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     Volume 4 Issue 26 | December 24, 2004 |

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Food for Thought


Farah Ghuznavi

Many people who have children initially nurture a fond, if inaccurate, view that somehow they have the absolute power to shape this new human being. This delusion is quickly dispelled, often within the first few months of a baby's life, when parents discover (often to their horror!) that far from being a tabula rasa (blank slate), most babies exhibit quite strong individual characteristics. This realisation continues to be reinforced as babies develop into children - and get progressively better at making their opinions felt!

For some, the realisation of a child's individuality is often experienced the hard way - through its food preferences (as any parent who has tried fruitlessly to promote the consumption of greens will tell you…). One of my aunts experienced great childhood trauma over food issues - the trauma was all hers, though the childhood was that of my cousin, her daughter. My cousin didn't seem to feel the need to eat very often, almost regardless of the food on offer. After trying just about everything, my desperate aunt asked the paediatrician for advice. "Leave her alone," he said, "When she is hungry, she will eat." Figuring that he must know what he was talking about, my aunt decided to try this. After two full days, when my cousin had consumed little more than a few glasses of juice and a couple of slices of bread (exhibiting little or no ill-effect from this rather sparse intake), my aunt was the first one to cave in! She moved back to the regime of attempted force feeding, heralding what was to be five years of fruitless struggles to persuade my cousin to eat "like a normal child"…

This does of course raise the question of what a normal child eats. Most children, particularly today, seem happiest consuming complete garbage i.e. chocolate, chips and cola (often delicious, but not necessarily healthy!). Under the circumstances, parents (who are becoming increasingly conscious of the importance of good nutrition - as hammered into them by the various scares regarding childhood obesity etc) are probably grateful when they can persuade the children to eat anything remotely healthy. I remember being surprised when, as a child, I saw my parents' visiting American friends allowing their children to subsist for two weeks on a steady diet of only rice/bhat (the daughter) and only minced beef/keema (the son). Neither seemed very interested in dal (lentils)… Even then, I knew that I would never have been allowed to get away with such demands (my mother was made of sterner stuff!). Now I wonder if their mother, who was probably used to seeing them live off hot dogs and hamburgers, was just relieved to have found something (of nutritional value) that they would willingly eat in Bangladesh!

Parents often use different strategies to address this thorny problem. In the old days, aggressive coercion was a common technique i.e. bullying or leaving a child at the table until the food on his/her plate is cleared. Other parents tried bribery, as in the case of my friend Karin, whose deep (some might say, compulsive) love of desserts made her vulnerable. She says she spent many years viewing her main meal as something she had to get through, in order to get to dessert! Other parents spend an excessive amount of time in the early childhood years of the children in attempting to "train" them in the right habits. This often involves a series of attempts to put something nutritious in front of the child in order to identify a few key meals that are acceptable i.e. acceptable to parents in terms of nutritional content, and children in terms of preference. This strategy can work, although it involves a great deal of effort. For my friend Runa, it allowed her to discover that her daughter, Zara, likes hummus (chickpea paste), which is packed with goodness. The fact that Runa herself loves all kinds of sweets (and usually has at least three kinds of cake in her fridge) has also involved a "do as I say, not as I do" policy with Zara (who is restricted to chocolate covered rice-cakes, which are considered less damaging…)

Of course, there are always parents who should know better, but insist on actively stuffing their children with bad things. In case you're sceptical, let me tell you about the lady I sat next to on a flight, with her two-year-old child. In this case, the lady was Indian (and apparently vegetarian, judging from her in-flight meal). She was travelling with some other relatives, and collected the butter from each of their trays (six in all). Under my fascinated gaze, she proceeded to feed her son all six of these, before requesting the stewardess for a further three, which she also fed him. This despite the child's best efforts to eat one of the bread rolls on the tray, which she determinedly (inexplicably) prevented him from doing! As for me, I took a furtive look to make sure that the seat pockets contained sick bags, and tried to move as far away from them as possible…

Finally, before any parents reading this give up in disgust, I am happy to report a singular success story. This relates to the six-year-old son of a family friend who came to our house some time ago. When my father offered him Coca-Cola (something I can assure you that I did not usually have access to when I was growing up…), he replied, with great dignity and self-possession, "I don't drink Coca-Cola, it has too many artificial additives". Well, I guess that means there's at least one set of parents out there who must be feeling quite (rightly) satisfied with their efforts.

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