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Baby Daddies

What Our Toddler Taught Me About Eating

After decades spent yo-yo-ing between denial and over-indulgence, this dieting dad discovers that introducing his son to healthy eating is a tonic for the entire family.

Written By Ariel Foxman
Illustration Courtney Kiersznowski

“Feed yourself like you would feed your child.”

That was the sage advice of a therapist I had been seeing weekly for over a decade. She and I were having yet another back-and-forth about my indefatigable penchant for food restriction, emotional overeating and diet-bandwagoning. After a pediatrician-prescribed stint on Weight Watchers as a chubby pre-teen, I discovered, that while I may have lost weight, I also lost my trust in my own internal eating cues. Rather than relearn sustainable moderation, I found myself eager to toggle between extremes: days during which I would eat very little, and days during which I would eat to make up for the restriction. Decades locked in this vexing cycle, I had subscribed to every quick-fix trick and treat. Nothing would return me to equilibrium, though.

Ironically, today, these corrosive habits are often referred to as “intermittent fasting,” “self-care” and “wellness.” But this was back in the aughts, and I was searching for a strategy to put my maladaptive eating behind me.

“You mean, like my inner child? Like my inner child is hungry for something?” I asked.

“No, like your actual child,” she said quickly, exasperated that after so many sessions I would always find a way to not take care of myself. “Plan and prep and cook as if you had to feed a child.”

Without an actual toddler to call me out, I would have probably just kept on ordering spicy take-out — eating it with choking-hazard chopsticks, no less! It was all too theoretical, and in my apartment, abstract eating could never take down actual eating. Now, years later, that therapist has retired, and I am married with an 18-month-old son. It was just a few months ago that our son, Cielo, transitioned from surrogate breastmilk to actual food food. I was energized. After all, Cielo’s high chair was outfitted with a tabula rasa. As an honors graduate from a clean-plate family, I welcomed a clean-slate opportunity. No food had yet to be lauded or demonized, and no experience had yet to be habituated.

Still, folks gotta start somewhere. Most parents approach their kids’ first meals and menus with a blend of some of what they learned in their youth, some of what they have since corrected as adults and some of what the myriad experts have to say. Couples need to find common ground, too. Snack and dessert philosophies are negotiated.

"His fundamental nature is a reminder of just how many of my innate appetites and impulses have been rendered mute by decades of dieting and perfectionism. And while parenting is not about do-overs, it is incredible just how much kids allow us to re-see."

I know that I am fortunate to be married to my husband for many reasons, but there is one thing I cherish about him more and more over time: Brandon’s ability to eat what he wants when he wants it, to recognize when he wants a treat and to honor when he wants to feel nourished. It would certainly be tempting then to yield all of our family kitchen and grocery duties to Brandon, the lesser-burdened eater. But I can feel my former therapist — let’s call her Marilyn because, well, that’s her name — nudging me to learn the lesson in doing the difficult thing.

So I step up. I will take it on, along with Brandon. But what, I wonder, do I bring to the proverbial and literal table? While my habits have improved in recent years, they aren’t solid enough to be the bedrock for Cielo’s food pyramid. When a pediatrician shares her rule of thumb with me — a young toddler can eat about one-fourth of what I can eat at any given meal — I am beyond befuddled. But what sort of meal, I wonder, one where I am being “good,” one where I am indulging, one where I am only eating certain food groups, one by myself or one in the company of others?

I soon learn that Marilyn was right, sort of, as her advice is not conversely sound. For obvious reasons, I cannot feed my child like I feed myself. (Truth be told, I am writing this column on a lunch of Diet Coke and a Rice Krispies treat.) I can, however, feed him like he’s my child. But more than that: I can feed him like he is … Cielo. What I had underestimated in the entire equation is just how perfectly calibrated we are when we come into this world. I spend most dinners sitting across the kitchen table, watching my child eat, in awe. It may appear like he is learning from me — chew, chew, chew … ok, drink some water now — but I’m really the student of his sublime simplicity.

Cielo eats when he’s hungry. And he will not eat when he’s not. He eats more of what he likes. And he will not eat something he absolutely does not enjoy. I revere the baby in balance. His fundamental nature is a reminder of just how many of my innate appetites and impulses have been rendered mute by decades of dieting and perfectionism. And while parenting is not about do-overs, it is incredible just how much kids allow us to re-see.

Brandon and I are committed to preserving Cielo’s hankerings and honoring his limits. The fun has come in doing what we can do best for our son: expose him to different foods. We have made a commitment to introducing him to new flavors, textures and cuisines. And for the first time ever, I am regularly present around food: shopping for groceries, searching for recipes and cooking a warm breakfast most days of the week. Cielo inhales my special banana-oatmeal pancakes with such gusto that we have since dubbed our stove-top “McDaddy’s.”

As for my food intake, parenting demands putting vanity on the shelf, even for the time being. Eyes become bleary, shirts get stained, and long-standing grooming appointments concede to playtime, bath-time and dinnertime. Also, watching my son eat based on his own inner compass is a reminder to me that I have the same compass, as we all do. I don't need to watch every calorie if I listen to my body's telling me what I crave and when I am satisfied.

Just this morning, Cielo kept running back over to our kitchen island so he could watch me prep and roast some watermelon radishes we purchased at our local farmer’s market. When I started to explain that while the root vegetable is called watermelon, it won’t taste like a watermelon, he put both hands on the fuchsia wedges, looked up at me and giggled uncontrollably. I finally understand what it means to bond over food. And I am comfortably full.

Ariel Foxman, the former editor in chief of InStyle, is a brand consultant and contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Follow him and his son on Instagram @arielfoxman.