No parent wants to be the food police, nor do our kids want to be policed.
Yet focusing only on what to feed our children and controlling their food in the name of health and weight management have become the norm in our “food rules, weight-worried” culture.
For many parents that approach has made feeding their kids stressful and frustrating. Overwhelmed and exhausted, well-intentioned mothers and fathers feel they must bribe, force and negotiate with their kids to eat well.
And our children are feeling stressed about their relationship with food, too.
“My mom is a great cook, but she’s always trying to control what I eat,” said one child in “The Intuitive Eating Workbook for Teens. “She only wants me to eat ‘healthy’ food, When she sees me eating chips or a dessert at our cousins’ house, she gives me the evil eye.
“It’s always made me feel so guilty. Couldn’t I be healthy and still eat chips and cookies? I’m so sick of feeling guilty!”
Kids may feel guilty or ashamed about eating “bad” foods, sneak or binge on “forbidden” foods when they are available, try to use willpower to control their hunger when portion sizes are restricted or become frustrated when forced to clean their plates despite being full.
We need an upgrade to the current rules-based approach, which is taking us further from being a healthful eater. Healthful eating is not just about eating “healthy foods.” It’s also about a positive relationship with food and our bodies.
The good news is that parents can raise a healthy, competent eater by taking a fresh approach to feeding that establishes a positive eating experience, teaches kids to connect with food and their internal body cues and allows our kids to have the body nature intended for them.
Bring pleasure to the plate
The most important goal in eating and feeding our children is to make the experience positive.
“Parents who set aside the struggles are amazed at how much better they and their child feel and do, not only at mealtime, but all the time,” registered dietitian Ellyn Satter said.
In order to raise a healthy child who is a joy to feed, Satter recommends establishing “Division of Responsibility in Feeding” guidelines. Under the guidelines parents are responsible for what, when and where children eat. The kids get to choose how much and whether to eat.
It’s best to begin those practices in infancy to create a positive eating experience and avoid common feeding challenges, such as picky eating patterns or refusing to eat vegetables. But it’s never too late to shift how you feed.
In “No Weigh: A Teen’s Guide to Positive Body Image, Food and Emotional Wisdom,” a 25-year-old remembered her parent’s healthy eating strategy was to keep only healthy food in the house. She often visited the home of a friend whose parents were less restrictive with food and was amazed to find that despite having access to “forbidden” foods her friend often chose nutritionally dense ones. Meanwhile, she couldn’t wait to raid the pantry.
“Restricting food or types of food, or even labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ can lead to an increased desire to obtain and eat ‘forbidden’ foods, resulting in excessive consumption when food is available, eating in the absence of hunger and emotional eating, especially when highly palatable foods are restricted,” nutritionist Carrie Dennett wrote in her article “Children’s Nutrition: Raising Intuitive Eaters.”
And what about your child’s responsibility in eating? It’s for him to determine how much and whether to eat by tapping into his intuitive eating cues.
Intuitive eating is inborn
Think about an infant who cries when she is hungry and turns her head away from the spoonful of food when satiated. We were all born intuitive eaters.
Unfortunately most of us lose that ability to listen to our own body’s cues. Understandably, parents may intervene in their children’s eating, worried they’re not eating enough or believing they couldn’t possibly be hungry.
Furthermore, today’s eating environment is often distracted and disconnected. We eat while checking our smartphone or while driving, tuning out internal cues.
Instead of teaching kids the bad habits we’ve created, let’s teach (and show with our own behavior) how to honor the body’s language when it speaks of hunger, fullness and satisfaction. Ask your children to reflect on how certain foods feel, and spend time talking about how to cope with feelings without relying on food.
Loving the body nature
Our kids come in all different sizes and shapes. As a community we can create a positive body image for our kids by upgrading our dialogue about health, food and weight and body shaming.
But what matters most is what you model as a parent — what you say about body image impacts your child more than messages from the outside world. More than anything, your child wants to be loved and accepted by you.
Notice if you bring your own fears and insecurities to the table, as is seen in this story:
“When I was 7 years old, I was a chubbier girl doing ballet. My ballet teacher said I likely wouldn’t pass my ballet exam — not necessarily because I was chubby, but that was how I took it.
“My mom reinforced this by telling me that if I passed my exam (in my mind, lose weight to pass the exam) she would give me a doll I wanted.
“While the doll wasn’t important, I did want to prove to my teacher and my mom that I could do it, and thus began my issues with food and body image and led to being an undiagnosed anorexic through my tweens/teens.”
These stories are common, but we have the power to change these stress-filled experiences by booting the food police from the table. We can raise a generation of kids who have happy and healthy relationship with food and their bodies, beginning with the tools I’ve described here.
Be a rebel. Put pleasure and whole health back on your family’s plate.