Two p.m., Purim afternoon. Every horizontal surface in the kitchen is covered with goodies. Everywhere you look there is something sweet. I walk into the kitchen to see that my 7 year old has helped herself to a mid-afternoon snack. A mid afternoon Purim snack of carrots. Carrots and hummus no less. I repeat. Carrots and hummus. My 7 year old felt hungry and chose a snack of carrots. Of her own volition. She is sitting at the table surrounded by cookies, cakes and candy and eating baby carrots. My eyes start to water with emotion and I call my husband over to peek. This moment is huge for us. Momentous actually. This moment is a year in the making. Seven years to be really honest.
Let me back up to Purim one year ago. Purim one year ago found me arguing with my 6 year old. The kitchen looked the same as it did this year- Mishloach Manot galore. Like many parents, I allowed my daughter to have a few treats of her choosing. Like many parents, I insisted that my daughter eat some fruits or vegetables as well. Like many children, she resisted the vegetables I was insisting she eat. Like many children, she complained that she wanted more candy. Like some children, she snuck candy when she thought I wasn’t looking. Like some parents, I forced her to eat her vegetables and threatened her that there would be no more treats unless she did so.
I spent that Purim obsessing over how much junk food she was eating and upset about how little healthy food she was eating. I knew what had happened that day was not healthy physically or emotionally for her. That day was a turning point for me. As someone who has struggled with and thank God recovered from both an eating disorder and disordered eating for over 15 years, I knew I wanted something different for my child. Some serious reflection after last Purim led me to make some major changes in my approach to feeding my children.
I was blessed to discover the work of Ellyn Satter, a child feeding specialist. Satter is famous for her Division of Responsibility in Feeding rules. Essentially, when it comes to food, parents are responsible for the what, where and when and children are responsible for the whether and how much.
Practically, that meant that I decided what to serve for dinner as well as when and where we would eat. My daughter got to decide IF she wanted to eat and how much to eat. The rules were the same across the board. If I served vegetable soup and bread for dinner, she could choose to eat only the bread if she wanted. If we went to a birthday party, or if it was time for Shabbos party, or if I chose to serve dessert — the rules didn’t change. It was her job to decide whether to eat the treats being served, as well as how much of them to eat. The goal of this method is to raise a competent eater (similar to an intuitive eater, a concept that has become well known in recent years). A competent eater knows how to eat in a way that makes their body feel good and stay healthy. A competent eater knows how to enjoy fruits and vegetables and doesn’t just eat them because they have to. A competent eater knows how to eat treats in moderation and without guilt. A competent eater knows when their body is full and when to stop eating. A competent eater doesn’t binge, restrict, or purge — all food behaviors that are increasingly common today.
I would love to tell you that our journey with creating a competent eater was simple and easy. It wasn’t. There were times when my daughter binged on candy. There were times when she ate so much dessert that her stomach hurt. There were days when she didn’t eat any vegetables. There were many times that I doubted that a young child could have the ability to regulate in this way. On the flip side, there were increasingly frequent glimmers of hope along the way. Moments that made us stick with this. Times that she chose an apple over an Oreo. Times that she chose to skip Shabbos party because she was full. She asked for Brussels Sprouts to be served at her birthday dinner. I learned to serve one dinner to the whole family and to trust my children to eat what they wanted. I learned to quell my own anxiety about their food intake and to trust that with time, they would eat what their bodies needed. I learned to let my children (and myself!) enjoy treats — with no guilt or judgment.
Purim marked a year since we began this journey. Purim is the Holy Grail of Junk Food. My daughter looks forward to Purim all year long. I will admit that I went into Purim this year with some trepidation. I wondered how it would be possible for my daughter to eat competently today. But I was committed and I sat back and observed as the day progressed. She did eat more treats than she does on a normal day, but she ate them responsibly and in a way that belies the maturity one would expect of a 7 year old. She ate with intention, joy, mindfulness and intuition. And then, at 2 pm, she felt hungry for a snack and chose some carrots. On Purim. On a day when she could have eaten literally anything she wanted.
I tear up again as I write this because the moment was so powerful. It affirmed for me that this past year’s worth of effort was impactful. At age 7, she internalized the skills of both knowing how to nourish her body and knowing how to eat without guilt. It was a moment that underscored all my own past struggles with food and a moment that held the hope of her not having to endure the kinds of anguish that I have. It was a moment that brought us full circle. I couldn’t have said it better than my daughter. On the way home from our day she said to me “Mommy, I’m really proud of how I ate today. My body feels good.” That’s all I ever wanted for her.