– Dr Anju Kauwr Chazot

Do you indulge in binge eating when you are stressed? Or does your hand go automatically to the TV remote or your mobile phone when it is time to eat? Or sometimes does the wafting aroma of a particular food suddenly make your mouth water? 

Food is a source of comfort linked to both nourishment and mother’s love! We crave for certain dishes because it reminds us of our childhood and happy memories. Many of our eating habits and patterns are a result of our childhood upbringing. In fact, many aspects of our adult life such as healthy relationships with others and with food are linked to our childhood and the manner in which we ate. 

The primary concern of most mothers and caretakers is to make a young child eat whether by hook or by crook! So, caregivers use different tricks from threats to distraction. For example, some mothers trick a child into eating with threats such as ‘Joo khai le nahin to kaagdo leye jase.’ This obviously works as the child will quickly gulp down the food. 

Nowadays, it is more common to see a parent or caregiver simply put a mobile phone or another device in the hand of a child and use distraction to trick a child into eating. While the desire to make a child eat may spring from good intentions, the result is a stage of disconnect created between the food and the body. As one grows older, this becomes such a habit that one needs to watch or read and continue to be distracted in order to eat food. 

A common complaint by many parents is that their child refuses to eat a particular vegetable or a dish. This maybe due to many reasons. The taste may be new, the aspect of the vegetable may evoke something negative in the child’s emotions or the child may simply be exercising it’s right to say ‘no’! Whatever the reason, forcing a child to eat it then, is creating a future battleground for a power tussle between you and your child. Insisting that your child eat is not always an expression of your love, it can degenerate into exercising control over your child’s body.

Except in medical conditions, forcing children to eat when they are not hungry or when they do not like a particular food can end up becoming a method of control. If a child refuses to eat any more and a mother forces the child, it is the mother who is exercising control over the child. Essentially, the mother is saying that you do not know if you are hungry or not, I know better. An eminent child psychologist once told me that a child first learns the movement of turning its head from side to side and say ‘no’ by avoiding the food being thrust in its mouth!

For the child, loss of control in one area will find a way of expression in another area. So, while a parent exercises control over a child by forcing it to eat, the child exercises control by throwing a tantrum over something else! In terms of psychic energy, the child will regain control of this lost power, unconsciously of course, in different ways. Bulimia, anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders are linked to our relationship to our caretakers and self-love. It is also about the power one exercises over one own’s body. While binge eating is letting go and nourishing oneself, giving oneself comfort, anorexia nervosa is starving oneself as a form of punishment. Yet, both the eating disorders are linked to lack of love, power and self-esteem. 

Also, insisting that a child finish everything on the plate when he or she is no longer hungry is again creating a negative experience related to food. While no one advocates wastage of food, a better habit would be to encourage the child to take small servings so that she eats only as much as she requires. 

It is better to understand why a child does not want to eat a particular food and respect the child’s desire to exercise its right over his or her body. A good way out is to include your child in decision making by asking your child to help in the kitchen or in household chores such as grocery shopping. This is equally true for an older age group. Children are naturally curious so exploring the positive or negative effects of their food on their body must be encouraged both at home and at school. There is much to learn about the impact of different types of food such as genetically modified crops and vegetables on our bodies and on our environment. Involving your children in making choices will help them learn decision-making, give them a greater sense of self-control and self-esteem. What we eat and how we eat is also part of the transmission of culture and values. So, it is a great idea to involve children in cooking and the current situation of the pandemic has no doubt offered this opportunity to many families.

Finally, eating together is a sacred act. It is a moment we come together and share our day’s experiences and stories. So please take care not to discuss stressful events or negative things. Many parents have the habit of interrogating their child at the dinner table with questions. Instead, just share the interesting events or stories of the day beginning with yours. 

We establish a relationship with the world through a sensory experience. Food touches all our senses, hence it is the most holistic form of sustenance. Instead of eating for survival or being forced to gulp down food, the act of eating can become an experience of sharing and togetherness. We can learn to be both grateful and mindful when eating. But before you preach this to your child, practice it yourself!!