I remember dinnertime when I was a kid. My mother piled my plate: a heap of white or yellow rice, beans poured on top, chicken (either fried or stewed) or a chuleta, a few slices of tomatoes and iceberg lettuce and maybe a few tostones (my favorite). My mother never asked me if I was hungry or if she served was too much. If I made a face at my plate or requested something else she’d say, “What do you think this is? A restaurant!” When dinner was ready, she served me and I was expected to eat. All. Of. It.
I remember trying to fool my mother by spreading my unwanted food all over my plate. But my mother was no one’s fool and she’d take my fork, scrape all of my food to the middle of the plate ordering me to take a “two more bites.” Somehow, those “two bites” usually turned into five or six. There was no leaving the table until my plate was clean. And I hated that feeling of forcing food in my mouth when I was already full.
My mother was born in Puerto Rico, one of six kids. My grandfather worked in the sugar cane fields while my grandmother stayed home. When they came to New York in the early 1960s, they lived in a tenement building in lower Manhattan. My mother doesn’t really talk much about her childhood, but I know that they were very poor.
I assumed force-feeding kids was a cultural thing, a generational thing. A hearty meal was something to appreciate, cleaning your plate was a sign of good manners. But based on this recent article, “two-thirds of American parents still urge their children to eat everything on their plates.”
Well, I’m not one of those parents.
I don’t ever urge my seven-year old son, Norrin to eat. I ask him if he’s hungry and if he’s ready to eat. I serve him a small portion (in a bowl), something I know he can eat. And if he’s still hungry, he’ll tell me and I serve him more. I know my mother doesn’t approve because our conversations usually go like this:
Did you feed Norrin?
What did he eat?
And then I have to tell my mother what Norrin ate, whether or not I cooked it and if he ate it all.
One of the really tough things about being a mom who works outside the home is figuring out mealtime. Most nights I’m too tired to cook and I order take out. My work schedule varies from day to day and one night a week I have class after work. And then Norrin works with therapists after school. I usually eat dinner standing at the counter while Norrin is with the therapists or late at night after he’s asleep. Norrin eats at the table with the iPad, while I’m either working, cleaning or doing laundry. And when he’s done eating, he says so.
For those who may not know – Norrin has autism. And he while he has language, a lot of it is scripted speech. So when he says something spontaneous like, “I’m not hungry” or “I don’t want anymore” – I believe him because I know he means it.
Our time (when I get home from work) is so limited – I don’t want to spend it arguing at the table. It’s called picking and choosing your battles. Norrin isn’t a picky kid either. He likes a variety of food and isn’t allergic to anything. He loves fruits and veggies – like broccoli and carrots. He devours rice and beans and chicken. He eats calamari and pad thai and even soft shell crab.
But much to my mother’s dismay, I let my kid call the food shots. I believe that Norrin will eat when he’s hungry.
But on the occasion my mother’s watching Norrin and its mealtime, she’ll sit with him at the table. She brings out toys and books, and she’ll sit for as long as it takes, begging and coaxing him to take two more bites. Sometimes – to my dismay – even spoon feeding him.
But that’s not a cultural thing or a generational thing. It’s an abuela thing. And that’s a battle I’ll never win.
So what kind of parent are you? Are you a force-feeder or do you let your kid call the food shots?
Read more of Lisa’s writing at AutismWonderland.