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The Children's Table by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

From, Maids Wives and Bachelors

It is to be hoped that the best way of feeding children in order to produce the finest possible physical development will ere long have the amount of attention that is devoted to the improvement of horses, cattle, and sheep. For both men and women have begun to realize that mentally and spiritually we are largely dependent on the co-operation of a healthy body; hence there has arisen a certain school, not inaptly designated “Muscular Christianity.”

The physical welfare of a child is the first consideration forced upon the mother. Long before the intellect dawns, long before it knows good from evil, there is important work to do. A healthy, pure dwelling-place is to be begun for the lofty guests of mind and soul. Alas, how little has this been considered! How often have great minds been cramped by sickly, dwarfed bodies! How often have aspiring souls been bound by earthly fetters of irritating pain!

Who shall deliver children from the unwise indulgences, fanciful theories, and inherited mistakes of their parents? This is not the province of religion; a mother may be intensely religious, and at the same time cruelly ignorant in the treatment of the child,—whom yet she loves with all her heart.

When men and women lived simply and naturally Nature in a large measure took care of her own; but in our artificial life we must seek the aid of Science to find our way back to Nature. And if science has been able to teach us how to improve our breed of horses, and bring to a state of physical perfection our cattle and sheep, by simply selecting nutriments, she can also give the seeking mother directions for building up a strong and healthy body for the immortal soul to tarry in and work from. For, humiliating as we may regard it, we cannot battle off this fact of God, that the vital processes in animals and men are substantially the same.

In the dietary of children the two great mistakes are over-feeding and under-feeding; but of the two evils the last is the worst. Repletion is less injurious than inanition; and according to my observation gluttony is the vice of adults rather than of children. If they do exceed, the cause may generally be traced to the fact that they have suffered a long want of the article they revel in. For instance, if at rare intervals candies and sweetmeats are within their reach, they do generally make themselves sick with an over supply of them; but this is but the Nemesis that ever follows unnatural deprivations of any kind.

Nothing is more necessary to a child than sugar. Its love of it is not so much to please its palate as to satisfy an urgent craving of its necessity. Sugar is so important a substance in the chemical changes going on in the body that many other compounds have to be reduced to sugar before they are available as heat-making constituents. In fact the liver is a factory for transforming much of the nutriment we take, in other forms, into sugar.

It may be said, “If sugar is a great heat-maker, so also is fat meat, which most children very much dislike.” The one fact proves the other. Fat meat and sugar are both great heat-producers, but the child craves sugar and dislikes fat because its weak organism can deal with the sugar, but cannot manage the fat. Every mother must have noticed that delicate children turn sick at fat meat and usually crave sweets. Poor little things! they want something to make the vital fire burn more rapidly. Sugar in proper proportions is fuel judiciously added; fat is fuel they have not strength to assimilate, and therefore reject. Of course no mother understands me to say that children should therefore be fed on sugar; but only that they should have a fair and regular proportion of it in some form or other; in which case they would feel no more temptation to exceed in occasional opportunities.

Another dominant desire with growing children is fruit. They will eat fruits, ripe or unripe; a sour apple or a ripe strawberry seems equally acceptable. It is common to attribute summer complaints of all kinds to them, and to carefully limit children in their use. The fact is that all fruits contain a vegetable acid which is a powerful tonic and one peculiarly acceptable to the stomach. Fruits ought to form a part of every child's food all the year round,—fresh fruits in summer, apples and oranges in winter. But they must be given regularly with the meals, and not between them. They will then fulfil their tonic office in the system, and never under ordinary circumstances do the least harm.

How often have we seen children in mistaken kindness largely restricted to bread and milk, puddings and vegetables; nay, told in answer to their craving looks that “meat was not good for little boys and girls.” Now, consider first why adults eat meat. Is it not to repair the loss we suffer from active work, the exhaustion from mental efforts, and to supply afresh the vital warmth, much of which is lost every day by simple radiation? In all these ways children usually exhaust life quicker than adults. They run where we walk, they jump, they skip, they are seldom still. Their studies are as severe a mental strain to them as our business cares to us. Their bodies are quite as much exposed to loss of heat by radiation as ours—in some cases more so. But children have a most important demand on their vitality which adults have not: they have to grow. Who, therefore, needs strong and nutritious food more than children? They ought to have meat, plenty of it, as much as they desire; and with the meat, bread and vegetables, milk, sweets, and fruits. For variety is another grand condition of healthy food,—no one kind of food (however good) being able to supply all the different elements the body needs for perfect health and fine development.

If children have any urgent desire for some particular diet it would be well for parents to hesitate and investigate before denying them. They have no means of coming to any secret understanding with the child's stomach; but Nature generally asks pertinaciously for any special necessity, and Nature is never wrong. Neither is it well to limit the quantity any more than the kind of food given to children. Their necessities vary with causes too involved for any parent constantly to keep in view. The state of the weather, the amount of electricity, or moisture in the atmosphere, study, sleep, exercise, the condition of digestion, even the mental temper of the child might differently influence the condition and demands of nearly every meal. No dietary theory that did not consider all these and many more conditions would be reliable. What, then, are we to do? Have more confidence in natural instincts. If children ask “for more,” ten to one they feel more truly than we can reason on this subject.

On general principles it may be assumed children ask as directed by Nature; they desire what she needs and as much as she needs. Of course, all advice must be of a general nature; special limitations are supposed in the power of every thoughtful mother. But the great principle is to remember that energy depends on the amount, not of food, but of nutritive food; for if a pound of one kind of food gives as much nutriment as four pounds of another, surely that is best for children (and adults too) which tries their digestion least.

What the next generation will be depends upon the physical, mental, and moral training of the children of to-day. These children are the to-morrow of society. Are they to be puny and dyspeptic, fretting and worrying through life as through a task? Or, are they to be finely developed, sweetbreathed, clear-eyed, light-spirited mediums for divine aspirations and intellectual and material works?

O mothers! do not despise the humble-looking foundation-stone of life—good health. You have the earliest building up of the body; see that you spare no elements necessary for its perfection. Be liberal; doubt your own theories rather than Nature; trust the child where you are at a loss, just as a lost man throws the reins on his horse's neck and trusts to something subtler than reason—instinct.

In whatever light the subject of children's food is regarded, the great principle is we—cannot get power out of nothing. If the child is to have health, energy, intellect, there must be present the necessary physical conditions. These are not the result of accident, but of generous consideration.


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