Have you ever stopped to think about where your current opinions about food come from? Who or what affected your opinions about food from the time you were young? Have your influences changed since then? Perhaps you’ve known the old phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” since your kindergarten days. Maybe more recently, you’ve found yourself perusing an article all about how your favorite celebrity eats to stay fit.
Many of us grew up thinking that dieting is a normal way of life. Where and when did these feelings start? Is it the crushing pressure that we get from television and magazines to look a certain way, or did it start some time before that? Among our many influencers, our parents are most certainly a contributing factor. We must seriously consider how the small comments and choices we make will affect our children and their feelings towards food for many years to come, for better or for worse.
As some of my readers will know, I was a dedicated ballet dancer for over ten years of my life. Talk about an industry that can promote some unhealthy feelings towards food and body image! I was lucky in that my parents did not fuel the fire of unhealthy eating habits, but unfortunately I was around far too many young women who had clearly been taught some damaging views about food from their parents - mostly their mothers. (“Stage-mom” syndrome is real!) While the world of performance, specifically ballet, might breed an unhealthy attitude towards food, I have noticed more and more in life that this epidemic is not specific to this industry - it is all around us. As someone who is thinking about food 99% of my day, I can’t help but think about which of my views are ones that I truly believe in, and which are there subconsciously from my past. And which views do I want to pass along to my daughter?
Full disclosure: This is written by a first-time mom of an infant. I know that some of my readers will chuckle at my lack of experience and knowledge in the field of parenting - who am I to give advice or have an opinion on the matter?
Hear me out: Because my passion is food, I am always actively seeking to understand the underlying issues with food that so many people have. I witness in my career that many of these principles apply to the way we speak to each other about food even as adults. I see it in my conversations with clients. And, I speak from a place of deep reflecting on the information I was told as a young person, and nearly 10 years in the culinary industry. I have made it my goal for many years to develop my own opinions about food, rather than relying on popular magazines, peers, or the latest dieting trends. In short, I like to do my research. So, the points I am about to bring up reflect what I know about my own opinions of food, what I have seen in my peers, clients, and family, and what I hope to impart on my child(ren). I realize that as a parent, there will be days when I succeed in sticking to my goals, and days when I don't.
It is my hope that these points will inspire you to think about your own views and attitudes about food, and how you communicate them to others. Please feel free to share your insight with us in the comments below!
How I Plan to Raise an Intuitive Eater
- Don’t tell a child with absolute certainty and tyranny what is healthy for them. Nutrition changes. We do our best to communicate what we know to our children, but we’re often only as good as the latest nutritional science. While I was raised by a victim of the low-fat era, it may prove that some of the nutritional truths I hold to be sacred will be disproved 30 years from now. Yes, we want to encourage healthful eating and teach “wrong” from “right” when it comes to food: children should be taught that nutritionally, vegetables are going to do more for their body than ice cream. But where do we cross the line between guidance and controlling? Helpful and manipulative? Teaching and projecting? I want to raise a smart woman who does her own research and listens to her body, not someone who follows diet trends like a zombie.
- Don’t tell a child when they are or are not hungry. Trusting your own hunger cues is an important part of intuitive eating. Children are growing fast and although you just saw them eat dinner, it is not unlikely that they may be hungry an hour later. If a child is hungry, offer a healthful snack, only. (It’s the same trick you can use on yourself!) If you’re hungry enough to eat whole wheat toast, some berries, or a handful of unsalted nuts, then you’re probably actually hungry. If you’re only feeling “hungry” for chocolate, cheese, or potato chips, chances are you’re eating for emotional pleasure, not for satiety. Saying things like, “You need to eat three more bites” or “You must be full now” are telling your child that they can’t trust their own cues and intuition.
- Don’t use food as a reward or punishment. Here’s the common situation: Child is overtired and starting to meltdown in a public place. Mom gives child candy to distract from tantrum. Instead of learning how to deal with emotions or setbacks, as an adult later in life, that person may reach for food to quell feelings of upset. In addition, the more we reward (show love, affection, attention) through “treat” foods, the more we associate pleasure with these unhealthy foods. “If you keep misbehaving we won’t get ice cream later” increases a child’s desire for these foods - being good means getting these unhealthy foods. Likewise, having to finish your broccoli (punishment) to get to the cake (reward) sends the same message. Food should not have the label “good” or “bad” placed on it. (I’ve used the term “guilty pleasure” myself, as we all have… but doesn’t that send a conflicted message in itself??) Let’s let food just be food.
- Don’t use food to shame a child. “Skylar eats all of her broccoli, why don’t you be a good girl like Skylar?” Dietary choices at a young age should not be labeled good or bad, and should not reflect whether the child his/herself is good or bad. It is our job to guide our children and offer them a wide variety of healthy foods, not to dictate what they have to like. Every adult I know, even the worst eaters, eats at least some healthy foods - the chance of having a child that never grows up to eat any vegetable ever is just about 0%. So, let’s not associate shame/blame with healthy vegetables and add insult to injury.
- Don’t demonize “picky eaters” or even tell a child that they are one. It is normal for toddlers to assert themselves and start to stand up for their likes and dislikes. As adults, we’re allowed to do this, so why shouldn’t young people have that right? I have heard it recommended that you should offer a new food to your child up to 15-20 times, as the increased exposure might eventually lend them to get over their fear or dislike of this new food - but every time, you should accept “no” if that’s the answer, without emotion or reaction. If you tell a child they’re picky, they’re more likely to believe it and adopt that persona - don’t give them that burden.
- Don’t force a child to eat something. “You can’t get up from the table until you finish your peas.” Isn’t this one just the worst??? I like the suggestion to give children the option: Put the food in your mouth and chew, if you like it you can swallow, and if you don’t, you can (politely) spit it into your napkin. This suggests that trying new foods is a positive and low-stress activity, and not liking certain foods is okay. (You will likely wish to encourage them to try it again, at a later date.)
- Trust and respect strong food aversions. As crazy as it sounds, I wonder what food sensitivities might present themselves as aversions from a young age. Before the pressure from society comes in that “almonds are healthy for you”, might you have realized as a young person that almonds don’t make you feel well? I ate peanut butter for many, many years, since it’s accepted by society as a healthy, easy lunch or snack. (And, of course it’s delicious.) It took me until I was 26 to realize, “oh my gosh, peanuts make me feel terrible!” Was I missing those cues all along, because I was trying to like foods that I thought I should like? How often do we ignore our body’s cues because we have some preconceived notion about a food? I still do it to this day, it’s a hard one to break.
- Provide options. Don’t like broccoli? Fine, how about peas. No? How about corn? Being forced to eat something you truly don’t like, no matter how good it is for you, is unacceptable and frustrating at any age, as discussed above. Did you know that children are more sensitive to bitter compounds found in foods like vegetables? It is thought that this is an evolutionary trait, since many bitter foods in the wild are poisonous. Offering as much of a variety as possible gives your child the feeling of choice, even if the choices are controlled by you. Make sure that one of the healthy choices is actually something you know your child will eat. I like the suggestions of Ellyn Satter, who discusses your role in feeding your child versus their role as the eater.
- Speak honestly about the food advertising that your children are seeing all around them. It has been shown in a study* that removing the veil of illusion surrounding unhealthy foods that are marketed towards children can help reduce the pull and influence that these advertisers have. (For real though, you guys realize the hilarity of allowing yourself to be swayed by the image of oozing cheese on a television screen, even as an adult, right? Lame. Let’s all agree that we understand advertising as a concept and don’t have to base our lives around it.) *Check out the study here, if you like.
Whether or not you mean to, your opinions and attitudes about food will be passed along to your children: by example, through your words, and even in little subconscious actions. So, it would seem that the best way to pass along healthy eating habits to your children would be to adopt them for yourself. Stay curious, stay informed, and always question your own beliefs.
Let’s raise the next generation to trust their gut (pun intended!) and to have a healthy relationship with food.