Teaching children to fast is very basic in an Orthodox Christian upbringing, like teaching them to pray. The question of when and how strictly to have one’s children begin fasting should be discussed with a spiritual father. If a family does not have a spiritual father and the family is involved in a parish where fasting is not encouraged, especially among the children, one should ask God to present the family with an opportunity to find a spiritual father who can guide the family in the True Orthodox Christian life.
Today many children have dairy and egg allergies and live their entire childhood without these foods. Many people do not eat meat at all, for philosophical reasons, and raise their children on a meat-free diet. There are cultures in the world whose diet have no or only a very limited amount of meat and dairy, and in many cases, the people of these cultures are physically healthier than Americans. So, it’s not a matter of depriving children–it’s simply a different way of cooking.
A child’s ability to fast during the Great Lent depends a lot on how the child eats during non-fasting times. If a child’s primary foods are meat and dairy, then fasting will likely be difficult. But if a child is accustomed to eating a variety of legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, then in most cases, fasting will not be difficult. It is important to have your children eat a variety of legumes, grains, fruits and vegetables throughout the year, so that they will be accustomed to these kinds of foods and will not find fasting to be such a dramatic change in diet.
Yet, again, establishing a fasting rule for the children in a family must be done under the guidance of a spiritual father. It is possible to become overzealous for having our children keep a full fast, and a spiritual father would temper this and guide the family on the path that is best for the children’s physical health and spiritual development.
It is helpful to educate yourself what constitutes a healthy, nutritious diet for fasting so that you and your children will not suffer any deficiencies. (Serving your family peanut butter and jelly for lunch and pasta for dinner for 40 days is not a healthy diet and will make your family–especially your husband–hate fasting.)
For children who keep a strict fast the morning of receiving Holy Communion, it is helpful to make sure that they are fed a substantial, nutritious meal the evening before. If you are in a parish where the Divine Liturgy is late in the morning and the children have difficulty keeping a strict fast for the entire morning, it can be helpful to serve the previous night’s dinner or give the children an additional protein-filled snack (and water if they are able), before they go to bed the night before the Divine Liturgy.
That’s Just What We Do
Our children are born into a family that fasts on Wednesdays, Fridays and during Church fasting periods. They get plenty to eat each day during those times. We are amazed at how many Orthodox Christian families do not make fasting part of their regular routine. We feel it’s easier for children to grow up used to that aspect of the Orthodox Christian faith rather than having to learn to fast as adults. On the other hand, we are not “label readers” and discourage that in our children.
On Parish Life and Fasting
We understand that it is difficult to fast, and some of us have many special food requirements. Parish leaders and organizers: please, if it is a fast period and there is a retreat/youth function do not serve children non-fasting food. We are not judging you or others if you break the fast, but it is very difficult for us parents to keep to the fasting calendar and then have it broken in the church, of all places. Please have all Sunday School teachers/youth groups leaders and parishioners who cook for the parish know not to feed children non-fasting food during the fasts or to verbally criticize the fasts of the Church. Further, please do not call us “fanatics” for following the Church fasting rules.
Prepare Them for Difficult Days
The Elder (Geronda) Athanasios had personal experience with true physical hunger during WWII. Over 300,000 civilians died in Athens, Greece alone from starvation, tens of thousands more through reprisals by Nazis and collaborators, and the country’s economy was ruined. He saw starvation with his own eyes, was himself truly hungry, and knew that it would always be possible for times of hunger to come to any people at any time.
“I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” (Philippians 4:12)
In other words, when I have plenty of food, I do not eat like a glutton, and when I am hungry I have learned not to blaspheme God. I have learned the lesson to have plenty, to be rich without being attracted and attached to have plenty, to be rich without being attracted and attached to these things; but I can also go hungry without doubting God and questioning what is going to happen to me–maybe God forgot me or maybe God died. No; Saint Paul says, I have everything I need and then some. I have everything I need and I abound! (cf., Philippians 4:18). Holy Saint Paul, you were in jail for three years! Two years in Caesarea and one year in Rome and what do you have?
He says, “I have everything and I abound.” Saint Paul is not lying. Do you see how a person can discipline himself, how he can be conditioned? My friends, what are you going to do when you keep filling your children up with chocolate, ice cream cakes, cream cheese and fresh butter? What is going to happen in a period of hunger? We need to teach the children to fast, to learn (even with all of today’s technical means) to withstand some mild suffering, so they will be able to survive some difficult days if they happen to come upon us. If they are trained in this way of the difficult days of their lives, like Saint Paul they will say, I know how to live with plenty and I know how to survive with next to nothing.
Fasting With Joy
As to fasting before Holy Communion, we do a great disservice to our children by not teaching them to joyfully fast when they are young. Whatever you do, set a good example and do not complain about fasting in front of them. They are young but they are not foolish. Teach them why we fast.
Attention Span and Snacks
Children without health problems can go the length of a Divine Liturgy without food and drink. Please don’t bring cheerios, or any food or drink (or gum) to church.
Pray while cooking or preparing food for yourself and your family. Make the sign of the Cross over your food and drinks. Always pray before eating, at minimum make the sign of the Cross; and do not be embarrassed about blessing your food in public or your children will feel the same way. (Source: Orthodox Christian Parenting. Cultivating God’s Creation by Zoe Press)