What Food Is For

Soul. Body. Soul

John Piper and Teaching My Children To Eat (Part 1)

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“NONONONO do NOT PUT THAT IN YOUR MOUTH!!!!!!”

One morning after a protracted battle with my toddler over her attempt to decline her breakfast oatmeal, I walked into the living room just in time to see her reaching her chubby hand into the back of her diaper and pulling it back towards her mouth to examine, in a more direct way, what she had just deposited in said diaper via the usual means. Of all the culinary adventures I had dreamt of having with my kids in my wide-eyed and optimistic pre-parental years, this day (or rather, morning – it was barely 10 a.m.) had not made the list.

During my own childhood, poverty and other circumstances meant that I was neither physically nor spiritually nourished particularly well. By the time I graduated from high school, I had a body that was overweight and unhealthy, and a theological perspective that was heavy on law and moralism, but feather-light on the gospel. God worked over the next decade after high school to transform my heart and mind in a way that manifested itself in a healthier body, and a healthier (and oh-so-much happier) understanding of what God’s Word was really about. When God gave me children of my own, I was determined to atone for the sins of my youth and give my girls a better foundation than I had had with eating, and with learning to love the gospel as revealed in Scripture. Even in those early years of mothering, I knew that instilling good habits and thinking about the lesser thing (food) could inform how they regarded the far greater thing (Scripture). Armed with an English and Bible degree from a brand name Christian college, and several years of nutrition and culinary training on top of that, I was confident that on at least these two fronts, I was going to dominate motherhood.

It felt like mere months into my new role as Director of Culinary Education for my first little Starke-let before I was already ready to tap out. I was surprised from the onset how much time I had to invest the seemingly simple lesson of what actually was food (anything God provided and Mommy prepared, regardless of individual aversions to particular textures, colors) and what most certainly was not (thumbtacks, chalk, discarded cigarette butts and the Substance Which Shall Not Be Named). Building on this core concept (which we had to continually review) were others, including:

Food Transportation Methods and Systems – why hands are appropriate delivery mechanisms for carrots sticks, Cheerios and peas, but not mashed potatoes or applesauce, or anything on Mommy’s plate

Food Ownership and Property Rights – why ownership of a food mandates its consumption (especially when granted by Mommy), but lack of ownership forbids it; when equitable redistribution of edible property is good and desirable (candy with Mommy, snacks at the park with friends) and when it is deceitful disobedience (surreptitiously feeding your cauliflower to the dog)

Food and Personal Creative Expression – why making a happy face on pancakes from half a banana, cranberries and a single, self-aware chocolate chip is a legitimate lunch activity, but mixing your sweet potatoes, chicken and milk into a paste with which to paint your sister is cause for immediate expulsion from the kitchen to Mommy’s bed for a timeout. (Optional followup lesson on the nature of bodily noises deemed a worthy and noble addition to collective eating experiences, versus those meriting dismissal as described above.)

Meal after snack after mess after meal, I worked to give my girls a healthy perspective about food. The temporary defeats were many. One of my girls, a very early teether, was offended at the very idea of chewing, and convinced that her teeth were literal thorns in her flesh and thus not to be trusted. She would sit with a tiny morsel of tri tip in her mouth forever, waiting for it to dissolve, or for when I was looking away so she could push the offending object out of her mouth down a slip ‘n’slide of drool onto her high chair. Another really believed that food was better for looking at, and playing with, but not actually eating. (She was generously willing to make exceptions for anything made mostly of white flour.) Many were the dinners that became breakfast, and on rare horrible days, that then became lunch, as my youngest Starke-let learned that the guiding principle (although by no means the exclusive one) for what she was to eat was not what she personally preferred, but what God had provided.

I tried not to make every meal a grand monument to culinary and nutritional principles. Sometimes God gave us chicken nuggets and French fries for dinner. (These days seemed to coincide with Daddy’s business travel schedule in a statistically significant way.) On other days, God gave homemade chicken pot pie containing a medley of vegetables that on first receipt were viewed as irrefutable evidence that God hates us all. But because I knew that God always loves us, just not always in ways we understand, I made sure that the vegetables were eaten with as much willingness as the French fries, even with less spontaneous joy.

The battles were hard. Victory has never really been declared. Thirteen year olds are just as capable of eyeing a new food with suspicion as a three year old. But today, (with necessary caveats for circumstances like an impending bout of the flu that I will only know about after the impending has led to the actual and I am kicking myself at 3 a.m. for my strictness in making the poor girl eat those three bites of chili before she could go to bed), all the Starke-lets will eat pretty much anything they’re offered. They have learned the appropriate social conventions with which to bless their hosts if what they receive is not to their immediate liking. Better yet, they have also learned to willingly eat and enjoy a wide range of foods and styles of cooking.

During those early years of Eating 101, it was hard to imagine the day when my teething toddler would grow up to chew her kale so cheerfully. If anyone had told me it would take a literal decade before I could see the fruit of my labors clearly, I would not have received that attempt at encouragement with a lot of joy. But never did I honestly think about just giving up and submitting to the childish whims of my dear one’s immature taste buds and brains. The stakes were too high, I knew too much about where that road would ultimately lead. With God’s help, I fought the food battles, I failed a lot, I repented and got back at it a lot, and today, by God’s grace, the physical food part of mothering is going pretty well.

If only I could say the same about my work to help my kids enjoy spiritual food.

To be continued….

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