Saturday, November 24, 2012

Food For Thought - Part 2

Learnings from my son

Our homeschooling journey and the precious time that I had with my son to think, talk about, discuss, argue, listen and watch closely, opened my eyes to his world and his needs related to food. There was time to read up, experiment, ask questions and come up with ideas to test and rethink. There was time to watch each other and understand what our bodies needed at different times.

Food and health

We are all foodies in our family and enjoy a hearty spread whenever we can – sometimes at home, and when we eat out. We used to go out often to eat, till my son once developed a very bad stomach issue (Raghav has had stomach issues from when he was little) many months ago. He had severe stomach pain, very high fever and just screamed and screamed all the time. He refused everything, including water. He was not able to tell us much about the pain, nor could we figure out what the problem was. Those were helpless moments, and more so, because he was not someone who would go easily to the doctor and hated to have medicines. He would rather go with natural home remedies. We usually have to sit down and explain to him how we were worried, how we could not figure out what was wrong and so on. Finally he would agree to go to the doctor, but refuse to have all the medicines that were given. This time though, he wanted to go to the doctor immediately!
The result of this sickness was that Raghav started listening to his body more. He decided that he did not want to risk eating out till he felt ok about it; he did not want to go on holiday too till he felt ok; he thought about what he had eaten recently and where and what could have led to this problem; he also seemed to detoxify his body by cutting off all food for a few days, before getting back to eating. This time he made me understand that he really knew his body. Earlier, not eating for a day or more – not even comfort foods - would have bothered me a great deal, but this time I understood and allowed him to listen to his body. He was fine after a few days of starving and then had only curd rice for months!

Having given him the space to do what he wanted with food for many months, Raghav then agreed to come out with us sometimes to eat when we wanted to, on special occasions; but he would not eat. He would eat dinner at home and then come with us, bringing along his iPad to play on, while we enjoyed our dinner; and not once would he get tempted to eat even a little bit of what we were eating! That was some amazing lesson on self-control for us adults who constantly yielded to temptation!

It was around the time when he got very sick, that I also decided to stop all medicines that he was having – all Siddha – for constipation, general health and so on and just let him be. Everyone else in the family chided me for doing this all of a sudden. But I felt that I just had to do it. I must say here how my husband allowed me to do whatever I wanted. He did express his worries from time to time, but supported me unconditionally. That was a huge boost for me and Raghav had no problems for a long time after that.

It was Raghav again who got us into buying organic food and veggies, when we read about chemicals in food, GM foods etc. in a book from the British Council Library. His questions led us from one area to another and soon he was picking up stuff in the grocery store and reading the ingredients on labels – like “added flavour”, “added preservatives” and so on. That took us to adulteration in food and how to test for adulterants – we got a small kit that my father and his team of consumer activists had put together and tried out some experiments at home. We hardly use any chemicals now at home for washing clothes and cleaning too!

Choosy about food

With a diabetic husband and a son who was chooy about food and the way it is made, and one who could not keep to externally set mealtimes, it was natural that I had to always be prepared with food, wherever we went –  in the car, on a long trip / holiday, on the plane, and just about anywhere that we went outside of home! This has been the case from when Raghav started eating solid food. I have always carried some food in my bag! It has been reassuring for Raghav to know that food was always available, and for me to know that I did not have to go in search of food when he needed it.

Raghav’s choosiness about food have often been more during times of stress – sometimes the stress factor is something that I have not figured out and neither has he. But I know from watching and being with him that there is something that gets to him sometimes. These are some of the quirks (for want of a better word) that we have discovered :

  • He likes to use his own plate, glass, spoon and fork at home and sometimes elsewhere too. So I usually carry some of those wherever I go!
  • He does not like one kind of food touching another on his plate – so if he is having more than one side dish, then each one has to be in a separate cup
  • Once he uses a cup or plate to eat something, he will not use it again for another thing until it is washed
  • He does not like to eat with his hand too much and needs to wash his hands immediately if they get dirty
  • He loves to eat crunchy stuff but not so much gooey stuff 
  • If there is a crowd, he likes to find his own quiet space to eat alone
  • He will decide what to eat or not just by looking at it and smelling it from far
I have realised over time, that these are what make him unique and what he is. I have not tried to “work on” or change any of these in anyway, but rather accepted them as parts of my child and moved on. We have always found ways of working with them and around them somehow, in any situation and I am thankful for that.

Watching TV / Listening and eating

This was something that my mother started with him, when he was very young and I have held this against her until I asked Raghav recently one day as to why he wanted to watch TV and eat. He replied very matter-of-factually, that watching TV helped him eat better. That was it. That was the moment when I let go completely of the control I had over this.

There were times when I was inconsistent in this as I was not sure if it was helping him – he would take hours to finish his meal sometimes, and then ask me to feed him. But I realised later, that those times were few and far between and  times when he was perhaps sleepy or tired.

I also once shared my fear with him – what he would do when he had to go to a place where there was no access to TV? He immediately brought me back to the moment and said:”Amma, why are you thinking about that now? Don’t worry about that now. I know when I can’t watch; I will find something else to do then.”

I now am content with this explanation:  Just as some kids are able to concentrate better on their reading or listening when they are listening to background music, my son perhaps is able to enjoy and partake in the food experience better, when he watches something. I just have the feeling that this is something to do with how the senses balance out inside.

So, can he eat without watching TV when we go somewhere? He can sometimes, but he likes background music playing when he is eating (like in a restaurant). If none of these are possible, then very often, he asks to be fed – which we do quite willingly now because we understand his needs. Sometimes we take the iPad, iPod with headphones, a book or a mobile phone along so that he can do or listen to something while he eats. It is not such a big deal for us anymore, because we know as parents that our son does know how to eat by himself, and that he is definitely not going to be asked to be fed forever!

We have found out through this process, that he actually knows how much he has eaten and is able to stop (he never over-indulges) when he has had enough, knows what he has eaten, what he doesn’t like or like, much better when he has been allowed to do something while eating.

When guests come home and he has to watch TV and eat in the hall, we just politely request the guests to move elsewhere to chat with us. Earlier, we used to stop him from doing this when people came over.

Listening to one’s body

Earlier I thought that my son did not know when he was hungry and which foods his body needed or liked. Many a time, I even felt that when many sensations - like going to the loo, hunger, feeling tired and all came together, he would get very irritable, as he would be confused. So, I would use humour then to describe what was perhaps going on inside – different parts of his body fighting about which was more important, and that would work like magic most times! He would figure out what he needed to do.

Sometimes he would get so engrossed in something like building with his Lego or on the iPad that he would not stop when he was hungry, and then later when he did, he would be so hungry and irritable, that he would have a huge meltdown. So I often kept reminding him to eat. And that was the trigger factor I think, because he did not like the external control and reminder. We tried all kinds of things from alarms, to notes to ringing a bell – all non-verbal methods. None of them worked for more than a week at the most!

Then I realised, that it just had to perhaps come from within – from him, not from me or anyone else. And so, we just let him have a free hand in deciding when to eat. There were times when that worked, and times when it didn’t. But we could not do anything but patiently wait for him to figure it out on his own. What we did was to hold him in those moments and get him to think about what was happening inside, name the feelings and so on. That helped a lot.

Raghav then started self-talking when he was in those situations and figured out what to do. That became more consistent. Soon, he started telling me what foods he thought were upsetting / “bothering” his stomach (as he would say). He was a child who disliked rice, sambar, curd etc. from when he was little and preferred only rotis. Suddenly he said that he did not want rotis any more and wanted only curd rice with vegetables. So for months together he ate just that. Then he stopped eating noodles all together as he felt that it did not feel good. He ate only pasta, bread, semiya, rava. I could not understand how he could eat all that but not rotis, as they were also made of wheat. He then told me that it was something about the way it was made or cooked that bothered him! 

Then a few months ago he stopped eating curd rice altogether and started having ragi in different forms; and he stopped eating all other fruits which he had always eaten from when he was little, and started eating only apples, pineapple and strawberry (his favourite fruit!). Now he hardly eats any fruit – just a little apple now and then, or fruit salad when I make it (but with only the fruits that he likes in them). I realised that perhaps even his food choices worked in phases like everything else!

Even drinking water which was an issue with him became a non-issue once he started listening to his body. He would ask for a glass of hot water and down it immediately with a glass of cold water from the fridge! He would suddenly ask me to give him hot “tulsi water” (tulsi leaves and some other herbs boiled in water) if he felt he was getting a cold. He would also not drink water at all for half a day or very little water in a day and then keep pouring out glasses of water for himself the next day. But he was fine. The minute he had little difficulty in going to the loo, he would say that he needed to drink more water and then go get some!

Along with him, I too started listening to my body. I started understanding that I was most prone to getting irritable or angry when I was hungry. So from then on, I would not wait for him to come to eat with me. I would just tell him that I was hungry and go on and eat. Suddenly, my “moments “of anger too came down, and if for some reason I was irritable some time, Raghav would come up to me and say “Amma, are you sure you are not hungry? I think you must be, because you are getting angry!” Slowly, he started reminding his dad too about listening to his body and eating when he needed to.

Food and Emotions

I had always thought eating as a family was important and it was to me, because since childhood, I had often come home from school to an empty home. Many a time, as my parents were hardly home and mostly at work, my sister and I would go off to my aunt's place to get some hot snack after school. I got my share of food, but missed a meal made with love. I believed that eating as a family was an expression of love.....and I kept looking for that with my husband and child. It was a dream that was hard to fulfill for reasons not known to me then, but now I understand. I understand that I was holding onto something that I thought was very valuable to me and not accepting what was. My son liked to eat alone many times, or wanted to watch TV and eat (which I did not like so much). My husband too had spent most of his growing years eating alone for whatever reasons.

Hema's words about not adding emotion to food, hit me strong and hard! It stirred me up from inside and I suddenly understood what I had to let go of. That was it. I stopped asking for us to eat one meal atleast as a family. I just accepted what was and then there was peace. Now, we often eat together watching something on TV and sometimes, when I consider myself very lucky, we even eat a meal together at the table - just the way I wanted it to be!

I started then to ask myself many questions - why do we wait for each other to eat; why do we have social niceties like asking guests or elders or even men of the house sometimes to eat first (while we die of hunger!); why do we ask kids to finish their meals first; why do we feel that that is THE way to bond over food? Why can't we just be - like animals and birds - just go in search of food when we are hungry and just eat?! WHY DO WE ADD SO MUCH EMOTION TO SOMETHING AS BASIC AS FOOD?

Right now, in our family, each of us just eats when we need to! We don't wait for each other unless we really want to or need to. And life is much more peaceful this way.

Food can be fun

Although Raghav loved food, I don’t think we really gave him a chance to enjoy it as an inherent part of living, only because of our fears about his health and well-being. But once we loosened the rope on that by starting to let go of our fears, he started enjoying his food even more. He suddenly took out the Tarla Dalal recipe book that I had got him ages ago and pored over it day after day, reading out recipes and goading me to cook this and that. He helped find recipes, read out ingredients, looked to see if we had them, helped me cut veggies and mash potatoes, set the timer on the microwave and started creating more recipes of his own. Things that were once few and far between became almost an everyday affair.

Once Raghav had asked me for onion bajjias that I made for him. He sat down relishing every bite, and suddenly showed me how the onion rings actually formed a simple but beautiful puzzle – of concentric rings! At once he stopped eating and started arranging them according to size, got me to take photos of him doing every step of the puzzle, carefully picking up each piece without breaking it!
The onion puzzle

Then, he would stop by at the kitchen counter in the middle of his usual banter about something that he had built and what it could do, and admire how a baby corn, pomegranate, or peas were so beautifully packaged!

While he was helping me cut vegetables, he would carefully pick out the capsicum seeds and ask me to keep them and plant them to grow new plants. That was how he got us into kitchen gardening! Soon we were buying or saving seeds and planting our own veggies. Today we have a little garden where we grow coriander, pudina and methi and are waiting for our home-grown bhindis!

I have always tried to make food interesting for Raghav by making dosas of different shapes, cooking a variety of food, and trying to get him involved by choosing the menu for the day and so on. Raghav enjoyed making gol-guppas with me and eating them too! He loves chaat and can make a meal out of it. He invented his own chaat sandwich recipe too sometime ago. You can read it here.

Raghav constantly challenged me by asking for complicated shaped dosas like a truck with headlights, a sail boat and even a World Cup dosa when we won the cricket World Cup! Recently we also made  "noughts and crosses pizzas"!

Noughts and crosses pizza
With whole wheat bread

World cup dosa!

Suddenly food became a work of art and a celebration!

Looking within and letting go

Until now, my experience with food choices and control was much like flying a kite! In the beginning, I was scared that something would happen to the kite and so held on to the string so tight, that it just would not lift off into the air even! It did not do what it was supposed to do by its nature. Then, when I overcame that initial fear, my worries of how long it would stay up, the wind direction and other factors started affecting me and how I controlled the string. It was only when I stood confidently, trusted myself and the kite, and began to enjoy the process, was I able to let the kite fly in the open sky with freedom and abandon and enjoy its flight!
This last straw of letting go of all fears related to food and gaining in confidence, by looking more within me, happened when I watched the videos made by my friend - on food and her unschooling journey. That was the inspiration for me to let go completely!

You can take a look at her videos here: 

She and her kids inspired me so much, that I let go of all control over food with my son almost overnight! I realised where I was making a mistake with my son. I looked within and found my answer. The time was ripe……not because I decided that it was,   but because the Universe decided for us! And I can say that with confidence, because everything kind of fell into place so magically.

Just a few weeks before she put up those videos, Raghav was sick again when we were travelling with my husband on his work-trip. It was again an issue with his stomach. He was in pain again, screaming and crying and bundling up. But he had not eaten anything the whole day in the car and was only lying down. We could not think of what could have upset his stomach so much. That night he started running a very high temperature that would keep coming off and on and we got very worried. With a lot of cajoling, he finally agreed to go to a doctor there. She examined him and said that his throat was badly infected and put him on antibiotics. I felt that was very strange as he had no symptoms at all of a strep throat otherwise, except for the high fever. There was no sign of any sore throat, pain, irritation, cold or cough – nothing. That got me thinking a lot and I felt somehow, that it must have been an allergic reaction of some sort.

That was when I watched Hema’s video and suddenly I knew what I had to do! I just had to let go completely and trust and listen to my child, who was the best judge of his body. So that was what I did.

I cannot even say in words how thankful I am for getting the right messages at the right times in my life through someone. It happened yet again this time and I am so elated about it! When I shared what I had learned with Raghav and what I thought I had to do, he was happy too, and we haven’t looked back ever since!

These days Raghav is into exploring foods that he had not shown interest for in all these years, like salads, tacos and wraps. He has started eating cheese (especially mozarella), stopped eating many fruits that he used to and started tasting few pieces of orange (he never liked any of the citrus fruits before!) and a little pomegranate.

Today Raghav is enjoying the variety and surprises that “Monkey Platters” bring to him! We explored Sandra Dodd’s site on this and now make up our own.  We don't make them all finger foods as Raghav does not like to eat with his fingers too much! I enjoy putting it together, and he loves digging into them! I think it is just what we needed with Raghav’s need for variety, small helpings and not wanting to stop what he was doing to eat. The platters have been a godsend to us!

You can take a look at what we put together here:

We now do not say anything about his eating and have just allowed him to be – trust him completely! And it has been fairly easy for me now to do that, which is why I feel that the Universe has timed this for me!

Another interesting thing that I realised was that what was stressing me out or making me feel anxious about what he was doing was this – that his breakfast times were almost lunch times, lunch times were early evening and so on! So I figured out a simple and yet most effective way to get out of this myself – I just stopped giving mealtimes names like breakfast, snack, lunch or dinner! Instead, I just tell him – “Ok, so you are hungry now….so what do you want to eat?” I just say the word “food” in my head every time he wants to eat something! And lo and behold, my anxiety vanishes! It really has been that simple and so funny that a mere name could have caused so much anxiety!

Today, it has been more than a month and a half, and Raghav has had no stomach issues at all (touch wood!), eats heartily while watching his favourite programme on TV (we laugh heartily watching Lunar Jim), knows when he is hungry and asks for food, hardly asks to be fed and acknowledges every little effort on my part to cook something new. I cannot ask for more than that can I?

Is there a worry as to whether he would be able to adjust to a new place and new or different foods from what he has been used to now? Absolutely not. He has shown us time and again, that if he is given the space he needs at home - whether it is to do with food, emotions, playing, watching or whatever else, he can draw energy and confidence from that space when he needs it.

So then, I believe now that food is like anything else that we have to live with. As long as our mind, body and spirit are in balance and harmony with each other with respect to food, I guess we will be healthy and happy.

Today, I am enjoying flying my food kite – the wind direction could not be better, the weather is perfect as it is, I know my kite…..I smile with confidence and a new-found belief in my son and the Universe – yet again!

Letting go!

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