Saturday, January 30, 2016

Whatever you do, don't use the f-word: tips for dealing with a fussy eater

"All my boy will eat is fish fingers," groans a parent I know.

"A number of smart people have told me that they only ate fish fingers the first 10 years of their life. They seemed to do all right ... But I'm looking for a recipe that disguises broccoli as fish fingers."

While this mum is able to joke about it, we share a common concern: we each have a child dubbed a "fussy eater".

So concerned was I about my little person's limited diet that I took myself off this summer to a government-run health session on fussy eaters.

Stories emerged from other mums about the horror of anything lumpy; the terror of juice still in its fruit; parents unable to sneak a banana into a milkshake; only custard for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or – as if straight out of Doctor Who – custard and fish fingers.

My little person really only likes things that are white, to the point of food racism: white pasta (no sauce, thank-you), mashed potato, white bread (with butter only) and only the whites of eggs.

I have always understood children as having agency. I will not threaten or bribe. I am responsible for providing a selection of foods and she is responsible for eating them, unforced. Children are in control, ultimately, as they learn self-regulation.

But my creative enterprise and attempt at persuasion brought little success. It should have been easy. The family eats most meals together to help socialise my daughter and encourage new culinary things. It's as if she has worked out what won't poison her and is sticking to it.

Frustrated, more so because I had no problems of this kind with the older kids, I was ready to give anything a try.

I can report having a little more hope after getting some helpful tips, including some old ones learnt afresh from a very helpful nutritionist:

1. Offer a small variety of what the rest of the family is eating with some modification (for example, a larger portion of what she likes for dinner, so she can still choose and feel good about eating what she typically likes).
2. In the same vein, expose her to new foods so they become less scary. If she doesn't like the pasta sauce, put it to the side, but don't exclude it, as exposure to disliked foods helps her overcome her dislikes.
3. Role model by showing and eating a variety of foods that are safe.
4. Offer wholemeal breads.
5. Offer a high-iron food at least once a day.
6. Try not to pigeonhole her as a "fussy eater", as children can wear that label with pride as a special badge (oops, seems too late for that one at my house).
7. Involve her in the making of the meal. Helping with the cooking can increase the likelihood of a child eating new things.
8. Use vegies as a vehicle to get in other good stuff, like hummus dip scooped up with sticks of carrot (a distant hope for us, but I have to be optimistic).

The tips have come just in time, ahead of the stresses of a year of school lunches. Ultimately, I have to respect a child's decisions to eat or not to eat. It's not a given that we'll get where we should in a hurry, but I was reassured that a child knows how much food she needs to survive.

First published in The Canberra Times, January 27, 2016.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The seductions of the beach

If the bush represents the sweat of hard work and childhoods in suburbs sprawling into a scrub frontier then the bleached sand and cool sea is where we choose to escape our pimpled and later ageing selves. So contends author Robert Drewe in his new book, The Beach.

He argues the beach is part of the Australian consciousness at many levels. We are called to the edges of the continent to find refreshment and the promise of renewal. But it's also where early intrepid travellers, settlers and convicts first encountered Aboriginal peoples; where mutual curiosity turned into clashes.

There are more than 11,000 sandy beaches in Australia, each with their own secrets, sand flies, jellyfish and near or actual drownings. They are where our anxieties play out (shark!) and where our moral values are tested.

They are where people experience intimacy and intrusion, rescue and rejection. The backdrop for the Cronulla riots a decade ago, the beach represents a lifestyle and philosophy, viewed under threat. When too close to the beach, asylum seekers are given numbers and taken to prison camps girt by sea. The coastline is littered with propaganda and demons.

If we see the desert as a place of redemption, with its sublime emptiness and silence, the beach for citizens is a place for fulfilment. A lot of us love the beach because it's where we had our first crush. It's where our innocence was lost.

Drewe notes that retirement and nursing homes are increasingly scattered along the coast where residents gaze out, recalling earlier years, staring at Norfolk pines and 50 shades of blue.

I grew up and became freckled in Manly; more of a neighbour of the sea rather than a lover who surrendered to it. The boardwalk and sandy stretch from Shelley to Queenscliff was then, as now, a highway of diversity and flesh, a sticky collage of ice-creams and cola, and increasingly sunscreen-painted people. Folk either lose themselves or become more conscious of their cellulite.

A friend of mine recalls a familiar walk down sandy steps to a favourite beach where he finds a strange but wonderful solidarity with strangers. "I feel I am being good to myself. My soul relaxes and lightens. When I sit watching people having fun in the water, I feel I am one of them."

He feels lucky at the beach: "Everyone's there for the simplest but most important things in life: joy, freedom, relaxation, friendship. Every time I dip into the ocean ... it makes me feel more generous, and more patriotic."

There is a kind of democracy at work at the beach. The absence of clothes equalises bums, legs and arms under the southern hemisphere's uncompromising light. The constant motion of the sea links swimmers together. Under the force of waves, they share a dangerous freedom denied to those walking on the ground.

Abandonment and freedom come to mind for Drewe too, who says he's pleased there are no private beaches in Australia. "You can choose to walk the perimeter of this vast continent with relative freedom." But, he asks "Why do we need to pee as soon as we enter the sea?"

The sea invites us all to let go more than we otherwise might.

Another mate, although a long-time resident of the coast, notes that she is just not a "fish-type"; saying she has always lacked a courage she thinks is needed for the surf. "The waves always overpower me. The cold thing freaks me out. Maybe I'm just not hard enough. I get swept away. And I'm so fair, he's fair, I end up looking like a lobster."

"But I do appreciate the ocean for its freshness, its clean air," she adds.

Even though climate change makes the coast increasingly threatening with rising sea levels and monstrous waves that bludgeon the coast, the beach in all sorts of weather is still seductive, promising mental and physical relief any time of year.

First published in The Canberra Times, December 8, 2016