Q: One reader, who’s striving to eat intuitively, recently had several great questions about helping her young son build a healthy relationship with food. She writes, “For the past two weeks I’ve been enjoying ice cream, but I can’t let myself eat it whenever I want because then my son wants to eat it, too. Also, I wonder about when he gets older. If I’m still craving all these sweets, how do I tell him that he should eat yummy healthy veggies while I’m eating a plate of cookies? Mealtime is also hard because sometimes I’m discovering, I’m not hungry when it’s ‘time’ for supper — but eating together as a family is important for me/us.” Any suggestions?
A: I’m still learning about all the ways people use words to talk about eating, from “intuitive,” which can mean different things to different people, to “internally regulated…”
With that said, the fact that she is thinking about this is a great step. We are human, and the fact that she is approaching her own eating with kindness and curiosity will serve her son well. I don’t know how old he is, but I do think that children do best in general with routine.
Some kids are so easily distracted, and others are easily bored which is part of why grazing doesn’t work for most children. There are studies that show that overall nutrition suffers with grazing.
I think also that the structure and family mealtime is critical. This mom can participate in meals, even if she is not hungry. That is a great example for her child. She can sit at the table, check in with her hunger cues and decide how much to eat or not.
If she’s not hungry, she can simply say, matter-of-factly, “I’m not hungry right now, but I’d like to keep everyone company.” With time, a natural rhythm to hunger and satiety may emerge, and you can try to plan meals around that.
I find that schedule, though some worry it might seem ‘rigid,’ is actually very reassuring, and provides the best energy and behavior throughout the day. The routine is flexible and will change over the years with your family. With naps you might eat earlier, with the older child who eats an early lunch, a substantial after-school snack followed by a later dinner might work best.
I think there is a resistance to routine (because it might feel like pressure, or ‘should’) but kids, and many adults, actually seem to thrive with the predictability.
We do our best with our routine, but life happens, and it is normal and expected to eat in front of the TV occasionally, or eat movie popcorn for dinner, or have cake for breakfast.
I love Ellyn Satter’s definition of normal eating. I also really like her book Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family that addresses the adult’s eating as well. It is a great “how to” book for someone working on their own eating and stresses eating based on internal cues of hunger and fullness.
I would ask her though to look at her language. The notion that her son “should eat his yummy veggies” while she eats cookies. Does Mom actually believe they are yummy? Is she trying to “get him” to eat a certain way? There is a lot going on that I can’t really address in a broad sense, but she is asking the right questions.
The Division of Responsibility could be an incredibly helpful tool. As an adult, she is pushing back on the notion of what she “should” eat and relearning her own needs with food, but is struggling with that same notion for her son. This is very difficult, powerful stuff.
It really is a leap of faith. To trust, that if she does her part in supporting his eating, that he can do his part, even if she has had trouble trusting herself is a challenge.
I’d say that about half the moms I work with disclose a very troubled relationship with food, including full-blown eating disorders. That can make trusting yourself and your child with food even more tricky. There are great resources out there. Stay curious, stay honest with yourself, get help if you need it, don’t beat yourself up over “mistakes,” and recognize the power of the individual to heal and change the relationship with food.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about your work or helping kids eat healthfully? Or any parting words in general?
A: I just want folks to have peace, not anxiety and conflict on the menu. The more we fear, control, worry, the worse we generally do with feeding. It can feel very scary for parents to give up “control” with feeding. It can be almost impossible for parents to trust that their child is capable of knowing what and how much to eat from what we parents provide.
I have parents call me with one very large child, and one small. These parents are at the end of their ropes, pushing food at one child and literally slapping it out of the hands of the other. They are doing what society and even our doctors tell them to do.
They get blamed if a child is growing too fast or too slow, and suffer for years knowing in their hearts that it feels wrong, and neither child is learning to eat based on internal cues.
I want parents to trust their intuition, that it doesn’t have to be so hard or feel so scary. It’s almost a spiritual journey, a leap of faith when you stop pushing, that your child will someday learn to like a variety of foods, or eat more, or when you stop limiting, that yes, your child will likely eat more for awhile, but eventually can learn to tune in again to when they are hungry and full.
I recently got an email from a mom of a 5-½ month old and she was scared to death about the baby’s growth. The baby was a twin, and so had been small from birth and they were forcing her to drink and things were getting worse. We corresponded and she’s starting to get it. She is sensing that her pressure is making things worse. She is getting educated so she is prepared to introduce solids without pressure. She is hopeful, more content and at peace and is learning to trust her baby. That to me is the best news, and no less than possibly saved that family and that child from years of anguish. It’s truly preventive medicine at it’s best and I am grateful that I get to help families and spread the word.
I’m so grateful to Dr. Rowell for doing this interview. I think it provides tons of valuable insight into genuine healthful feeding, and again, I’m honored to share her wise words!