Kids and food. As parents, we agonize, cajole, bribe, worry and stress about what our kids are eating, when they are eating it and whether or not they are eating enough or too much. From birth, mamas worry about the amount of breast milk they produce or how many ounces of formula our infant is getting. We count ounces and feedings and wonder whether we can impact an infant’s sleep pattern by feeding them more or less at certain times. We stress about when to introduce foods and at what rate and in what order. And once our kids are eating solids, we worry that they aren’t eating enough or are eating too much or want too much sugar. We use sweets to get them to eat protein and hide vegetables in muffins. From a very early age, the foods our children put in their bodies become intimately intertwined with hidden agendas, rewards for good behaviors, power and control.
We want to control what they eat. But what they allow to go into their bodies is one of the few areas of pure control a child has. It is pretty hard to force someone to eat when push comes to shove. And, for some families, that is what mealtime feels like. Pushing and shoving.
Have you ever heard yourself say these things?
“He just won’t eat vegetables.”
“She doesn’t eat enough.”
“He is eating too much. “
“Mealtime is so stressful.”
“All she will eat is [insert food of choice here].”
It is easy to blame the child for her food choices, but the truth is that the way we communicate about food and the options we offer set the stage for a child’s relationship with food. If we want a child to have a healthy relationship with food, then we need to be creating an environment in which she can build an understanding of what food is and what it does for her body.
- What Food Is
- Food is nourishing your body.
- Food is making sure you have enough energy to run and jump and play.
- Food is helping your body to grow.
- Food is available when you need it.
- Food is about learning to listen to your body. Our body knows when it needs more food.
- Food comes in many colors and flavors, shapes and sizes.
- What Food Is Not
- Food is not necessary when you don’t need it.
- Food is not a reward.
- Food is not a punishment.
- Food is not a power struggle.
- Food is not about love.
- Food is not about anger.
- Food is not about worry or fear.
When we use food as a reward or punishment (“If you eat your broccoli, you can have ice cream.” “If you don’t sit still, then you can’t have ice cream later.”), we are essentially bypassing a child’s natural relationship with food and making food about our child’s relationship with us (“I am pleased when you eat all of your dinner. I am worried when you don’t eat your protein.”). When we try to force the issue, it turns into a power struggle. Now the conflict is between the parent and child. The food gets lost in the mix!
Rather than eating because they want to make mom happy or because there are starving children in China or because they want ice cream for dessert, we want children to eat because their bodies are telling them that they are hungry and because they understand and enjoy the process of taking care of their body.
Helping children develop a healthy relationship with food is simple, but it does take some soul-searching on our part. The first step is to understand your own relationship with food. What are your own control issues, triggers, fears or anxieties related to food? It is important to be aware of what is going on inside of us. When we are able to model a healthy relationship with food, we offer a foundation and environment that allows children to explore and develop their own relationship with food naturally.
Here are some ideas for helping your children explore and develop their relationship with food:
- Offer a wide variety of foods, colors, textures, tastes and smells.
- Talk about the food. What does it look like? Smell like? What does it feel like in our mouth and belly?
- Allow children to be involved in the food preparation. Everything from tending a vegetable garden, to grocery shopping, to food preparation, to planning a whole meal. Involve them as much as possible, as often as possible, in every way possible.
- Talk about the nutrients in food and what they do for you while you are eating the food. (“Will you pass the beans? Beans have a lot of protein. That helps our muscles get strong. Why do you think you need strong muscles?”)
- Never force a child to eat. If a child says he isn’t hungry, believe him. Encourage him to check in with his own body. (“You are not eating very much tonight. What does your tummy say?”)
- Don’t offer “special kid food.” If children don’t want to eat what is offered for dinner, that’s okay. They don’t have to, but there aren’t any other options. This isn’t a power struggle and it isn’t a negotiation. It just is what it is. “Here is what is available, so listen to your body and eat what you need to.” Don’t make it a power struggle between you and the child. (Most kids won’t starve themselves. They will eat when they are hungry and if they are hungry they will eat what is available—unless they know that holding out will result in having their favorite food later! If you are very worried that your child isn’t growing, talk to your pediatrician. But most parents who worry that their child isn’t eating have children who are growing and thriving just fine. )
- If a child will eat only a particular food, stop offering it for a while.
- Remember that kids’ taste buds are growing and changing, and their experience with food is growing and changing. Rather than saying, “He doesn’t like broccoli,” say, “You didn’t feel like eating broccoli tonight, but maybe you will next time.” In the same way, if you have your own food dislikes, talk about them in the same way. Try not to say things like, “Dad doesn’t like any kind of green vegetable.”
- Remember that dessert is not a necessity. We don’t need it, our kids don’t need it. It’s certainly fun and delicious, but if you are trying to help your child relearn her relationship with food, consider taking dessert off the menu for a while.
- Offer as many whole food options as possible. Rather than offering processed foods, or foods with other foods hidden within, try offering each food separately. Being able to taste each individual food can help a child become comfortable and familiar with the tastes, smells, and textures of each food.
- Find what works for your family regarding mealtime rules and stick with them. Establish rules and boundaries like, “You can be done whenever you feel full, but once you get down from the table, the meal is over for you.” Then stick to them. When these types of boundaries are unclear, children are sure to test limits or engage in power struggles!
Helping our children develop a healthy relationship with food means that we have to take ourselves out of the mix. In the same way that we want them to learn communication skills, problem-solving skills, and empathy, we want them to understand the role of food in their life and to learn to enjoy the process of tending to their own body. When we as parents stop engaging in power struggles over food, it becomes easier to create an environment in which our children can engage in their relationship with food.
Want more? Here are two of my favorite websites focused on supporting our children’s relationship with food. Visit Spoonfed at http://spoonfedblog.net/ and 100 Days of Real Food at http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/.