You’re on a natural parenting path and you want to extend that wholesome, nutritive start that breastfeeding has provided. You are choosing what goes into your bodies with great intention, serving organic gluten-, sugar-, and artificial dye-free veg grown in a field grazed by unicorns (who fertilize the soil with rainbows) that is harvested by a circle of doula fairies singing “Imagine” (the Eva Cassidy version, of course). Or maybe not. But the parenting side of eating can often prove more challenging than we realize, as the weight of our own baggage around eating can prove heavy to bear.
“You must clean your plate before you may be excused.”
“If you’re good, you can have some dessert.”
We are all born with the innate ability to listen to our bodies. If nothing else, a baby knows when they are hungry. As children get older, parents (and other sources) can interfere with this communication between brain and body. “Clean your plate. We worked hard to make this dinner for you. You cannot get down from this table until you eat every bite.” It is your job as a parent to provide your child with healthy food. It is not your job to make them eat it. If and how much they eat is up to them, with encouragement from you to listen to the cues of their body.
When you force a child to eat, you teach them to ignore the signals of hunger and fullness they receive from their body. When you respect what your child tells you about their eating, you are teaching them to listen to and respect what their body is telling them. Giving them the control of what goes into their body and allowing them to suffer the natural consequences of not listening to their body’s cues will remove the power struggle between you and eliminate issues surrounding emotional eating. A child who is provided healthy food but not forced to eat will not associate food with a loss of control or emotions such as guilt or approval.
You know better than to use rewards and punishments (because you have read the Sage Parenting book19, where you learned why they suck and how they don’t work). Food is an especially dangerous area to enact this parenting tactic of control, so it’s worth addressing. Using food as a reward and/or punishment is a surefire way to raise an emotional eater. A child who is consistently rewarded with unhealthy foods builds a lifelong association between unhealthy food and feelings of approval and acceptance. It’s a simple case of conditioning. Achievement is met with a pleasing expression of approval, and feelings of pride, love, and self-confidence—with dessert. Eventually you can remove the achievement and elicit those positive feelings with only the dessert. As an adult you find yourself coping with experiences that starve your sense of approval, love, and self-confidence by eating dessert, which has been conditioned to nourish those same feelings. A child who has food withheld to communicate a sense of disapproval and disappointment can have issues of control and overeating, giving themselves lots of food to overcome those feelings when they experience them as an adult. An occasional trip to the ice cream store with the baseball team after a win or removing the dinner plate of a child who is throwing their food is fine. Consistently using food as a disciplinary tool will not yield the desired result of a healthy, happy, well-adjusted adult.
“Two nutritionists in Illinois conducted a fascinating experiment a few years ago. They observed 77 children between the ages of two and four, and also learned how much their parents attempted to control their eating habits. They discovered that those parents who insisted their children eat only during mealtimes (rather than when they were hungry), or who encouraged them to clean their plates (even when they obviously weren’t hungry), or who used food (especially desserts) as a reward, wound up with children who lost the ability to regulate their caloric intake. Some of the parents appeared to have their own issues with food, which were in the process of passing on to their kids. But whatever the reason for their excessive control, it was beginning to take its toll even before some of these children were out of diapers. The children had ‘few opportunities to learn to control their own food intake’ and came to stop trusting their bodies’ cues about when they were hungry. One result: Many of them were already starting to get fat.”15
Now that we’ve taken a small detour through where you don’t want to go, let’s get back on our Sage Parenting path. You know how beautifully breastfeeding on cue has met your baby’s needs and fostered a strong brain-body connection? Let’s extend that same path beyond the breast to eating on cue. When trusted and honored, little ones fall into a natural pattern of eating referred to as grazing. Instead of sitting down to three large meals, they, with their small stomachs and high-energy needs, seek frequent, small snacks on the go. Basically, they listen to the needs of their bodies and eat when hungry, stopping when not. This style of consuming calories is to be encouraged, as it truly is what they need at this stage of the eating game. The older your child becomes, the more they will eat during meals and the less they will need those frequent snacks. (Though it is actually healthier even for an adult to eat numerous small meals or healthy snacks throughout the day than a few large meals, so you can ditch the judgment piece).
Keeping quality foods readily available and accessible can support this healthy and natural eating behavior. For us, this looks like having prepped and child portioned foods in the bottom pantry and fridge drawers. From a very young age my children are able to meet their own needs (independence) using the internal cues of their bodies as a guide. As they grow, they are welcome with me or their daddy in the kitchen, and then on their own. As I write this, my 8-year-old is excitedly making some food for us all in the kitchen, and last night my 11-year-old made us all a delicious soup. The opposite of this would look like children who are only allowed to eat what they are served. I sometimes hear parents say, “Oh I could never do that. My children would eat everything!” I have to ask, “Then what happens when they are on their own?” Choose what you bring into your home with intention and grant your children free access. If you trust them from the beginning, they will benefit from self-regulation for the long haul.
A staple shift from the mainstream approach most of us endured as children is to offer, not feed. The best place to start is actually with your language. “I’m making some scrambled eggs. Would you like some?” will support the respectful relationship you seek better than turning to your partner and saying, “I’m going to feed him.” This can also be a huge weight lifted for most of us (parents and children alike). Provide good foods and invite them into the eating world, then respect their choices. Trust them—it will all work out.
Creating a child-sized eating environment is one way to extend that invitation (size down). Providing your young child with a booster seat and child-sized utensils can go a long way in making them feel comfortable at mealtime. If you want your child to feel included and be successful with mealtime behavior, then they can’t feel like they don’t fit. Using a booster seat (or your lap) means that your child will have an equal seat at the table and be at the appropriate eating height. A young person, working hard on perfecting their fine motor skills, will not be very successful at getting an appropriately sized bite of food on the fork and in their mouth with a heavy fork that is too deep to go all the way in their mouth. The simple step of placing a child-sized fork at their place setting will go a long way in setting them up for success with mealtime coordination and manners.
Your child needs a much smaller portion size than an adult. This is where having a child-sized plate or bowl comes in handy. When serving food, we tend to gear the portion size to the dish, not the person. Your child’s stomach is a fraction of the size of yours. Placing a mountain of food in front of them implies that you expect them to eat that much food. You don’t want to inadvertently pressure your child to eat more than their body is telling them they need. A big plate with an adult-sized serving of food can also be overwhelming for a child. Imagine if you worked in an office and your boss walked up to your desk and dropped a giant stack of paperwork right in front of you. How would that make you feel? Initially serve your child only a small portion. If they ask for more when they’re finished, you can always give them more.
One way to start this off on the right foot is to use a sectioned plate. A plate with small sections will set you up to provide a small volume of food from the different food groups: a fruit, veggie, grain, protein and dairy. If you only provide, say, two of the food groups, the other empty sections are staring right at you. It makes it pretty darn foolproof to provide well-balanced meals for your children. The same is true for to-go snacks (for which a bento box is great). Filling them themselves provides them with a great sense of autonomy and personal responsibility while instilling in them an understanding of healthy eating habits—all while being super easy for us as parents. Today, for example, I believe Bay took turkey, crackers, cheese, and grapes, and he always has water with him. When preparing meals, be sure to include at least one thing your child likes, but then you can include some other things they may just taste or be exposed to. Though, if you’ve been on this path from the beginning, you really can trust that the nutrition piece will work out as it needs to for your child today. Some days that might look like vegetable and fruit smoothies all day. Still other days it might look like pasta with a side of pasta. Children go through big developmental and physical growth spurts in which they sometimes crave unique things. Honoring the cues of their body is the key and you want to support that. As they get older, you can further parse this down with “tongue or tummy”? “My taste buds have a hankering for a cookie right now but my body is actually hungry for some protein.
Hmmmm . . .” Invite your children into those honest inner dialogues and they will learn to identify and weigh their choices in the same way.
Looking at the broader environmental picture, you want to make a healthy and accessible kitchen. If you fill your kitchen with healthy foods, then that is what your family has to choose from. If you open your pantry and see unhealthy options, then that is what you will eat and your children will want. When you go grocery shopping, make a list with your child (you can even make a separate list for your child with pictures so they can help), be sure to shop when you are not hungry (I am so guilty of this), and organize your food in such a way that healthy food is convenient and accessible. One simple example of this is a fruit bowl that sits on the counter. See the apple, grab it, and go! The other piece to an ideal culinary environment is that your child needs access to the kitchen. If they want to wash dishes, let them. If they want to cut fruit, give them a banana and a butter knife. Experience builds competence.
Is mealtime a time of positive connection? Is your kitchen a canvas of exploration and inclusion? Do you continue to be open and flexible even when the mainstream mealtime pressures of manners and rigidity creep into your consciousness? Are you able to tap into your sense of humor and let messes happen for the sake of learning, experience, and independence? One of our kids’ favorite mealtime activities is to go around the table and all answer one question. For example, “How were you brave today?”; “How did you fail today?”; “How were you kind today?”; “What is something you appreciate about each person?”; “What was your sweetest memory of the day?”; or “What was your biggest challenge today?” Most importantly, create the spirit of mealtime with intention. Remove any and all pressure and don’t feel a need to even speak about the food at all. Mealtime is an opportunity for connection. The food is secondary. Shifting that focus will release any pressure. Remember, you’re just offering (and are not concerned with whether or how much they eat). You won’t just be telling your kids to eat healthily—you will be living a lifestyle integrated with healthy eating habits.
“I need help getting my son to eat. Mealtimes are a nightmare that leaves me beyond frustrated. I work so hard to cook him good food, and no matter what I do he just won’t eat like he should, and he just wants to get down and leave. I want him to be a good eater. And I never get to eat in all this back and forth.”
What is a good eater? Where does your idea of what your child “should” eat like come from? What would a peaceful mealtime look like? What are your mealtime needs? Let’s redefine. You don’t have control (or responsibility) over how much they eat. Let that sink in for a minute. You cannot will your child to be any way they are not (or not be a way they are). Your deep investment in how much they eat will only serve to drive them away from healthy eating, create issues of control around food for them for life, and leave you feeling like a failure every mealtime. We can set a boundary for self-care. So how do we make this shift? You are going to let go of your attachment to how much they eat completely. Now, while you cannot control how much they eat,, you can control what foods are offered and the spirit of mealtime. So here’s what this will look like:
- You will make a meal that includes small portions of a variety of foods (balanced diet). One of the items on their plate should always be something you know they crave right now (something they will definitely like and eat).
- You will not say anything related to their food consumption during mealtime. (No wonder they want to run away if they are being cajoled the whole time they are sitting at the table, right?). Talk about your day. Share a sweet memory. Conversation—no food talk.
- They are free to leave the table and come and go. Their plate remains on the table until bedtime. If they express hunger anytime after dinner, you can remind them that they are welcome to eat their dinner, which is on the table. If they express dissatisfaction with what food is before them, you will tell yourself, “This is not a rejection of my efforts. This is not an unwillingness to be the child I want them to be. This is just a preference. I will hear it. I will validate it. ‘You want sausage for dinner tonight. We are having pasta. You are disappointed by that.'”
- When you sit down to eat, you will set a timer. When that timer dings, you can get down from the table and join them upon request. But until that timer (which they can see and hear ticking) dings, it is Mommy’s turn to eat. Anytime they cry for you to come, I want you say to yourself, “I am wanted.” And say to them once, “When the timer dings, Mommy’s turn to eat is all done and I will join you. You are welcome to sit with me here while I eat.” Once this is established, the timer will no longer be necessary. You will be free to honor your body’s cues, being a wonderful role model for your child.