Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Child Nutrition

Beginning in utero, one of a mother’s primary concerns is typically what to feed her child. A pregnant woman’s body gives the nourishment of her growing fetus top priority, even at the expense of her own general health, physical/nutritional needs, or quality of life. Once the baby is born, whether breast or bottle feeding, that baby is getting all of his or her sustenance from its caretaker. Food is also a source of nurturance and serves as a means of bonding between parent and child. Even into adulthood, food can be source of comfort. A tremendous amount of pressure is placed on parents to provide just the right kind and amount of nutrition (and, thus, emotional nurturance) to children. While most people want to provide the very healthiest foods for their offspring, there are a lot of ways that make doing so complicated.   


Feeding an infant is one of the first and most significant means of bonding. There is a strong emotional connection between parent and child that exists in the course of providing nutrition; the parent is giving the child what he or she needs to thrive, which is very powerful. Over the course of one’s life and through their relationships, food can take on many meanings. For some people, certain foods conjure up feelings of warmth, comfort, happiness, and love and, overall, they have good relationship with it. For others, food may be something with which they struggle and may carry negative connotations.

Thus, food, and one’s nutritional selections, play a role in the development of one’s sense of self value and worth.


Feeding one’s family is a lot more complex than what food goes on the table or in sack lunches. Arguably, the number one ingredient that goes into any recipe is “culture.” Where does one come from, what do one’s ancestors bring with them to their dinner tables? What are the rules? For example, does your family follow certain dietary laws, like keeping kosher? Does your culture disallow the consumption of certain foods like pork or alcohol? Are the foods of your home culturally available to you in your current residence? Does your family cook a certain way, like “southern” style with a lot of butter and/or lard? Are your parents vegetarian or vegan? Does your child have special dietary restrictions or food allergies? Have you learned to see food as a reward or to use food to cope with stress, anxiety or loss?  

Never underestimate the power and pervasiveness of the influence of culture in all facets of life, including what to eat, when, where, with whom and why.  


One of the most important pieces of the “What do I feed my children?” puzzle is the information regarding what constitutes “good nutrition.” Even if some cultural practices are not always thought by nutritionists to be the healthiest, knowing what “healthy” means is a critical piece to changing the long held habits that get passed down from generation to generation. How does one learn about proper nutrition? The United States’ government has guidelines (http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf) and simple tools to help people figure out how to fill their plates (http://www.choosemyplate.gov). The First Lady, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! (www.letsmove.gov) campaign, challenges parents, schools and children in concert with local, state and national government to combat childhood obesity and inactivity by taking steps to become more educated, more active and to become involved in their own food (for example, by planting a box or window garden or creating healthy recipes).  

There is no way around the fact that if people do not know what to eat, they are at risk for making less than optimal health choices.   


Even if one gets all the information about the best way to nourish one’s bodies, sometimes good nutrition is not practical, affordable or available. People can tout the benefits of fresh produce, the importance of getting the 5-a-Day diet (http://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/Healthy/5_Day/5_day_facts.pdf), of the superiority of organics over conventionally grown ingredients all day long, but for many families it boils down to what is available and going to feed the most people the most amount of times on the least amount of money spent. In many communities, where the socioeconomic status is lower, access to those things considered “healthy,” such as fresh fruits and vegetables, may be limited. Families may not be readily able to get to stores, beyond neighborhood convenience stores, that offer healthier items.

It is one thing to provide information to schools and suggestions for how to become more active and grow community gardens, but it is another to expect residents in communities where there is poverty and, perhaps, violence to be in the position to realistically or easily adopt promoted good-health habits or have hope for access to such resources. Survival may be the families’ focus.   

It is important to remember that most parents - regardless of class or ethnicity - want the best for their children. There is not always a choice about what to feed a family.


Peer pressure is blamed for a lot of things, and sometimes rightly so. But, who would have thought that peers could influence food choices? In thinking about food and a child’s environment, the subject inevitably points to school or other school-like settings, such as daycare or summer camp. Unless a parent is packing lunches every day, what children have available to them are the options that the school district or other venue provides. While the US National School Lunch Program has recently gone through an overhaul (http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch/AboutLunch/NSLPFactSheet.pdf), offering more fruit, vegetable and whole grain options and gradually reducing the sodium content of foods offered, children still have to make the choice to select and consume those new, healthier options. It is worth considering the difficulty a child might face selecting a whole wheat and turkey sandwich with apple slices when her friend is eating pizza slices and french fries. Healthy options need support where children experience much of their learning and social, cognitive and emotional development - with their peers.  


Of course, the reality is, like any good recipe, feeding one’s children is a mix. Parents balance all of their influences and resources and do the best they can with what they have and with what is available. In order to make the best choices for optimal health, parents need information to understand what “healthy” means, have culturally appropriate access to foods and activities that encourage good health, and need social supports that teach and promote healthy habits. Even if a parent has all of these things in place, access, affordability, and motivation to change are other important considerations. 

Food is not only about sustenance but nurturance. Being as conscientious as possible (and as resources permit) regarding food choices and helping children develop good habits, helps support children’s healthy emotional growth and development as well as their physical well-being.

Posted by Andrea Hohf, LSW