'Make sure you eat all your carrots and sandwich,' were my parting words as my daughter ran for the school bus. Maybe not unusual a plea from a parent to a child, but possibly odd as a parting statement on a child's birthday.
'Of course I will,' she called back.
No, my daughter was not humouring me with the 'correct' response. Nor was she lying or fobbing me off. She fully intended to eat all her sandwich and carrots, even though it was her 11th birthday and her bag was laden with cupcakes to share with her friends.
For, she knows what happens if you only eat sweet things all day, even on your birthday. She has experienced this - in all its wonder and all its awfulness.
Her 8th birthday happened to fall on a day that was far out of usual routine. It was the last day of a week's long beach holiday with friends. After having a celebratory birthday breakfast at a café (she had ice-cream on pancakes), the kids had an ice-cream for morning tea as the adults packed the car. We then drove (via fast-food for lunch) to my visit a work-colleague (who, knowing it was her birthday, had baked cakes). We then drove to our next holiday spot (with a few lollies in the car to help us cope with city traffic) to visit old friends (who provided chips and chocolate for afternoon tea).
Each one of these treats was fine in itself, especially for a birthday day but because of the on-the-move style of day, it was only when my daughter started feeling ill that we worked backwards to realise that she'd eaten nothing but sugar and fat all day.
We adults were feeling OK – we'd had cooked breakfasts rather than her sweet pancakes and we'd had something slightly more fullsome for lunch. We probably had a piece of fruit or two left over from the holiday but, unusually, we had not insisted on her having some too.
The result was horrible. She started to feel sick as we headed out to dinner and got worse as we scoured the menu to try to find something that her sugar-laden-stomach could consider eating.
We had to abandon the dinner, despite this being our only chance to see some friends. I sat with her in our hotel room, soothing her as she tried to sleep, feeling dreadful that we had abandoned some of our usual parenting mantras in the excitement of an out-of-the-ordinary birthday day.
It was a horrible end to a lovely day but we now have lived-experience of what happens when you eat nothing but 'treats' all day. Now, when we say: 'make sure you eat your sandwich as well as the cake,' she knows why. We are not being mean. We are not nagging for the sake of nagging. She knows that it is not even about making her healthy in the longer-term (though this is part of it). It's about that actual day and being able to enjoy the whole of it, rather than collapsing in a nauseous heap at 5pm.
As parents, we spend our lives peddling health messages to our kids, most of which are about things we honestly hope they will never experience – sunburn, dental decay, or falling off their bike without a helmet are some that spring to mind.
I wish my daughter had not had this birthday experience. If it was to happen though, I am glad that she was old enough to be able to remember what happens when you only eat junk for a whole day. This means that my calls for her to eat in a balanced way, even in times of celebration, are heard as a good reminder, not as a nagging mum.