I hear all the time about the massive pressure parents feel to feed their kids healthy. It’s relentless.
The shame is, by only focusing on ‘health and nutrition’ when it comes to food, it’s brutally easy for your child to become distanced from his or her natural food preferences.
And when a child becomes distanced from their natural preferences, some deeply unhealthy patterns can arise.
If we fall into black and white thinking about food (good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, junk or clean) we can frighten our kids. If a food is bad and they want more of it, they can believe by extension they’re bad. If it’s unhealthy and eat it, they’re sick.
Instead, we can nurture our kid’s curiosity about what makes their body feel good, and what doesn’t.
We’re all born with natural food preferences; genuine likes and dislikes. Our preferences have been shown to represent our bodies incredible feedback system for telling us which foods work well for our bodies and which foods don’t. No strings attached.
On the other hand, health and nutrition rules, are driven by the opposite of our inner wisdom. They arise from a variety of factors, including social and cultural messages, fear, control, and power. They are often based in morality or being seen to do the ‘right’ thing. And often disregarded any other factors that contribute to health. Like social connection, self-respect, socio-economic standing, social-stigma, internalized shame. I could go on.
Following strict and moralized food rules, can have the unfortunate side effect of turning our children away from their own inner wisdom and planting the seeds of body shame, social isolation, and disordered eating.
It turns out when children are told their appetite for certain foods is bad or wrong, they can start to fear their own body, and…
…become obsessed about rules; breaking them, keeping them, rationalizing them, creating new ones, etc. or…
…sneak food, eat more of what the rules tell them they shouldn’t (in case it’s not on offer again) and feel shame while doing so.
And yet, having no structure or boundaries about what and when to eat in your family is not the answer either. Giving unbridled access to cupboards, to graze all day is not going to help your child into a healthy relationship food and more than policing it fiercely.
So what can you do and not do to help your child to connect with their inner wisdom and ultimately encourage a positive body image?
- Consider it your responsibility to provide meals at regular intervals, decide the content of those meals and to create a fun and enjoyable space to have meals.
- Consider it their responsibility to choose what and how much to eat of the food on offer to eat. (Check out the Ellyn Satter Institute for more info).
- Teach your child to tune into their appetite. Talk about feeling full or satisfied without judgment or agenda. Ask how hungry or full they are on a scale of 1–10.
- Examine your own food rules and start to see where you could let go of control for a sense of trust and enjoyment of your own body.
- Play the long game. Allow your child to make ‘mistakes’ and learn from them. Feeling over full is unpleasant, so is eating nothing but sweet food all day. They’ll work that out for themselves if they are given space to be curious.
- Let them know that one day they’ll love a wide range of foods and most likely gravitate to nutritious choices. When they see variety and diversity in food as a sign of maturity, they’ll get more curious.
- Allow grazing. It’s hard to learn to feel hunger and fullness if you’re never properly hungry or full.
- Talk about food in dichotomies. Some foods are more healthy for some people and some quantities of food are more healthy for others. Reality is way more nuanced than we’re often led to believe. It’s up to each individual to figure out what works for their individual body.
- Expect your child to eat a well-balanced diet high in nutritional content perfectly at every meal. Some children will do this naturally and easily, some will be near adults before they get to it.
- Pressure your child to eat something they don’t like, try new foods if it makes them anxious, draw attention to what they have and haven’t eaten.
- Make some foods ‘treats’ or ‘not allowed’. You can always say: we aren’t having that now, there will be loads of other times we can eat that. For now, this is what we are having.
Building a fence at the top of the body image cliff in a weight-obsessed culture is not a quick or easy task.
But the rewards are incredible.
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