Eating With Our Daughters (With Joy!) + A National Adoption Month Special!

Today, in honor of National Adoption Month, I’m delighted to welcome my friend Jennifer Grant to the blog to talk about ‘eating with joy’ with her two daughters, one of whom she adopted from Guatemala. Click through to the end to order Jennifer’s book, Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter, while it’s on sale for under $2!

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Let’s talk about raising healthy daughters. Your two daughters (Isabel, 13, to whom you gave birth, and Mia, 11, whom you adopted when she was a toddler) are now in middle school. In what ways do you engage with them about food and body image? Have you noticed them experiencing food or their bodies differently now that they are older?

JG: Both of my girls are real foodies.

Isabel even kept a blog a few years ago called “Confessions of a Fifth Grade Foodie.” She wrote about books, restaurants, and “best combinations of food.” (She still likes croutons dipped in soy sauce.)

One of their favorite books as little girls was Bread and Jam for Frances. You might know the story: Picky eater Frances ends up eschewing bread and jam for more interesting foods such as lobster salad sandwiches and black olives. Near the end of the story, her friend says, “I think eating is nice.”

My girls have always known that “eating is nice.” One of our former babysitters recently wrote to me, recalling how much fun it was to watch our babies eat little cubes of brie, blueberries, Tabbouleh, bits of grilled salmon, spinach leaves, and so on from the highchair tray. Like you, making good food for my kids to eat means a lot to me on many levels.

The girls and I have occasional cooking nights.  Once, recently, we talked about what the term “whole foods” means and read packages together. We ended the lesson by roasting garlic in tin foil in the oven and squeezing it over crusty bread. (Yum!)

After Mia’s adoption was finalized and she came to us as a toddler, one of the ways we all bonded with her was through food. The first night she was home, my son Theo (now 17) fed her yogurt. She had lived the first year and a half of her life in Guatemala and spoke a little Spanish.  We were all delighted as she grinned and said, “Más!” In Love You More, I wrote about the ways we labored to learn what were her food preferences after she came home from Guatemala. (It was comical.)

I want my girls – to borrow your phrase – to eat with joy, and until recently they both enjoyed food unselfconsciously. I started to notice about two years ago, however, that Isabel sometimes commented that a certain food was high in calories and sometimes seemed to be avoiding foods she liked and was reducing her portions. I could tell she wasn’t eating with quite as much joy. This threw me, as I know how much pressure girls in our country have to conform to very unrealistic body images. I hate the idea of either of my daughters becoming critical of their appearance or developing disordered eating.

Isabel is tall (now almost 5’ 10”), slim, and athletic (and very beautiful inside and out), but during that time, after a check up at the pediatrician’s office, she seemed troubled about her weight and asked me whether she weighed as much as her brother Ian. (Ian is 18 months older than her.) I was glad to say I didn’t know how much her brother weighed, but that I knew that he – like she was – was a healthy weight. The doctor had just showed her how healthy her BMI was and went over the chart that indicated that her height and weight percentiles had been consistent over the years.

I was very careful not to ignore, nor overreact to, this new behavior.

Mia is Latina and, typically, Latinas develop a little earlier than Caucasian girls so she matured a bit earlier than Isabel did. Like her older siblings, as a preteen Mia got a little rounder, but then had a growth spurt. Like her sister, she is athletic (just finished a cross country season and fall softball) and is very beautiful inside and out.

For now, she seems completely unconcerned with her weight. But I’m noticing that she takes a little bit more time in the morning choosing her clothing and brushing her hair than she used to; she is no longer the little girl who just wants to wear jeans, her older brothers’ t-shirts, and a ponytail. Parenting her through the onset of puberty has been different as I was able to predict – with great accuracy, actually – when and how Isabel would develop. With Mia, I don’t know how her birthmother matured or how she experienced the changes in her body.

The period of time when Isabel’s attitude towards eating seemed “off” overlapped with a difficult time in her life socially. She’d just started middle school and was spending time with some new friends. Once, after coming home from one of their houses, she told me that her friend’s mother was taking pictures of them and stopped herself for a moment, very gravely re-arranged their postures, and showed them how to appear “skinnier” in photos. I was stunned. But then Isabel showed me the pose and facial expression the woman said they should make for pictures, and we both burst out laughing. She knew how silly she looked, and we didn’t need to speak of it.

As in so many aspects of parenting, I note these little yellow flags and watch closely to see if they become bigger issues. I also know, somehow in particular with my daughters, that the way to keep them from telling me about something is to make too big a deal of it. So I choose my words carefully and try not to overreact when something seems odd.

Isabel’s friendship with the “new girls” was short-lived (and painful), but two years later she is back in an “eating is nice” phase. I’m grateful, but also cognizant that these issues might sprout up again and in a more serious way as she gets deeper into adolescence. As a teenager, it’s developmentally appropriate that Isabel is quite affected by (and interested in) her friends. I’m glad to say that the ones she spends her time with now are healthy and smart – and, yes, they really like to eat.

I feel like there is so much I can’t control, but I know I can try to model a healthy attitude toward food and body image for them. We eat dinner together almost every night and I make the kids their breakfasts and lunches in the morning, so I do know that they are eating a healthy variety of foods.

Last week, after coming home from her best friend’s house, Isabel told me that they’d watched a video about how pictures of models are crafted by designers. I asked her what she made of it.

“The real woman was already pretty,” she said. “They made her look weird. So fake.”

I agreed and served her a little plate of cheese and crackers to tide her over until dinner.

More about Jen:

Jennifer Grant is the author of Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter, MOMumental: Adventures in the Messy Art of Raising a Family, Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by Skeptics, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels (co-editor, forthcoming, 2014), and 12: A Daybook for a Wholehearted Year (forthcoming, 2014). She is a grateful believer, a reader, a sometime poet, a dog lover, and, with her husband of 25 years, mother to four wonderfully creative and quirky tween and teenaged children. Learn more at

Jennifer Grant’s memoir, Love You More (in e-book format) is now on sale for just $1.99 for National Adoption Month. Click here to get your copy!


Ten Reasons You (or Someone You Know) Might Like to Read My Book

I’ve recently received word from InterVarsity Press that my book is now in print, and will soon be shipping from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other places where books are sold–like the wonderful Hearts & Minds bookstore. As the book launches, I’ll be sharing excerpts and reviews in this space. If you think people you know would be interested in reading this book, would you consider sharing these posts? And if my book sounds good to you, but you aren’t in the position to be buying books just now, would you ask your local library if they’d be willing to purchase it?


Today, here are ten reasons why you—or someone you know—might like to read this book.

You might like to read this book if…

10. …you are dismayed by stories of abuse and maltreatment of the people who produce your food.

9.     …you don’t know about the abuse and maltreatment of the people who produce your food.

  1. …you are more likely to associate the word “chocolate cake” with words like “guilt” or “sinful” instead of words like “pleasure” and “celebration.”
  1. …you are weary of diets, including diets that are purportedly aimed at ‘optimal health’ rather than weight loss

6.   …you are obsessed with diets.

  1. …you are concerned about the American “obesity epidemic” or you are concerned about all the fuss about the American “obesity epidemic.”
  1. …you are worried about the environmental effects of the American way of eating
  1. …you, or someone you love, has struggled with a full blown eating disorder, like bulimia or anorexia–or, you, or someone you love, has struggled with an eating disorder that doesn’t seem to fall into any official category, but is worrisome all the same.
  1. …you appreciate good food but are weary of the snobbish “foodie” culture
  1. …you’d like to find peace and pleasure and communion with God and others at the table, but aren’t sure how to do that in today’s busy world—or if it’s even worth the effort.

Speaking Out, Part Three

{I’m away this week. In addition to the delights of being with family & friends, I had the opportunity to speak to a MOPS group in New Jersey. I’m going to share some of the talk with you here. If I get my tech stuff together, I might even go all fancy and post it as a podcast so you can hear my squeaky little voice. Here’s the final part of three parts.}

I’m really certain that eating together–as families, as friends, as women–and enjoying food–is powerful, powerful stuff.

  • It can help kids do better in school.
  • It can help kids avoid substance abuse.
  • It can keep kids at a healthy weight.
  • It’s even been shown to prevent eating disorders in girls–provided there’s not that “fat talk” going on at the table, of the kind I grew up with.

And yet, family dinners are on the decline:

  • We’re busy.
  • Everyone likes and or hates different stuff.
  • Kids are gross to eat with sometimes.
  • All that is true. But they are still worth fighting for.

Some of the very practical, ordinary strategies I have for making dinner happen:

  • Planning. Make a REALISTIC menu for the week. Don’t go all Martha Stewart on yourself. Start with where you are.
  • Cooking ahead. Kids are crabbiest at dinnertime. Don’t try and cook when the crew is already plotting mutiny. Do as much prep as possible during a happier time.
  • Cooking once, eating twice. Make intentional leftovers. If they don’t like eating the same thing 2 nights in a row, do this: make 2 casseroles at the same time (not that much more work than making 1) but freeze one.
  • Relaxing about what the kids will eat/won’t eat. Young kids–and my kids are still young–are forming their tastes. It’s great to introduce them to new foods. But don’t be surprised when they rebel at new foods. It can take tasting something 10x before you decide you like it.

Try the division of responsibility:

Dietician Ellyn Satter says that parents are responsible for the “What” and “When” of eating, children are responsible for “whether” and “how much.” That doesn’t mean that they can choose cake over carrots. That means, if they choose to eat mostly rice and hardly any stir-fry, it’s a good idea not to micromanage that. We want to protect their sense of enjoyment and self regulation. In our house, when I make something I’m fairly certain the kids aren’t going to want to try, I ask them to try it, but I don’t make it a fighting point. I let them eat the rice, or whatever. It’s a good idea, too, to have ONE consistent fall-back plan. For some families it’s a PB&J. One of our favorites is apple slices and peanut butter. As in, you don’t like the curry? Ok. You may eat the rice. You may have apples and peanut butter. But that’s it. No special meals.
Again, the point is to ENJOY food and ENJOY one another’s company. Fads and fallacies regarding health can come and go. This is about the lifelong lesson. This is about connecting with one another over shared meals. This may even be about connecting with God through food.
Sometimes people get nervous when I talk like this about food. Like it is too permissive, too undisciplined. This doesn’t mean that you can’t follow your vegetarian convictions, or your local-food preference, or your organics or whatever. I have a few of those kind of convictions of my own. But I really believe that we won’t get well as a culture of disordered eaters until we give ourselves the permission to enjoy food and be satisfied with it without guilt. That’s at the heart of eating with joy. And you know what? The geeky studies I can’t help referencing support the idea that this right here does lead people to healthier weights, healthier self image, better cholesterol, whatever. Enjoying food in an un-conflicted way turns out to be good for us in lots of ways.
And that’s because, for example, when you feel comfortable accepting food–the way very young children do–you are in touch with your feelings of hunger, you’re in touch with your feelings about the food, and you’re actually less likely to overdo it. For example, let’s say you go out to eat and instead of getting what you really want–chicken tenders, fries, and a chocolate soda–you get a salad and diet coke. Except that’s not what you really want. And so it doesn’t really satisfy you. So when you get home, or whatever, to your next stop, there are M&Ms there. You don’t even like M&Ms, they’re not your favorite, but you’re feeling deprived and not quite satisfied, so you eat some, more than you want to, and then your stomach feels weird, sort of bloated, and you spiral into a bunch of negative thoughts about yourself, your weight, food, whatever.

Is it going to make you super-skinny? It probably won’t, unless that was your body type to begin with. But is it going to free you up to be more fully, happily, and contentedly the person that you were created to be, and to help your kids become more fully, happily, and contentedly the people they were created to be?

It probably will.

eating WITH children

I’d like to continue this week’s de facto theme of eating together, but with a bit more of a focus on eating with/feeding children. Obviously, this is a HUGE topic–one to which I will certainly return in future posts–so I’m going to confine my thoughts today to the (still big!) question: “how can I make family dinners that everyone–including the children–will enjoy?”

It’s a good question. In our own family life, there have been times where my creative cooking energies have been nearly stifled by the complaints of my children. There are at least four basic responses to the problem of kids who don’t want what’s for dinner:

  1. change family cooking/eating habits to suit their tastes
  2. make ultimatums and give the kids nothing until they eat what’s served
  3. prepare separate dishes for the adults and for the children
  4. allow the children to choose for themselves what they will eat from what’s being served, and offer one or two reasonable alternatives in the event of a hated-one dish type meal

First, you can probably guess that I’m not a huge fan of changing family cooking and eating habits to suit kids’ tastes. I’m not, but I’m not a legalist on this either: I think making changes within reason make sense. In my time overseas, I noticed that European (particularly Continental) parents make adjustments in the food for their children. So for example, let’s say my friend was going to broil some chicken and vegetables. She might put a curry rub on most of it, but leave a small, separate portion plain for the children. I like this. While there’s always the parents (like mine!) who brag that their kids ate spicy curries at eighteen months of age (which I did) it’s also true that kids are biologically wired to dislike strong and bitter flavors–perhaps a protective mechanism to keep them from eating poisonous plants and such. Making small, reasonable adjustments like this–for example, my kids don’t like chicken breaded, so if I’m making chicken, I leave theirs plain, which isn’t any extra work–seem to me like kindness and good sense.

Second, making ultimatums and threatening not to feed the child until they eat what’s in front of them. Certainly, there is a time-honored tradition here. And there’s a measure of wisdom, perhaps, too. It’s true that starving people aren’t choosy about what they eat. But think of a food YOU’RE averse to and imagine being told “eat it, and you’re not getting anything else until you DO eat it.” I’m stubborn enough to starve until I convinced whoever was doing this to me to give me something I like, and my kids, unfortunately, inherited this “spirited-ness.” It just doesn’t feel very kind to me. (Have you had experience with this? Tell me your stories!)

Third, preparing separate dishes for adults and children. As a general rule, this is way too much work, which makes it kind of unsustainable. In practice, it can mean relying on convenience foods (frozen chicken nuggets? spaghetti-Os?) to feed the kids while the grownups eat something else. Another thing that I don’t like about this approach is that it doesn’t provide a way for children to learn to eat “grownup” foods–and I do think that this is important. Now, again, I’m no legalist; I’m not going to say that this is something to NEVER do. It makes sense, for example, if you’re having a late, grownup dinner party, to make something simple beforehand for the children, like macaroni and cheese and some steamed vegetables. (Unless you’re me, and your kids hate mac & cheese. Go figure.)

Finally, #4: “allow the children to choose for themselves what they will eat from what’s being served, and offer one or two reasonable alternatives in the event of a hated-one dish type meal.” Maybe you’ve already guessed that our family falls most comfortably into this approach. In a comment on this post, my colleague and friend Ellen noted that her family often eats meals that are somewhat customizable, like tortillas with a variety of fillings. That way, each person can choose what suits them while still sharing the same basic meal. I like this approach, and I tend to have a fairly relaxed approach in monitoring what my kids choose. This sometimes means that someone ends up eating a tortilla filled with rice (ahem) but more often than not, as I look over the choices my kids make from their reasonably healthy options, it works out to a pretty good balance. (Read about an interesting 1928 research experiment on kids’ food choices here.) In the event of a mostly-one dish type meal (like a stew or a curry) that they don’t like, I am not opposed to letting them eat the bread or rice exclusively, or letting them have some apple slices and peanut butter instead. They don’t get to raid the fridge or place orders, but they can choose to eat the meal or to eat the one, simple alternative we have.

last night's dinner...notice the sly hand illicitly grabbing a pita.

Additionally, I do encourage my kids to try at least a bite of everything that’s being served, but in a fun way. I’ll pay them a dime to take one bite of something, or dare them to taste it in the classic frat-boy tradition. It helps to have a sense of humor when eating with kids. I think it’s important to retain a sense of enjoyment at mealtimes, and not let them become quests for nutritional perfection or battles about “how many bites do I have to eat before I can have dessert?” Because (and I’m planning to say more about this, also, in future posts) food is a gift from God, meant for enjoyment as well as nourishment.

And so people with children in their lives, I think, can and should help expand kids’ enjoyment of food as one way of helping them delight in God’s creation.

(and I will say from experience that helping them see where their food comes from–as in gardening or visiting a farm–is one great way to help expand their wonder at creation and gratitude toward God and piquing their interest in vegetables.)