Helping our children navigate this food thing can feel overwhelming! Our own food and body issues can get in the way as we try to help them feel positive toward their body and intuitive toward their food.
Take a deep breath, give yourself and your family a lot of grace, and let’s take a look at some solid principles we can lean on…
I. KNOW WHO’S RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT:
Grownups are responsible for:
- What foods are offered
- When foods are offered
- Where foods are offered
Children are responsible for:
- What they choose to eat (from what you offer)
- If they will eat
- How much they eat
- When they’re satisfied
This can feel too “soft” if you grew up with parents who controlled your eating, but we now know that an authoritarian approach to food doesn’t work well.
II. MAKE THE TABLE A PLACE YOUR KIDS WANT TO BE
Making time for some regular family meals is truly worth the effort.
Here are a few ideas to try on for size:
- Make the table a TECH FREE ZONE
- Keep the mood and conversation positive and relaxed
- Create an idea jar – draw out interesting or funny topics and questions to discuss
- Put a world map on the table under a sheet of clear plastic and talk about new places
- Best Thing – Everyone gets to share the best part of their day so far and why
- Good News – Everyone gets to share funny or kind things you’ve seen lately
- Follow the Food – Make a game out of tracing back how that sweet potato got to your table: Mom served it, Dad cooked it, we got it at the grocery store, the cashier…the grocer…the truck driver…the harvester…the farmer…the seed…the sun…the rain…WOW!!!
III. CHECK HOW YOU TALK ABOUT FOOD & NUTRITION:
DON’T CATEGORIZE FOOD: Try not to talk about food as “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”, “fattening” or “non-fattening”. These categories can unwittingly make certain foods more emotionally charged than others. I know this can seem counter-intuitive but calling a food “unhealthy” can make a child feel guilty for wanting it or choosing it – even if the child is eating it reasonably. This can put them on a path toward disordered eating.
DON’T MAKE FOOD RULES: Make nutrition about taking good care of yourself and about feeling great – not about obeying food rules. Rules are eventually broken and cause us to feel shame, be tempted to eat in secret, and/or binge.
As nutrition comes up, you might talk about how some foods are “POWER fuel” and some are just for fun; this can help children understand that some foods are better eaten in smaller quantities and less often.
Take a fun, curious approach toward nutrition. Invite your kids into discovering more about food/fuel with you. Be sure not to talk about food in an anxious, authoritative or perfectionistic way. Bring it up in a way that makes your children want to hear more.
Remember, if you hound them or shame them they will not want your message – no matter how good it is.
IV. BEST FOOD PLAN – MAKE WHOLE FOODS EASY & YUMMY
Our best plan of action as parents and grandparents is to have high quality fuel readily available. Have fresh vegetables, grainy crackers, cheese, nuts, fruit, etc. washed, cut up, easy to grab from the pantry or frig. Let them see you enjoying these foods – and also – not acting like the occasional cookie is a shameful act.
You can cut back on nutrient-poor foods over time, being sure to put yummy whole food choices in their place. The trick is for the adults to be pleasant and not pushy about changes.
Note: Remember all kids are not alike. Some children will naturally eat reasonably, and others will lean toward overdoing it. Some won’t care about sweets at all, and others will have a built in sugar radar. Having nutritious, delicious food available will be a huge help for those of us high on the treat susceptibility scale!
Model mindfulness. Encourage kids to listen to their body. As always, leading by example works best. You might say something like, “Our bodies are brilliant! And they’re talking to us all the time. Our bodies tell us when we’re thirsty, hungry, sleepy, or need to go play…” Help them think of their body as their own personal ally. It’s built to keep them running at peak performance.
Invite your kids to tune into what their stomach is saying. Occasionally you can ask if their stomach feels empty or “growly” or if their stomach feels full. Talk about how yours feels too.
V. INVOLVE KIDS IN THE PROCESS:
- They can help you write out the week’s menu, go to the grocery store and put groceries away. This involves them in picking the foods they would like to have in the house.
- They can make their own lunch, set the table and do some cooking.
- Talk about how human bodies need certain nutrients and vitamins to grow strong. It’s not a matter of “good” or “bad”. It’s a matter of what works well and what doesn’t…just like your car runs best on high quality fuel.
- When introducing new food, serve a small amount along with more familiar foods. Offer, but don’t force. Introduce a new food five or six times over a few weeks. The more exposure children have to a food, the more familiar it becomes and the more likely they will be to try it.
- Respect their refusal to eat it. No one wins when we make food a control issue.
STOP WORRYING: Children don’t necessarily eat the same amount everyday. It‘s normal for a child to ask for second helpings one day, and then eat almost nothing the next.
BIG NO NO’S:
- Don’t offer bribes or rewards for eating certain foods – like vegetables. This only reinforces that some foods are yucky and others are special.
- Don’t use food as a reward. Hugs, kind words or a trip to the park are all good choices.
- Don’t use food to silence tantrums or tears. Comforting kids with food sets up an unhealthy food attachment. Use words, kindness and a reassuring touch.
- Don’t use adult-sized plates for pint-sized kids. Use kid-sized plates, utensils and cups. Over-served children eat more and take bigger bites.
- Completely restricting certain foods is a bad idea. This makes that “bad” food more special by virtue of being forbidden, and can lead to sneaking and shame, which can lead the way toward disordered eating.
- Don’t say “clean your plate” or “just eat 3 more bites”. This teaches children to disregard their body’s natural messages of hunger and fullness and leads to overeating.
BIG YES: Dear parents, trust yourself to find your way through. You will. No one does it perfectly and no one has to. If you find you would like some help, I’m all yours.
You are learning, growing and figuring things out just like your children are; feel free to let them know you’re learning too. Discovering how to live well with the good gift of food can be a family adventure!
Pick a few things you can do this week and start moving forward. The rest will take care of itself.