner would be more to their satisfaction. Or they would ask for snacks in the afternoon, planning to skip dinner. We took down the menu. That still didn’t help much.
It’s not like I’m cooking up wild ethnic foods, here; nothing spicy, rarely anything strong-flavored at all.
How do we help these children be grateful for the nutritious meals prepared for them? We have told them about the children in Africa. They were unimpressed.
This afternoon we had an issue over lunch. A benign pasta dish which everyone used to like has fallen out of favor with a couple members of the family. Pasta, mind you. A couple more turned up their noses because I added some vegetables to it today. I decided to offer them a small serving each and, trying to hide my frustration, make them sit at the table until they’d eaten it. I won’t go into all the details, but one of my older children is having cold pasta for breakfast.
Here’s where having a wonderful man like Denny has made the difference in our home. With my ex there was no talking sense, only butting heads, with kids caught in the middle if I wasn’t careful. Certainly no conspiring together to educate the children and help them become better people. But Denny is thoughtful and considerate. We discussed the issue at length and came up with a plan.
I put a pot of rice on to cook. Denny put together a third-world slide-show; starving children living in dreadful conditions. He mixed up a small bowl of mud and set it aside. When dinner time rolled around we sat the children down and talked to them about privilege. We realized that we live in a bubble. These children really have little idea what is going on outside our community. I haven’t done a very good job of keeping the world on our radar over the years. It’s time for that to change. I don’t know yet what all it will entail, but we started with this tonight.
We played the slideshow and discussed with the children starvation, malnutrition, illness, death, and things we take for granted. It was very somber. We moved to the table and Denny passed around the bowl of mud, asking the children to imagine being hungry enough to want to fill their bellies with that. Yes, some of our children are too young to really understand, but they did seem to pick up on the mood and were listening quietly. Then Denny fetched nine bowls from the cupboard and placed about a third of a cup of cooked brown rice in each one. No butter, no salt, no soy sauce, no eating utensils. We ate with our fingers and no one complained. Justin, the youngest, looked a bit put off, but eventually ate with no complaints.
When we had finished eating we talked a little bit more about nutrition and being hungry. Denny asked the children to look across the table at a sibling and imagine him or her as thin and sickly as the children in the photos. That seemed to really affect them. It affected me. Tears in my eyes and voice trembling, I told them that tonight, when they stretch out in their clean beds, cozy and safe, their tummies rumbling, to please not be upset with us, but to really think about the privileges they enjoy every day. I asked them to please, please never again look at the food on our table and complain or turn away a nutritious meal because it’s just not to their liking.
How culturally insensitive is all this? I couldn’t say. I don’t for a moment feel that our actions in any way benefitted the world’s starving children. That was in no way our intention; a silly notion. Actually, I feel what we did was a tad on the ostentatious side. How can a considerate person not feel that way when comparing their lifestyle to that of the underprivileged? The unprivileged? Using images of unfortunate people and situations as props for my own goals rather left me feeling painfully white, sickeningly rich, and somewhat ashamed. I think we made an impression on the children, though it won’t last without some continued education. I think we managed wrap up the meal with humility, not pride, but maybe even that sentiment smacks of pride. How do you sort out these feelings? Is there anything we can actually do to help starving children in Africa or elsewhere? If we reach out, will it be to improve their lives or to assuage the guilt of sitting down to a balanced meal at home?