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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Out of Africa

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

I am just back from an over-month-long safari in Africa, and I am I not ready to get back to work! I traveled in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Tanzania. For this special issue, let’s play by talking about what I had to eat!  

The food was great. Actually, I would say that about any food that someone else prepared for me and put on the table at the appointed time. But really, the food was great! We had a lot of stews:  lamb stew, beef marsala, chicken curry, and the like. Their animals are grass fed, so the meat is well-exercised, low in fat, potentially tough, but flavorful. It has to be braised: moist heat, long time, low temperature. We also had vegetable stew, steamed vegetables, and salads. Generally, for starch we had rice, sometimes potatoes, and always fresh homemade bread! Once in a while we had ugali, which is a stiff white cornmeal (ground maize) mush. It is like a dry polenta. In Zimbabwe they call it sadza. The guides said that when they are at home they eat ugali every day. They say eating ugali lets them feel energetic and filled up for a long time. Since they said that in every country I visited, there must be something to it!

My colleagues were not competent eaters

Being grown up with eating is being able to eat the food that is in the world.

My group was all American. I have to say, I was the only competent eater in the lot! I went to the table hungry, ate what tasted good at the time (it varied from meal to meal), and stopped eating when I was satisfied. As for the rest, what a lot of moaning and groaning about eating too much and gaining weight and having to cut down and throwing away restraint at the dessert table! I was left wondering whether  people fed themselves at home, and it seemed that the answer was, only inadvertently. Most boasted about not cooking for themselves. ”Oh yes,” I thought. ”That would do it.” All seemed actually proud of their food-acceptance limitations: the woman who wouldn’t (notice wouldn’t, not couldn’t or didn’t) eat vegetables and a couple of vegetarians and a man who wouldn’t eat chicken. All expected a certain amount of catering. Isn’t the point of growing up with eating to be able to eat the food that is in the world and not have to be catered to?

The guides worried about their children’s eating

For the most part, when you go on tour you are stripped of your identity. That suited me fine. In that environment, I did not want it to be generally know that I was interested in the joys and perversions of eating! However, one day in Zimbabwe I had some free time with a couple of the guides, both young fathers, and they asked the dreaded question, ”Ellyn, what do you do?” I explained to them as best I could, given I didn’t know how their families manage child-feeding, my work with feeding dynamics. I told them about parents who are so concerned about their kids’ eating that they force and bribe and make matters worse, and asked them if they worried about their children’s eating. They both allowed as how they did, and how they wanted them to eat.

They weren’t supposed to listen

I told them meals were the most important, having the kids at the table and letting them participate in the family food and sociability. I described how my colleagues children, ages 3 1/2 years and 11 months, listen to her and me talk at mealtime and how they laugh right along when we laugh, even though they don’t understand what it is all about. One of the guides was dumbfounded. ”I got in trouble for listening when I was a boy,” he said. ”One time the grownups were talking and telling stories and my friend and I thought something was funny so we laughed. My father didn’t say anything, but he gave me a look that said, ‘I will deal with you later.”’

African families are based strongly on tradition, so I assume there is a good reason for the rule about not listening (or not seeming to listen) to grownup conversation. What a contrast with American families who make their kids the center of everything, who orchestrate meals for children and devote themselves to keeping them happy at mealtime! For our culture, I am left feeling that the best way is somewhere in the middle, where adults include children in family mealtime and give them attention, but don’t make them the center of attention.

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