Do you have anxiety around your child’s eating habits?
It’s really no wonder: from the second they arrive, what and when they eat begins to take up almost all of our mental space. I remember being shocked when, while in the hospital after having my first and learning I’d have to supplement, the nurse popped in every hour and wanted to know exactly how much milk was consumed and at what time.
On top of trying to figure everything else out as a brand new parent, that was a crazy amount of added stress, and, worst of all, it created this mindset that I had to be so on top of her milk consumption at all times. I had a timer app and logs and it seemed like all my life consisted of was worrying about what she was eating for the first six months! Add in my breast milk supply issues, and it was a full time job just managing milk production and use – it’s no surprise that my parental anxiety to always get it right began there.
With my second, I spent less time fretting about his eating schedule and more time just being aware of his hunger cues. Having another child demanding my attention helped, too, and my journey into conscious parenting was well underway by that point.
So, of course it’s so easy for that obsession with nutrition and eating schedules to carry on even after they start solid foods. At a time when we should be nurturing our child’s natural ability to listen to their body and its desires, we often sabotage that by our fear that their nutrition will not be perfect or even adequate, as well as ideas about specific mealtimes and traditions that we should make them adhere to.
You may be wondering, but what about eating dinner as a family? Ask yourself: what is your intention for the family meal? Is it truly about the food, or are you hoping to foster connection? I believe most of us want that time when everyone is fully present to connect and chat. You can do that without bringing food into it. Try rotating age-appropriate activities for everyone to do together and you’ll create fantastic new memories!
Were you blessed with a picky eater?
As our children are busy discovering their preferred tastes and textures, we are often persuaded by other parents that say they “aren’t short order cooks”
, and perhaps our own parents, who may have made us sit at the table until we tried some mushy beets, or an unappetizing plop of (now frigid) sweet potato. Pediatricians also contribute to this anxiety with their routine questions and, sadly, all of those voices inhibit our ability to truly listen to our child.
What we are actually doing is tying emotion to food rather than allowing children to develop their own relationship with it. Rather than letting their profound awareness of their body’s needs guide them, we try to step in and control, manage, and fix their eating habits. Controlling and limiting when and what they eat creates an association between food and scarcity, rather than abundance — an association they will then carry into adulthood that may manifest as overeating or binge eating.
To make matters worse, we use food as such a punctuation mark on every event. Birthdays have cake, Christmas has ham, Thanksgiving has turkey, Halloween has candy, date night means dinner, and on and on. This gives kids the belief that food is for connection and also ties it to happy emotions.
Further, if we’re really following in the footsteps of previous generations, we also offer food to distract them from any emotional outbursts. Sometimes this is just a conditioned response from knowing their infant tears meant they might need milk, but sometimes we have such painful childhood associations with crying that it makes us uncomfortable, and we offer a treat to silence our own discomfort. This teaches that we must feed our emotions, rather than feel the slightest hint of their pain. So many of us are or know of an adult that has an emotional relationship with food, turning to it when we or they are sad, upset, or anxious.
However, food is neutral, it’s just fuel for our bodies. We are best served by “live” foods, or food closest to its natural source, like fruits or raw vegetables. We know that sugar moves our bodies and minds into a lousy state, so as parents, that is where our control lies – we can keep candy, treats, and processed food out of the house.
It’s November, and as the one day a year that seems to have devolved into being solely about the carb-laden meal approaches, I offer you:
The New Food Rules for Kids:
1. Control what food is in the house, not what they eat
2. Allow them to choose from what you have, when they are hungry (listen to the body, not the clock)
3. Allow them to change their mind
4. Allow a healthy bedtime snack if they are hungry, but know you may have to end the eating window for them if you sense they are just using food to stall
5. Set out plates of fruits and veggies and other healthy snacks, allow grazing and movement
6. If you make a meal, make a plate with just the main components, as they may be more likely to eat it (kids may prefer “deconstructed” meals)
7. To avoid waste, offer a small serving then allow them to ask for more, or serve themselves one large spoonful (about an ounce) at a time
8. Never tell them to clean their plate or try to eat a little more – remember, their body is in charge
9. Throw away uneaten food (eating unneeded food is STILL waste)
10. Do not force them to sit at the table when you don’t have to – food is not for connection (connect instead through play, reading, a game, etc.)
11. Do not force them to try food – maintain a neutral energy about it and let your own joy be their motivation to explore
12. Trust that what you model about eating healthy food when you are hungry, and stopping when you are full, is far more important than anything else you do!
Of course, this is not a substitute for medical advice and you should consult your pediatrician if your child has special needs. If they truly will not balance out their diet within the week’s meals, you may want to look into daily vitamins or healthy smoothies.
If you take nothing else from all of this: know that it is in your children’s best interest for you to let go of anxiety around their diet. Just release any fear, and focus instead on listening to your own body and eating the healthy foods it desires – your own behavior is the most powerful influence you have!