long-term {food} goals

I was invited to serve on a panel at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health last week for their A Smart Start Symposium on preventing early childhood obesity. My task was to share my thoughts on early childhood obesity prevention efforts from the perspective of a nutrition researcher and, more importantly, as a mom, and – along with the other two panelists – to wrap-up the days’ presentations into a nice neat package. It was a big task, but I was excited for the challenge. 

As I was thinking about how to wrap the topics of breastfeeding and policies in childcare into my own experiences as researcher mom, Tim said “Who cares about what they want you to do? What do YOU want to say?” (Always the trouble maker, that one.)

But it was a good question and it got me thinking (which was, of course, the point). I was going to have a captive audience; I had an opportunity to tell people what I thought about feeding kids, what I did with my own kids, and why I did those things. Did I have something worthy of sharing? Could I articulate what I did with my kids? Or why?

The answer, thankfully, was yes. The more I thought about the path I had taken to get to this point, the more sense everything leading me here made. The dots, which have to this point felt  like points of a scatterplot, actually started to feel connected. While it wasn’t linear, it was looking more like a line graph. Whew. 

{Insert long backstory here} One thing I’ve learned over the last six years as a parent, informed by the previous nine as a graduate student and early career researcher, was that knowing WHAT I needed to do to feed my kids in a way that supported and promoted their health was not enough. To do that well, in the face of conflicting time demands, varying taste preferences, and competing interests, I needed a set of goals, guiding principles if you will, for WHY I was doing what I was doing and some clear strategies for HOW to achieve those goals. 

When Eleanor was young – and I had free time – I read a lot of parenting books. Understanding what makes a healthy parent and a healthy kid kind of runs in the family, so it’s not surprising that I wanted to make informed decisions about the type of parent I was going to be. I am not alone in this endeavor: to be a thoughtful and informed parent. Most of us have a sense for what kind of person we want our kids to be – happy, compassionate, peaceful, hardworking, empathetic – but these goals for our kids rarely extend beyond the general. Or, perhaps more accurately, they don’t necessarily extend to any particular situation and thus don’t necessarily provide clear guidance on how to get from “here” to “respectful”.

As I was preparing for the talk at Columbia, it dawned on me that I had, without realizing it, done the same long-term goal setting for my kids specifically around the type of eater I wanted them to become. I had created a set of guiding principles for WHY I would make certain decisions about what and how my kids ate, and how we as a family engaged in the act of buying, preparing, and eating food, that have contained to shape my decisions and the writing I do. And, having identified those WHYs, also allowed me to come up with a long list of strategies for HOW to get there.

I’m not suggesting that these should be everyone’s WHYs or that there aren’t others that are more thoughtful long-term food goals to have. But these are mine – they are ours – and they have helped reduce stress around meal times, eliminate (maternal) guilt over what (and how) my kids are eating, and provided guardrails to keep us all on track. 

In the next series of posts I’ll unpack each of them and provide some of the strategies that we use to achieve them. For now, a teaser of our long-term food goals:

  1. Be willing to taste new foods.
  2. Eat a variety of foods.
  3. Listen to their internal signals of hunger and satiety.
  4. Take part in meal planning and food preparation.
  5. Know where their food comes from.   
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