To call my daughter a picky eater would be an understatement. Her diet consists primarily of wheat, dairy, and a few fruits and veggies. I considered it a culinary success when she finally ate a beef hot dog this weekend.
Figuring out how to interact with my daughter around her eating has been tricky. When I get worried about her protein or calorie intake I start “encouraging” (read: nagging) her to try something new or at least take another bite or two of whatever she’s currently eating. But I don’t want to meal times to become power struggles so I try, whenever possible, to trust that if I offer her a range of healthy foods (and yes, even unhealthy ones on occasion), she will eat what she needs.
For the most part, children are much better at eating mindfully than adults are. As the years go by (especially adolescence), many of us lose touch with our ability to eat when we are hungry and stop eating when we’re not. Food and hunger get mixed up with body image and cultural and commercial messages about what, when, and how we should eat. Combine all of that with a desire to use food to soothe ourselves in rough times and eventually we get to a place where what we put in our bodies has virtually nothing to do with what our bodies actually need.
Fortunately, my daughters aren’t there yet. Their food intake varies greatly from day to day and week to week, depending on growth spurts, energy output, and how much they ate the day before. They eat when they need to, they stop when they’re full, and they don’t feel a need to “join the clean plate club” as I was raised to do. They are skinny kids, so when they eat more, I am happy, and when they eat less, I worry. My concerns aren’t logical–they are rooted in my own general, fairly baseless anxiety about their health. As my pediatrician reminds me, both girls are staying on their growth curves and they are healthy and have plenty of energy. I know this, and so I try to stay mindful of my own anxiety and keep my mouth shut whenever I can.
I want to support my daughters in their healthy eating habits. In order to do this, I need to start by eating more mindfully myself. My children are much more likely to imitate my behaviors than listen to my words, so I need to develop a healthier relationship with food than I have previously had. I am trying to eat mindfully by choosing healthy foods, paying attention to my food and body when I am eating (rather than reading while I eat, for example), and not eating more than I need. I didn’t realize how mindlessly I had been eating until I started paying attention. It’s really hard to do.
I also need to support the healthy eating habits my daughters already have. The best advice I have read for how to do this is from Ellyn Satter, author of Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. Satter is a nutritionist and a social worker, and she addresses the child’s nutritional, psychological, and social development, all of which are relevant here. She notes that parents are responsible for the where, when, and what of eating, and children get to decide if they will eat at all, and how much. Basically, she says that we if put a range of healthy, tasty food on the table at meal times and snack times, children will eat what they need.
This means I need to work hard not to nag my daughter to take another bite of broccoli. This doesn’t come easily to me, and I often fail. It’s a process. But if I want my daughters to learn to trust their bodies, I need to trust them too.
For more information about mindful eating, visit The Center for Mindful Eating.