Why do we eat what we do when we do? Humans may be the only animals in the world for whom sustenance is not the first and final answer to this question. The events surrounding Pip’s hunger strike brought this reality home to me. We don’t just eat to eat. Food – making it, serving it, eating it, cleaning it up – is wrapped up in power. All of these processes are enacted through the social relations in which we exist. We don’t just eat because we’re hungry. We eat for entertainment. We eat to show love. We push food on others in order to gain attention. We refuse to eat for the same reason. Eating is never just about getting food into our bodies. It is simultaneously and inescapably about shaping, producing even, the array of relations in which we live.
I know this because I have done all of these things. I’ve purposely eaten three helpings of turkey at Thanksgiving to impress Ava’s family. I’ve consumed stupid amounts of pizza or hamburgers or rolls or buffalo wings in order to elicit astonished laughs from my friends. I’ve pushed my homemade mac and cheese on people at numerous picnics and pot-lucks because I wanted them to make some fuss over me. I’ve eaten discernibly less food than usual when I’ve been upset with someone or something.
While these acts are sometimes consciously pursued, more often they just happen in the course of things. The strategic manipulations involved are so well-established and naturalized that I don’t even realize what I am doing. They are part of the socio-cultural inheritance that I acquired long ago.
And now, for better or worse, I am passing them on to my kids.
Like most parents, Ava and I want our children to eat well. This desire spurs a series of actions on my part that from a distance seem odd. For example, I constantly find myself telling both Pip and Polly what good eaters they are. I do this strategically in hopes that the positive-reinforcement will over time instill in them a feeling of joy when they eat sufficient amounts of healthy food. But, I wonder, shouldn’t one’s body give you that feeling on its own? Is this behavioral training really necessary? Am I doing more harm than good by pushing Polly and Pip to pay more attention to the amount of food on their plates or the reactions of the people around them than to the signals from their body?
Then there is my all-too-common practice of trying to coax one more spoonful of something into Polly and Pip. Why does it matter so much that Polly gets down two spoonfuls of spinach instead of the one she willingly ate? It’s not like the second bite is going to make one bit of difference to her body. Nor is there a real down-the-road consequence. She already happily ate one bite. She’ll eat more another day. And yet, I prod her lips. I make the spoon fly like a helicopter around her head. I keep her at the table until she sweeps the spoon clean. Then I am satisfied.
As far as I can tell there are at least a couple of diabolical impulses going on here. At one level, there is the desire to have Pip and Polly demonstrate their appreciation for the work that went into preparing food for them. Ava and I work hard to make meals that are both tasty and healthy. We avoid prepackaged food and seldom get take-out from a restaurant. Given the labor involved in preparing and cooking their meals, it is gratifying to see them cleaning off their plates and incredibly frustrating when they pick and nibble. While it’s just food, these actions feel more substantial to us. They are like validations and rejections of our labor and our love.
On another level, Polly and Pip’s food consumption becomes a venue for me to reproduce my position of authority as a parent. I know that Pip and Polly sleep better when they have eaten a good dinner. I know that Polly and Pip get cranky when they don’t eat enough. I know they poop more regularly and easily if they eat the vegetables we prepare for them. Ultimately, “I know what is good for them” and mealtimes provide an excellent opportunity to remind them of this. If I think Polly should eat two spoonfuls of spinach then I am justified in pushing the second spoonful on her. (This is, of course, a trap because Polly is her own locus of power, and she rightfully pushes back against me in these moments. Caring authority is earned not imposed.)
One other force at work is my own desire to feel useful as a parent. If I am not actively involved in directing the consumption of Pip and Polly’s food, I start to feel unneeded, unnecessary even. It is a strange and awkward feeling. When this feeling is coupled with the idea that a good parent has a child who eats well, I feel like I have to stick my head in there and make sure that they eat. Their (supposed) dependence reinforces my identification as a parent, and their eating well justifies the sense I have of my own ‘goodness.’
Dr. Bill Sears, the guru to whom we turn when we have child-related questions, promotes the idea that children should be allowed to eat as they choose. He suggests that early on in their child’s life parents should prepare an array of healthy foods, serve them in ice cube trays, and allow the child to nibble as much or little as she likes. The idea is that the parent can control the available selection of foods, but the child chooses what tastes good and how much of it she wants to eat. In the process, the child learns to listen to her body’s signals and avoids some of the confusion that comes from the dynamics of parent-directed eating.
While I could not quite accomplish the ice cube tray trick, I have been working hard to keep my interfering impulses at bay. I have become much better at letting Polly and Pip eat what they want from their plate and not getting worked up when they leave something untouched. I’ve also learned to bring out from the kitchen only as much of a given food as I want them to eat. With these two gestures we have been able to significantly reduce the number of struggles that take place during meal times. The power of eating remains in play, but by shifting its flows we have created happier and more enjoyable meals for all of us.