Before becoming a mom, I was lucky to have healed my relationship with food. In my early 20s I was a mess, though. I lost weight, only to gain some back. I ate when I was bored, lonely, and to celebrate. I was a mindless eater, out of touch with my own feelings of hunger and fullness. I gradually learned a healthier way to relate to food that liberated me not just with eating, but in how I lived my life. So when I became pregnant with my first child a decade later, I was committed to nurturing her relationship with food from day one.
I believe many parents start off wanting the same for their kids. Yet when a child becomes picky, grows too fast, or is obsessed with sweets, things can get tricky. Parents often write to me about such problems, expressing surprise that they occur despite their doing everything right in the food department.
The Three Eating Factors
The simple fact is some kids are easier to feed than others. Consider the three areas of eating most parents focus on: variety, weight, and appetite. Some kids have all three of these factors going for them. Let's say a child eats pretty well (eats from all the food groups willingly or with encouragement), has always been average for weight, and has good (but not too good) appetite. This is the easiest-to-feed child who produces the least amount of anxiety in parents.
Now let’s take one of these three factors and change it. Would parents still allow their bigger-than-average child eat until she is full or would they start keeping her from sweets and second helpings at dinner? What about the thin kid? Would parents accept “I'm full” or push him to eat more? What happens when the big child also has a hearty appetite or the small child picks at his food? Throw a picky eater into either of these mixes and all hell breaks loose. In short, the more frequently these three factors raise red flags, the more likely families are to struggle with food.
The real barrier is not a child's inclinations towards food, hunger, or weight, it's that we mistakenly use food to “fix” kids. Research shows that getting children to eat less and overtly restricting them from palatable food makes them more sensitive to food cues, leading to wanting to eat more. And pressuring the child to eat can lead to decreased appetite, making the child want to eat less. Later when children take it upon themselves to fix their body with dieting -- something half of adolescent girls and a third of same-aged boys have tried -- it actually makes them more vulnerable to weight gain and raises their risk of eating disorders.
A Healthy Relationship with Food
Using food to fix children fails because it harms the one thing that will turn them into good eaters: a healthy relationship with food. No one intentionally tries to hinder this important relationship in kids. But it happens anyway, and more often than parents think. That’s because we live in a culture obsessed with looking a certain way, eating a certain way, and achieving a certain way.
If we want to protect and nurture our children’s relationship with food we need to reject the idea that our kids need to fit the perfect size-and-eating mold. We can, however, create the circumstances that will help children regulate their food intake and eat well. We do this by structuring meals, providing variety, setting clear limits, and allowing hunger and fullness to guide eating.
We can also help children come to appreciate their bodies and take care of them with sleep, physical activity, and balanced eating. As they enter middle childhood, children compare their size and shape to those of their peers and media images, and may be tempted to skip meals, eat less, and try fad diets. We need to have open and honest conversations with our kids about the importance of size diversity, unrealistic media images, and their value beyond looks.
Probably the most overlooked aspect of a healthy relationship with food is a child’s emerging mental and emotional health. How are they managing stress? What about difficult feelings? Do they feel comfortable coming to us with their challenges? We need to make connection a priority and help our children process difficult feelings and realities. Because when they fall -- and they will -- we don't want them to turn to food (or other maladaptive habits) to feel better.
All Kids Can Grow into Good Eaters
Every child -- big, small and/or picky -- can grow up to be an amazing eater that truly values healthy habits. We just need to focus less on food and weight, and more on all the factors that enhance a healthy relationship with food in the first place. If we take this less-traveled path, we can raise a generation of children who are healthier, happier, and free from the suffering that holds so many back from truly engaging with life.
Want to nourish your child’s relationship with food? Check out Maryann’s new book, How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food.