When my first child was born, I remember promising her she was going to grow up slim and fit and devoid of any of the body and food struggles I’d had.
In my mind that meant she was going to be fed healthy food, I’d limit sugar and ‘junk’ and all would be well.
As the way of so many parenting ideals that we have at the start of the parenting journey, it didn’t go as I imagined.
My daughter didn’t like veg. She much preferred white starchy foods. The more I tried to get her to like the more nutrient-dense stuff, the more resistant she became. And when she had access to high sugary stuff, at parties or celebrations, she’d go crazy. She seemed more interested in the party food than she did in the games or celebrations. It was frustrating and embarrassing. I felt judged and ashamed and anxious about her health. Every time we went to the supermarket, or basically, anywhere they sold sweets, she’d beg and I’d get cross.
Plus, she didn’t turn into the skinny lithe child I thought she’d be. She was chubby and rounded and even though I knew all about ‘healthy weight’ and nutritious food, my knowledge didn’t do anything except make us battle each other and drive up my fear.
Fast forward five years and the picture is very different.
I have learned that teaching kids to be ‘healthy’ eaters doesn’t come from policing, limiting or restricting. Whether we like it or not, we cannot MAKE our kids like or dislike any type of food. And what’s more, teaching kids to care for their body in healthy ways, including being able to eat sugar in a rational, easy-breezy way without fights, whinging, sneaking or begging, has very little to do with teaching them about nutrition or policing their diet. In fact, it doesn’t have much to do with nutrition at all.
That’s a big call. I know. But listen here, the approaches I’m about to share have the power to completely shift the way you deal with sugar in your household. I have no fear or anxiety around sugar anymore. I don’t fight with my kids about what they eat. My kids never beg or whinge for more sweets or nag me for the bright stuff while we’re out and about. And my daughter is often the first one to leave the party table.
Here are five approaches you can take to remove fear, fighting and power struggles out of sugar
1. Put responsibility in the right place
A quick google search of articles about kids and healthy eating and every single one implies that it’s the parent’s responsibility to make sure a child eats right. Ellen Satter, a leader in child/parent feeding relationship disagrees, and I agree with her. She promotes the idea that parents need to give children back the responsibility to decide what to put in their mouths – and focus on their own responsibility, which is to provide a wide range of foods, the eating times and table rules and a safe environment to explore new foods.
We teach kids ‘their body, their rules’ and this can be extended to what and how much they put in their mouths.
This doesn’t mean we need to serve up their favourite go-to’s at every meal. It doesn’t mean we become short-order cooks. In fact, it’s important we don’t. It does mean that we provide a wide range of all food types and allow our kids to eat as much of each food as they want at each meal. This is a nuanced practice that works best when considered within the unique circumstances of your family, rather than employing cookie-cutter rules. For more, read Ellen Satter’s book Child of Mine, or book a 30 min free coaching session with me to learn more.
2. Make sweets available in the house
Humans are hardwired to enjoy the taste of sugar (for good reason) and when it’s heavily restricted kids can feel an overwhelming urge to experience the enjoyment of it, which can lead to kids stealing sweet foods from friends’ lunchboxes. This doesn’t happen when kids have access to sugar as part of a wider diet in their homes.
Once again, having sugar at home doesn’t mean you have to provide 24/7 access to sugar. But evidence suggests that kids who grow up in homes where sugar is available, and they get to feel satisfied in their consumption, are more likely to grow into adults who have an easy relationship with sweet foods.
3. Remove binary labels from food
When foods are divvied up into two competing categories, good/bad – healthy/unhealthy, it can be very confusing for kids. If sugar is unhealthy and my birthday cake is full of sugar, am I now sick? Why do we have school bake sales if sweet foods are bad? If I eat bad food does that make me a bad person?
In reality, we can’t know if a food is healthy or unhealthy without understanding the context in which it’s being eaten. If a child eats 46 carrots, 34 of those carrots will be an unhealthy choice and 10 of them could be a lethal one. Every single food (even water!) has a point at which eating too much of it will, quite literally, kill you.
On the other hand, even foods with the lowest nutrient content, highest process quotient and with only the slightest resemblance to ‘real’ food can save a life if someone is dying of starvation. Eating any food when starving is a very healthy thing to do.
In other words, when it comes to knowing what’s healthy, it’s complicated. It’s always nuanced. Thankfully understanding this kind of nuance is not necessary for kids because they have everything they need to make choices that are right for them.
You can talk with them about being ‘satisfied’. What their preferences are. You can discuss foods in terms of salty, sweet, sour, hot. You can discuss what kinds of textures and flavours they like the most. You can encourage them to be brave, to listen to their body and above all else, they can tune into their amazing bodies and decide what’s right for them. Consider getting this card game that teaches kids about different functions that foods have outside of binary labels.
4. Give them control outside the house
Kids begging for sweets when out and about is super frustrating. I get it. This approach is gold. Decide how much you are okay with them spending on sweets per week. It might be 10c or $3 or whatever, depending on how often you go out with them and what your budget is. Set up a system where they get that money at the start of the week and they get to choose how to spend it. If they want to buy candy or toys or go to the movies whatever, but it’s their choice. Then, if they want something, it’s up to them as long as they have the budget for it. If they’ve spent their budget, they learn about money and choices. It’s a total win/win. You can start this system as young as three. You can watch this popular video on ways to implement this that works like magic.
5. Remind them that as they grow up, their palette will expand and it’s such a joy when it does
Rather than cajoling and rewarding and begging your kids to try their veg or have ‘just one more bite’, start reminding them that if they don’t like something now, chances are they will one day. Talk about how having a wide palette is such a joy and it’s one of the perks of being a grown-up. Tell them you totally trust they’ll come to it when the time is right for them.
This takes the pressure off of you. And it sends the message that you trust and respect their choices. This will go a long way in creating mealtimes everyone enjoys and your kid’s sense of self-esteem.
If you have any questions about any of this, please feel free to get in touch. I’m here to help you raise body confident kids!
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