Did you grow up in a home where you had to finish what was on your plate before you could leave the table or get any dessert?
If you behaved well, were you rewarded with a trip to the ice cream shop or the candy store?
If you did not behave well, were certain foods refused, restricted, or taken away? Were you sent to your room without any dinner?
Most of us were raised to believe that certain foods were “bad” while others were “good” and that how we behaved would dictate what we got to eat that day. It made parenting sense at the time and most households were raising children with these eating guidelines, under good intentions. The problem with this way of raising eaters, is that it teaches children to detach from food; to put food into “good” and “bad” categories; igniting feelings of insecurity, lack of control, guilt, and shame when it comes to food. This detachment and regulated/restricted style of raising eaters was, and still is, un-intentionally contributing to the, still-rampant, development of disordered eating.
What if we were to teach our children differently about eating practices? What if we were to encourage them to listen to their body’s needs and desires innately, without trying to dictate how and what they should eat? Who would they become as eaters?
The truth is that we are designed to be intuitive eaters. When we are tuned in to our selves, our hunger and satiety signals, then the body and mind know what to eat, when, and how much. Intuitive eating naturally contributes to balanced weight, energy levels, moods, and strong health. Encouraging the development of the intuitive eater, early on, is an amazing way to set our kids up to be confident, healthy eaters.
Raising an Intuitive Eater
Be a good role model: You may or may not have noticed already that your children will adopt your habits around food. They look to you for guidance and, regardless as to what you attempt to teach, will mimic what you do. Lead by example, not with instruction.
Convey the message that hunger is natural, normal, and a “correct” sensation: Sometimes kids are hungry at the most inconvenient times. Or incessantly. Or not hungry when you think they should be. Their body is not necessarily going to be hungry when you think it should be and it is crucial to not shame or make-wrong their natural hunger signals, but rather, respect them.
Children are innately self-regulating: The really little ones need your guidance, its true, but as our kids grow into themselves more and more, they will be able to sense when they need food, what kind of food they need, and how much. Help them to notice and to listen to what the body wants and needs. Offer suggestions and guidance, but allow them the chance to speak on behalf of their body.
Make as few issues around food intakes and choices, as possible: Do not make a big stink about whether or not they are eating their broccoli. If your child doesn’t want their broccoli, let it go. Offer some other food choices that might work better, and try broccoli again another time. Making big issues around food tells children that they are wrong or right, good or bad, as an eater, and sets the stage for food fights.
Allow “treat foods”: sugar has great downfalls and dangerous affects on health, this much we know for sure. However, the dose makes the poison and, when it comes to raising intuitive, balanced eaters, restricting treat intake often has the opposite effect than what we are aiming for. The goal with intuitive eating is to entice kids to listen inwards, not to strain or restrict or ignite feelings of being burdened by the idea of eating. Choosing better treat options and including them in the diet at reasonable times, is a great way of keeping the idea of pleasure present with food, of developing good decision making skills, and of maintaining balance.
Let them play with food: kids love to squish food in their hands, chop vegetables into tiny pieces, and mix up special concoctions. Let them explore. It may be messy and oftentimes a bit of a waste, but messes can be cleaned up and you can choose what they use to experiment with. Food should signal fun to kids; they can connect with fun, they understand it. They are more likely to try new foods and develop a positive relationship with food, if they know that it can also be fun.
Children seek autonomy: allow them to serve themselves as soon as they are developmentally able; involve children in food shopping and meal prep. Essentially, give them a little control. Perhaps they can help pick dinner meals or pack their own lunches? Involve them so that they can feel as though they, too, are making some of the decisions around food.
Introduce new foods gently and keep trying: trouble with picky eaters? It’s common in youngsters to develop aversions to certain tastes and textures, or not want their foods to mix. As the parent, you may either facilitate an ongoing issue, or gently lead your child towards a more balanced eating style. Introduce a new food alongside other foods you know he will eat. Coerce him gently, but if he is refusing, set it aside for the day and try again tomorrow. Introduce only 1 new food at a time, to avoid overwhelming the child. Most importantly, do not give up. Children are evolving constantly, if you stop trying, that tells them that it is not important. Rather, stay positive and keep trying, showing the child that you believe in him/her and know they are a good eater.
Remember your role as parent: stay neutral when serving food; eat a variety of foods yourself, maintain good table manners, and DO NOT bribe, reward, or comfort with food. Try not to be attached to whether or not your child finishes their meal or likes what you serve. Let it be ok, however they feel about food at any given time. If they are upset at the dinner table, take them aside, to a quiet space, and talk about what is going on.
Make meal times a positive experience: Talking about what everyone did that day, their favourite part of the day, what they look forward to tomorrow, etc. are all great ways to encourage positive energy at the dinner table. Create a peaceful atmosphere and avoid intense or heated conversations and save them for a more appropriate time.
Talk about nutrition and “healthy/nutritious/growing/vital” foods: why do we eat food? What does the body need to grow strong and healthy? Invite discussion around nutrition and how important it is to you that your children be healthy. This kind of talk will evoke curiosity for more information and a possible interest in more food related activities and culinary exploration.
Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself.
We do our best as parents, and that is enough.
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