Adjusting to life as a sibling, M had to assert his authority somehow and not only over his place in the home but also in his relationship with me – maybe more accurate, the status of my relationship with him. Though relatively blase about sharing breastmilk whether solo nursing or in tandem, for the first couple of weeks he would not eat anything if T was around or in the room, not even nutella on banana with nut sprinkles on top. Mealtimes, he seemed to be saying, are our time, mother and son, and I want you to focus on me. If I heeded this request, he ate his meals with his usual gusto; were I to forget and bring T into view, or even acknowledge his presence in the room, no food would pass M’s tightly pursed lips. Of all the ways he could have asserted his authority over the roles in the house, this was by far one of the more manageable options, yet it surprised me he’d chosen food as his variable to control.
As I child I wasn’t given autonomy over food, either in choosing its components or as to where and when it was eaten; mealtimes were three times a day, served at the table, take it or leave it. Food cupboards or the fridge were out-of-bounds, and snacks were given not demanded. Back then there was a general belief that kids palates weren’t developed enough to appreciate the taste of the finer foods in life and so children’s menus – largely reflecting the foods kids were served at home – offered burgers, chicken nuggets, mini-pizzas, mostly served with chips. Salad was never an option, pasta rarely seen and baked beans considered a side to replace vegetables to balance the plate. Thankfully since then more research has been conducted into childhood nutrition, parents are more educated on the importance of offering as wide a variety of healthy food options to kids as you can and there are a great number of parents who, like me, loathe the idea of forcing a child to clear their plate when they say they’ve eaten plenty or vice versa. G was brought up in a world with no concept at all of adults versus child food. Everyone ate what had been cooked and in restaurants there was only one menu – still is. As is Turkish culture, snacks are offered at least 3x a day and if a kid says they’re hungry then food will appear. Though many Turks think nothing of offering babies sugary biscuits, or fried savoury pastries as an in-between meal filler, Turkish kids are -and were then- also routinely offered fresh fruit and vegetables as snacks or whole meals; indeed one of G’s cherished memories from childhood here in Istanbul is his father bringing home five or six romaine lettuce, washing them, sprinkling the leaves with salt and lemon and the whole family sitting down to watch tv munching like rabbits – not an image i can picture back ‘home’.
Turkish and British culture, and the ways both G and I were raised within these, differ not just in the food children are fed, but also the way they are fed it. I remember being shocked the first time I witnessed a parent chasing a four-year old round the garden trying to entice the child to eat the food proffered on the fork; I remember also having to explain what was, in my view, strange with this image. With M we wanted an approach to food which would balance these approaches and allow him to develop a healthy approach to eating and appetite. Starting at six months, M approached food as he seems to approach life, head-first enthusiastically. Everything from curried carrots to stuffed cabbage leaves has been sniffed, touched and tasted, with very little offending his tastebuds. Baby-led weaning, an approach which involves offering the child a selection of foods repeatedly throughout the day and allowing them the autonomy to choose how much, or little, what and when they eat, made the weaning process easy for us and M has never had issues food which is why it threw me that he’d grasped the idea that food could be used as a power tool. Having spent much of my teenage years battling with bulimia or the denial of it, I know all too well how food as a sense of control can quickly become food with the power of control.
As I write now it’s halfway through Ramadan. A month which should be dedicated to useful thought, fasting not only cleanses the body, but strips you down to the soul. Alhamdulillah I can’t recall when last the illness took control; I can recall however how this hadith makes sense the first day of each Ramadan fast and every day in the following year. Our son is being brought up with food choices abundant and his own, I hope too he grows with the knowledge that every morsel is one to be thankful for. An Islamic hadith guides us to eat to satisfy hunger, but not to eat to be full – split the stomach into thirds, reserve one for drink, one for food and the third fill with air; sharp contrast to media bombardments of nutrition to fit societal constraints of what healthy really is. My struggles with food are behind me inshallah but as with everything we go through in life, we’re not tested aimlessly. Harrowing though many of the tests that period were, the lessons I’ve taken from it are valuable, not just in how I approach food to fuel my body feed my soul, but in how I feed my family, the approach we take to sustaining our bodies generally.
The focus of food during Ramadan is on wastage and health, on portion sizes and timings, on over-indulgence and deserved small pleasures; it’s the ideal time of year to evaluate how we live alongside our food, in which products we consume, where these foodstuffs are sourced and how much and when of what we buy. I find I’m more conscious of over buying of produce or of buying additions that we won’t likely miss, I’m more in tune with the foods my body needs to feel satiated, and additionally, because the idea of waste is abhorrent, I get creative with leftovers in ways I mightn’t otherwise. For an entire month, food dominates the conversation of so many around us, and where as once this would have brought fear to me, I can now enjoy it, and join in it, happy to indulge and refrain and be grateful. It took me a long time to mentally retrain my mind to get to here; it’s someplace I never want my sons to ever leave.
I remember a few years back reading of outcry in the UK because a TV chef had reared chickens in his back garden. When the time came to put them in the pot, he allowed his children to witness the act that brings their food from garden pecking and clucking, to table salt-roasted, golden brown; I recall also following on from this scandal reading how less than 60% of children under five can identify basic food produce or connect the animals to the nuggets or burgers on their plates. Sad though this made me, it surprised me little – when food comes pre-packaged and re-shaped, of course a peach being a doughnut makes perfect sense. Appreciation can only come with acceptance. If you understand how laborious it is to grow vegetables, if you’ve watched farmers hand-sow rice into flooded paddies, if the process of slaughter is not merely abstract and clean then the food choices you make will be grounded in knowledge. Islam, not only guides us as to how we should eat or what foods are beneficial, or not, for us, our religion through fasting and sacrifices – ensures also we stay close to our food.
After picnics and bite-size-meal-trays, prep involvement and total control over meal choices and timings of food and Mum’s position during all the above, M’s back to eating properly again, with gusto, and variety and, thankfully, with T lying happily by his side. Yet still, somehow – already – my son has learnt that food consumption is a powerful force: it’s my job now to ensure he never knows food as anything less than the gifted blessing it is, and knows how to use that force as intended, to benefit ones body, to take joy from the sharing of it and pleasure from the eating of it…