The goal, as parents, is to provide our children with the skills and increasing responsibility for managing their lives without our constant vigilance. One key life skill is the ability to navigate our abundant food environment while maintaining optimal health. And we DO live in an abundant food environment.
Food is fast, convenient, often highly processed, and relatively inexpensive. To protect our children from becoming victims of this environment, we must make sure they have the tools to thrive while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
The good news is that children are born with the most important skill—the instinctive ability to know how much food their body needs. Instinctively, babies cry to let their parents know when they’re hungry. Toddlers in perpetual motion eat only small amounts of food but manage to eat frequently enough to meet their needs. During periods of rapid growth or activity, they may be hungry all the time. When their calorie requirements decrease, they lose interest in food.
The bad news is that we can destroy their instinctive eating skills with our good intentions. If parents or other caregivers feed a baby to calm every cry, the baby may learn that eating can soothe any discomfort . When they’re given food to keep them quiet or busy, they learn that they can distract and entertain themselves with food.
Once a child is old enough to sit at the table, well-intentioned parents will play games and praise the child to encourage them to eat. They may say “Good girl! You ate all your dinner!”
While this is a wonderful time for creating positive feelings about mealtime, it also teaches the child that eating makes mommy and daddy happy. Parents may also coerce older children to eat everything they were served by saying “clean your plate or you don’t get dessert. ” Children may decide that since their parents have to bribe them to eat it, the dinner must be the “yucky stuff” and sweets are the reward for eating more than they were hungry for.
The result is a lifetime membership in the Clean Plate Club.
The bottom line is that although meeting the basic nutritional needs of children is critical, it’s important to provide meals and snacks in a way that respects their hunger and fullness cues and teaches them that while eating should be enjoyable, food is primarily for nourishment. If not, the stage is set, not only for food issues but also control issues in the future.
Like I said, most of us parents have the BEST of intentions. Often however, what we say is unknowingly creating a problem.
Here are a few things that well-meaning parents commonly say that may have unintended consequences - and some ideas for things you could say instead:
1. You are such a good eater! Children want nothing more than to please their parents. While mealtime should be a pleasant time to connect with your children, eating should remain intrinsically driven to meet the child's fuel needs, NOT to earn your praise.
What you could say instead: You must have been really hungry today! Or, Or, I love spending time with you while we have dinner.
2. You are such a picky eater! All children (and adults) have some foods they just don't like. Some children are highly taste and/or texture sensitive but most will outgrow it. Picky eating becomes an entrenched behavior when we berate, beg, bribe - or worse, feed kids only what they say they'll eat.
What you could say instead: I know you didn't like it last time; tell me what you think about it today after you take one polite bite. Or, Did you know your taste buds grow up just like you do? I wonder if you like this food yet?
3. Clean your plate; there are starving children in _______ (third world country). Avoid teaching children scarcity eating behaviors in our abundant food environment.
What you could say instead: It is important not to be wasteful so please only take as much as you think you need. Or, If you're full, we can save the rest for later.
4. You have to eat all your vegetables or there will be no dessert. Kids are smart. When you bribe them for eating certain foods, they quickly realize those foods must be yucky and that dessert is the reward. They also learn to hold out until a reward is offered.
What you could say instead: I love all kinds of different foods - some that make me healthy and strong and some that are just for fun. What kinds of foods do you like? Or, Enjoy your dinner. We'll be having dessert in a couple of hours.
5. Eat all your dinner or you don't get dessert. This variation on the threat above translates to “you must overeat so I will reward you by giving you more to eat!” Children naturally love sweet foods so they can learn to override their fullness signals. As an adult years later, they'll order a 1200 calorie salad to earn a 1200 calorie piece of cheesecake.
What you could say instead: Save room for dessert tonight!
6. I was so bad at lunch today! Now I have to spend an extra hour on the treadmill. Children are born to move. They naturally love exploring their environment, challenging themselves, and playing actively. Unfortunately, the messages they get from adults teaches them that exercise is punishment for eating.
What you could say instead: I ate more than I was hungry for and now I feel too full and uncomfortable. I think a walk would help me feel better. Want to join me? Or, Anybody for a bike ride?!
7. I am so gross and fat! (Or, I can't believe ____ has let herself go!) Kids learn from us even when we think they aren't listening. Statements like this teaches kids that it's OK to put yourself and others down and judge people for their weight or other physical attributes. Perhaps they also secretly wonder what you really think about them.
What you could say instead: I do my best to make healthy choices. AND, I love you just the way you are!
Until Next Time...