Children and their Eating Habits

by Barbara Cross

We had invited them to our house for dinner. He was a pastor with a wife and two small children. We were looking forward to a time of fellowship with them and getting to know their children. However, it soon became apparent what the main topic of our time together would be. Soon after their arrival the wife made her way into the kitchen and began her inspection. "What are you having for dinner?" she demanded. Her question filled me with some alarm as it raised concerns that the family had dietary problems that I had not known about. As she listened to the menu for the evening meal, she announced, "My children don't like anything that you have prepared! Would you please make them something they would like?" Then she began to list several items which her "little darlings" would eat.

Trying to be helpful, I did provide some of the items that she mentioned, hoping that this would leave us free to have an enjoyable time of conversation together. This did not end the matter, however. As each dish was passed, the children would comment loudly on how much they disliked it, and mother would reassure them that they did not have to eat the offending item. It seemed that much of our time together centred on discussing the dislikes of the two tyrants. After their welcomed departure my husband - generally very placid about children's behaviour - announced, "I don't ever want you to invite them again! If they can't find something to eat that you fixed, they don't need to come back!"

An extreme situation, you might say? Perhaps, and yet, many times we have either visited homes or had children in our home where much of the mealtime conversation consisted of begging or bribing children to eat what was set before them. This generally ended in a lost "food battle," leaving the parents embarrassed and the hostess annoyed. What I see as a hostess and a visitor makes me aware that meals have become battlefields in many homes. What is the answer to this problem of children's eating habits, and how does one win the battle?

Why do we Train our Children?

It is necessary for parents to understand why it is important that children learn happily to eat what is set before them and to develop a wide taste for various foods.

There are scriptural principles that affect how we view food. Firstly, Paul directed Timothy to see all food as something which "God created to be received with thanksgiving" (1 Tim. 4:3). This means that we must realise for ourselves, and teach our children, that to grumble about the food given us is to grumble and complain against God, who made it so that we might be thankful to Him. We teach this as a positive attitude when we express sincere thanks to the Lord as we say our prayer before each meal. We teach this attitude when the children hear the father thank the mother for the dinner she has made and comment on how good it was. We teach this attitude when we eat and enjoy the food set before us in social situations and are careful to express sincere appreciation to the hostess that entertains us.

Secondly, Paul wrote in the same letter to Timothy that "God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment." (6:17) Surely, those things provided for our enjoyment include the vast differences in foodstuffs that surround us. How thankful we should be for the great number of fruits, vegetables, meats, grain and dairy products that He has created. Not only do we have that vast variety of basic ingredients, but God has given mankind the ability to combine those ingredients in almost unlimited ways, both in our own culture and in cultures around the world, bringing variety and interest to what we can eat. To narrow our enjoyment to a limited number of foods and to a few recipes is to miss much of what God has provided for our enjoyment.

Not only are there spiritual principles as to why we should teach our children to have a wide choice of food, there are several practical considerations.

The first consideration is that teaching the child to eat and enjoy a broad spectrum of nourishing food is to give him much better opportunity for good health throughout his life. Today we are bombarded with information in books, magazines, TV shows and lectures stressing the necessity of a balanced diet for good health. No one should be ill-informed on good nutrition. People spend large amounts of money trying to shed excess weight and combat poor health, much of which has been caused by poor eating habits.

As a teenager I attended a school having a cafeteria which had two choices in food for lunch. One counter served an inexpensive but well-balanced meal having something of all the main food groups. The other counter served "junk food." Having been brought up in a home where I was taught to eat well-balanced meals and told the reasons why, I generally chose the food from the carefully balanced meal line. My best friend, on the other hand, always parted from me to head for the "junk food." Early in her life she began to suffer health problems which the doctors blamed on her poor diet at home and at school. It was interesting to visit her home years later and to see well-balanced meals on the table. Her explanation was that she wanted her children to have a better opportunity for good health than she had, since she had been allowed to eat or not eat what she desired as a child.

During my years as a schoolteacher it was obvious how food affected children. An extreme case I had was a little girl who would constantly fall asleep in the class and be unable to do her lessons, because she jumped from the extreme of being very high-strung to being very lethargic. We asked the child's parents to have her checked by a doctor. The doctor learned that the little girl was offered what she wanted for breakfast before coming to school. Sweets were her general choice. That same menu continued in the lunch she brought each day. Once the mother began to take away the food that was harming her, we began to see improvement in her work and behaviour.

The second consideration in teaching the child to eat what is set before him is that it cuts down greatly on the stress of the mealtime. One can only wonder how much time each day is spent in some homes begging and bribing Johnny to "eat your dinner" with Johnny winning the battle. The result is that the parents feel guilty as they know Johnny really should be eating better for his own health and happiness.

The third consideration in training the child to eat properly is that it will make the child more socially adaptable and acceptable. How embarrassing (at least it should be!) to parents to take their children to social occasions such as dining in other people's homes, and have the child fuss and refuse to eat what the hostess has kindly prepared for him.

There is another consideration that may not be obvious at the present but has to do with the child's future. Hopefully, as Christian parents we have given that child back to God both privately and publicly. Our attitude should be that of Hannah who said of her son Samuel, "I give him to the Lord, For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord." If that is our attitude we should recognise that, in some cases, God may call our children to serve as missionaries or workers in another language or culture where to minister to the people involved means to be willing to try and eat different foods than they are used to, or even food than they dislike. It has stunned me to meet Christians who proudly say, "I could never be a missionary or work in another country, because I am too fussy about what I eat!" How sad it is to think that someone refuses to do what may be God's will for their lives because they "don't like the food."

As we raised our two daughters we kept in mind that we might be training them to be used by the Lord in another culture or country and so we consciously tried to instil in them a willingness to eat what was set before them and to be adventurous in trying new foods. That has proved valuable to one daughter who is already in Christian ministry in a culture different from her own.

How do we Train our Children?

The battle over food must be won early. Most nutritionists now recommend that young babies start with eating vegetables before they begin eating fruit. The reason for this is quite obvious. Humans naturally prefer sweet things over other tastes. There must be an effort to develop the young child's taste for what is good at a very young age.

There should be an insistence that the young child eat a small portion of all food suitable for a child served at the meal. (Obviously, very hot and spicy foods may not be suitable or good for small children.) One big mistake that parents make is loading up the child's plate with adult-sized portions and then fighting to make the child eat what he may not like anyway. How much better to give a tiny portion of all suitable foods and then expect the child to finish those before he has larger portions of what he may prefer. (What he prefers should still be within what is good nutrition.) I have seen it happen over and over as children come to my house for a meal. The mother will dish out adult portions, then beg the child to eat it. The child does not eat it and leaves the mother upset and embarrassed, and I am annoyed that so much good food has been wasted.

Desserts or non-essential foods should not be given to the child until he has eaten the small portions of nutritional food that has been set before him. How often parents argue and fight with the child to eat what he should: the child wins the battle by refusing to eat and the desperate parent gives in and lets them eat their sweets just so the child "has something in his stomach." If the child is a poor and fussy eater at meal time he should not be given snacks and treats between meals. It is important that proper meals should be eaten before other foods are consumed.

Never allow a child to sit at the table and announce, "I don't like that!" A complaining and unthankful attitude should not be tolerated either in the home or when in public.

Last of all, the parents themselves should set the right attitude toward food. It is important that the children see their parents thankful for what they have in the home, appreciative of what others serve them and willing to try what may be different.

Obviously, all people, adults and children, have some things they do not care for. The battle for a right balance on food is not lost because someone doesn't care for a few particular items. The goal is to teach the child to eat and enjoy a wide variety of good wholesome food. We used to tell our children that they could have one vegetable that they could choose not to eat. Both of them agreed that it should be parsnips!

The one food I do not enjoy is rhubarb, but this dislike gave me opportunities to teach our children an important lesson. One year my husband was on a speaking tour and we had meals in many different homes. For some reason there was a bumper crop of rhubarb that year and we were served it a number of times. I had always taught our children that "If the hostess were kind enough to fix it, we should be kind enough to show our appreciation by eating it." How they loved it when Mum had to eat those bowls of rhubarb dessert. I can't say I enjoyed it, but I was thankful for the opportunity to "practice what I preached" to them about good manners and being willing to eat what God had provided.

Barbara Cross is the wife of Rev. David Cross, pastor of Chelmsford Presbyterian Church. They have two children and three grandchildren.

Copyright © Family Matters 1997