Hil: I have always thought that the thought of raising a child, especially a girl, to have a healthy relationship with food in this culture seemed like a really daunting task, so I’ve asked Blueberry Mom to write a guest post on the subject. Blueberry Sis and I are very different from one another in a whole myriad of ways. Among other differences, we have extremely different culinary likes and dislikes and our body types are nothing alike. But at the end of the day, we both absolutely love food. Our shared love of eating and cooking is a major point of commonality between us, and its something that we definitely get from our mom. I am very pleased to share this guest post with all of you.
Hil has asked me to write a post on how I raised two daughters who cook vegetables, and don’t starve, and don’t overeat junk food.
It’s hard to begin without telling about me. In second grade, I looked down at my thighs, and I knew I was fat. In fourth grade, I got a D in PE (my angry mother made the teacher change it to a C). In junior high, I went on various Eastern-inspired diets with my mom, punctuated by fasts. I knew my mom hated her body—she was 5’6”, and her weight ranged from 113 to 140. I hated mine too. Meanwhile my dad would ask, “So, what are you up to now?” Meaning that I had to tell him my weight so he could see how much it had increased since the last time he’d asked.
By the time I had Hil at age 24, I’d been hating my body for a long time. Hil was a big baby and grew quickly. The doctor kept saying things like, “She weighs one pound more than she should for her height.” This panicked me. What was he saying? Did I need to feed her less? Was my child going to be fat? I was too scared to ask for clarification.
Hil was built like me. She had my calves, my toes, my arms, my slight softness, as well as my disinclination to engage in strenuous activity. Let me tell you now that I don’t recommend having a daughter who takes after you, if your own self-image is disordered.
But I recognized the problem! And I loved Hil. So I vowed that my own body-hatred would not hurt her. I would not talk about diets, or about feeling fat.
I would present a good variety of healthy foods, and insist that she try one bite of everything, but I would never make her clean her plate. I would not deprive her or limit her. Rather, I would make it my responsibility to present food choices among which she could eat freely.
I remembered from my own experiences growing up that there was nothing like being denied the heavily advertised, nutritionally disastrous food items, to make you crave them. I remembered how I longed for Hostess Fruit Pies, Ding Dongs, and Cocoa Puffs cereal. My kids would have whatever junk item they wanted, but only once in a while, with portion size monitored.
I said kids—for soon Blueberry Sis arrived, and she was not built like Hil and me, being extremely petite. She had very odd food habits, too. Hil enjoyed a normal healthy diet, with the occasional treat. Sis would fasten on one food item and eat it exclusively. For a while it was a microwaved potato with butter. Then there was the period, which I remember with shame, where she only ate white bread with ketchup and salami. I don’t know how she settled on this, because I don’t buy salami. However, by the time she was in grade school, she was eating meals with the rest of us.
So—nothing special. Real food, real meat, real vegetables and fruit. I think the one-bite rule was important because kids need to learn early to try things. Beyond that, nobody was ever forced to eat anything, and I think that’s important too (though I have the impression that that sort of thing doesn’t happen as much anymore).
And that precarious balance about junk food. Making it a forbidden fruit is dangerous, I think. But our culture is so absolutely sodden with it that it’s hard to avoid it as much as we’d like. I tried to give the girls healthy food whenever I could, and not worry about all the junk they ate elsewhere.
One of my favorite stories involves Sis. I would put “ants on a log” in her school lunch. This is a celery stick with peanut butter and raisins. Turns out this was a highly desired item in the lunch set, and Sis could trade it for anything she wanted—chips, cookies, candy. I imagined these poor children as being so hungry for real food that they would trade their treats for celery. Wow.
Portion size is important too. I would give the girls one of those Andes Mints for dessert in their lunches. This was tiny but special—all the kids envied them, even though they had big sloppy desserts.
Meanwhile, I was realizing that my body hatred wasn’t really about my body. My body size waxed and waned, but the hatred stayed pretty constant. I worked to eat as healthily as I hoped my girls would. I got some exercise. I stayed away from the scale. I tried to address those messages in my head—honestly, where does a seven-year-old girl get the idea that her thighs are fat? (And I found an old picture—guess what, I was a normal-looking second grader.)
By the time Hil was concerned about taking off some of the puberty weight she’d put on, I felt able to talk to her about strategies for healthy weight loss. I hoped I was doing it in a supportive way and not in a way to give her a message that she was not okay. Really I think she and I have been food buddies ever since. I can call her up and say, “Remember how I decided to start stocking healthy food at work? Well, it’s turning out not to be such a good idea to have a pantry in my office!” And then we can strategize.
As for Sis, what can I say. She cooks herself Broccoli Gratin, and coconut soup, and elaborate meat dishes, and fried potatoes and lots of rice, and every flavor of cheesecake. And maintains her ridiculously tiny size (think Ukrainian ice skater). The thing about her is that she naturally limits her portion sizes. Her mother-in-law is gently telling her husband that she doesn’t think he has the genes to handle Sis’s diet!
Hil says she’s very proud of herself for being so well adjusted, growing up with Sis. I’m proud of her too! It’s not easy, in this culture, for any woman to feel okay about her body. I am honored that Hil thinks I have helped her with this.