Lessons my 9-year-old learned after a week of college dining hall meals

L. has a stomachache.

He also has a headache. He’s lethargic and, not to get too personal or anything, he can’t really recall the last time he, er, acquainted himself with the bathroom. It may have been a couple of days ago.

No, my boy’s not sick, though he thinks he is. He’s just got dining hall hangover — the product of a week at a university for camp, with a swipe card for meals and no parental oversight.

Before the week started, I tried to warn him. Fruits and vegetables, I reminded him, over and over. Water to drink, or milk if you must. Make choices that feel like the choices Mom and Dad would make for you, at least reasonably often. Have fun, but not too much fun, picking your meals.

He nodded, but it was that “YES, MOOOOOM” sort of nod. Age: Almost 10. Worldliness (in his own head): 35. Surely I had no wisdom to offer the lad.

Predictably, his first-ever totally self-directed eating experience didn’t go the way I would have wanted it to, though he had a grand old time. Burgers, fries, deli sandwiches, sodas, fruit punch, cookies. (“Mom! Did you know there are these big cookies that are all chocolate, with white chocolate chips inside them?”) Me: “Was there a vegetable?” Him, haughtily: “I DID have them put lettuce and tomato on my sandwich, you know.”


He wasn’t old enough to be a camp resident, so we got the daily report at the 9 p.m. pickups each evening. By day 3, I was desperately hoping he’d find a salad. By day 5, it was obvious he wouldn’t. The boy was on the all-carb, all-beef diet, and he was enjoying going hog wild.

Friday night was the kicker: The camp capped their day with an ice cream buffet. L. had a heaping bowl of cookie dough with hot fudge, whipped cream, and sprinkles. The next morning, he seemed a little sluggish on his way to the final rehearsals for the camp show, but he insisted he was fine.

By 3:30, when the show was over and we’d picked him up, I knew he was well on his way to learning his lesson. J. and I offered him the chance to go out for an early dinner at a favorite restaurant near camp. He was quiet for a minute, then said “I think I need to just go home. My stomach hurts.”

I asked him what he’d eaten  for lunch at the dining hall. He confessed that, sick of burgers and deli meat, he’d searched out a chicken sandwich. But still, he felt full. Too full. And tired. And sick.

I bit back an I-told-you-so, exchanging smirks with J. in the front seat of the car as we spoke soothing words to our nauseous child and steered homeward.

Later on, L. feeling readier for dinner, we went to get some Japanese food to celebrate his successful camp performance. When he couldn’t eat his meal and turned down dessert, I finally looked him square in the eye and said “Do you think you’re learning a lesson?”

My abashed 9-year-old blushed and said “You mean the dining hall food?”

Me: “Yeah. How do you feel when you eat junk food, meat and sugar all week?”

Him: “Really, really not good.”

This morning, with the stomachache persisting and a headache on top of it, he’s been willing to go along with anything I suggest to make it better. Painkiller for the headache, first of all. Constipation remedy to speed relief of the tummy. Lots of water. A vegetable-heavy lunch. And no sugar, white flour or heavy meats, at least not for a few days.

He’ll mend, but while I don’t like to see him suffering even a little, I’m actually glad this happened. Teaching kids how to eat well is a long, hard slog, especially when they’re surrounded at every turn by opportunities to make less balanced choices. And when they grow up in a household where nutrition is a priority, there’s always the danger that they’ll take for granted the lessons we’re trying to impart and underestimate how important it is to take care of their bodies properly. That’s why, as the boys have grown older, we’ve allowed them to make more choices that aren’t necessarily “approved” — a soda with their cousins, sugared cereal at Grandma’s house — without comment. And that’s why I didn’t intervene or lecture him as the week progressed, despite cringing inwardly at his daily rundown of food choices.

I won’t always be there, and one day, a dining hall may be his only viable option, 3 meals a day. He’s going to have to learn how to manage. And sometimes, these things have to be learned the hard way. Fortunately, he’s still young enough to have come home at the end of it all, accepting Mom’s judgment about how to make it better, and willing to let me help him press the reset button so he can get back to feeling his best.

By no means do I think this will be his only slip-up, but this week at the university, he learned how to manage a locker with a combination, how to navigate a class schedule, and how to even find and pay for his food in an overwhelming dining hall setting — all big skills for a rising 4th grader. If he can learn all that in less than a week, he can learn how to eat, too. In the meantime, the experience has given me a good reminder that sometimes we have to set kids up for long-term success by providing lots of opportunities for them to fail.