So what does this mean? It means that if we are going to raise a child to develop healthy body image we need to get rid of the all or nothing thinking. There is room for all foods in a diet that consists of predominately healthy and mindful food choices. Does this mean I am suggesting allowing your child to eat as much candy or cookies as they want? No, not all; or at least not all of the time. It means that through a great learning curve we gradually teach our children, and yes through example (Aha, the hard part!) that all foods are ok to eat as long as we are eating what we genuinely desire, take the time to enjoy and stop when we are full. Children must know that there are foods that our body needs to grow healthy and strong and foods that are simply fun to eat! Now, this might sound like a foreign concept. However, I can assure you that with the right tools and understanding, children (and adults) can learn to eat what they desire without creating unhealthy habits. If we vilify “fun” foods, we make them more desirable.
Think about it…
There is your favorite chocolate cake sitting left over on your counter. You tell yourself “I shouldn’t have that. That is so ‘bad’. I’ll have to take and extra class to burn that off... but it looks so good!” Then suddenly you find yourself standing in your kitchen with crumbs on your counter and on your lips and you don’t even remember enjoying that delectable cake. Get it? Think about it, if you sit down at the table with that piece of cake, look at it, smell it, take a bite and savor the flavor and consistency, you can then taste how delicious it is. The pleasure neurons in your brain are firing and you are genuinely enjoying your slice of sweetness. You are going to eat it anyway, why not enjoy it? If you truly desire it and don’t eat it, be prepared to crave more of it when it is presented again. So, the more we tell our children they cannot have something or that they have to “eat this, then get that”, we are not only encouraging a disconnect between true hunger and desire, but they will want more of what they are told they “shouldn’t” have. The last thing you want is for your child to race through their meal with the goal of getting the “reward”. If they are told they must finish all of their broccoli if they want the cupcake, then that cupcake has become a powerful enticing force and broccoli becomes the hurdle in the way of sweet satisfaction! If a child is gradually given a choice and feels some sense of control over their eating, they are less likely to engage in the “dinner dance” because they will not feel forced or coerced.
To achieve healthy eating a child must learn that they can eat as much of their meal as they want or need to satisfy their appetite and don’t have to clear the plate; and can still have desert! Rest assured that a child will test this and may even boycott certain foods to really be sure that you mean business and you will continue to collaborate with them on feeding instead of demanding. If a parent or caregiver is really determined to raise a child with healthy ideas about food and body image then a new education in food and eating is necessary.
Some tips to begin changing beliefs about food
Avoid labeling foods as good or bad and encourage that all foods are ok and all food is of equal value. For example, Ice-cream is presented in the same manner as a bowl of fruit. Would you like a cupcake? Is the same presentation as if an apple or a cracker were offered? Instead of, would you like a cupcake?!!!!! Yes, we are not robots and some foods are exciting and have celebratory value. I love cupcakes! In fact, most people do; that’s why businesses have made a million dollar industry selling every variation of cupcake known to man. It ignites the child with us and creates memories for our children. However, it is important that more often than not the emotional values of foods, despite their category, are pleasant and neutral.
“If you don’t eat lunch, then no cookies!”
Message: I have to eat even if I’m not hungry or in the mood for this because I really want that cookie. Choice is taken away and the cookie is power!
Instead: “Lets enjoy our sandwiches and if you want cookies we can have them too”. Or if your child is battling for the cookie, “Would you like to have a cookie with your lunch and the rest after? We will have cookies and enjoy them.
“If you behave in the supermarket then I will buy you candy at the checkout.”
Message: your child has you hooked. The power is in the food, not the parenting.
Instead: “If we can get our shopping done quickly we will have time to play at the park together after.” Here you are offering connection and fun as a reward as opposed to food as a “treat”.
“Stop crying, here, do you want a cookie?”
Message: My feelings aren’t important; if I eat I will feel better. This is dangerous because it connects upset feelings and self- soothing to food
Instead: “You are crying, you look so sad, can I give you a hug?” By offering this response you are saying; I see that you are sad, how can I help you? Let’s figure out what is making you feel sad.
The bottom line is that humans of all ages want and need a sense of control. When we feel that our free will is threatened we will fight to relinquish it. The same goes for feeding and nourishing our bodies. The parents role in feeding is to provide consistent, nourishing and appealing meals and food choices and it is the child who decides how much to eat and whether or not they do. As parents it is crucial that we first evaluate our own feelings about food if we are to send healthy messages to our children.
Please feel free to send or post questions related to this topic! Thank you.