Raising Healthy Little EatersBy the time a child is between the ages of two and four years old, a foundation for their eating habits has largely been shaped.
By the time a child is between the ages of two and four years old, a foundation for their eating habits has largely been shaped. Parents are the single greatest influence on children’s eating habits, from the variety of foods they eat, to their ideas about to how to keep their bodies and minds feeling good.
Many parents tell me at my workshops though, that their kids: "won’t eat healthy foods", "are fussy eaters", and "would only eat junk foods if I let them". Why is this so? Here are a few things I have learnt over the years.
As parents and as a society, we often use food as a tool for negotiating, rewarding and controlling our children. Think about it, we control times of eating ("You should have eaten at recess time, you’ll have to wait till lunch" or "No, you can’t have that, dinner is in an hour"); how much food is eaten ("Finish everything on your plate and you’ll get dessert", or "I think you’ve had enough of that for now"); food as a reward ("If you eat X you can have X" - aka, usually something sweet); how our children can eat food ("No, you can’t just eat the egg yolk, you have to eat the entire egg"). Then this is reinforced when they go to school and the culinary law-and-order step up to the ranks with bells and buzzers to tell children when morning tea or lunch can start and stop. Who made us the food police?
Consider that knowing when your child is hungry comes as naturally as breathing to a child, as does seeking out a balance of foods. It’s not possible for a parent to always know whether their child is hungry or not. Only the child knows. Allowing your child to listen and feel into their body leads to healthy eating habits. When adults interfere with our child’s eating too much, we create confusion over what hunger feels like, and cause certain foods to have more of an allure than they would otherwise have. As parents, we forget what it was once like to be a child, to instinctively trust our bodies. As the infamous Henry Thoreau states: “I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.”
Remember when your baby was first born? Most babies instinctively find their own way to the breast or to search for sustenance via innate reflexes and impulses. It’s part of their primal blueprint. They cry when they need food, feed when they are hungry, and turn their head away when satiated. This doesn’t have to end as your children get older. When children are aware of physical sensations of hunger and fullness, yet receive messages that they can't possibly be hungry or that they have to eat everything on their plates before being excused from the table, it erodes the innate trust of their bodies and autonomy.
One significant change parents can make when feeding children is to not say anything. Once the food is in front of them, it's no longer the parent or anyone else's business how much or whether their child eats. That part is the child's responsibility.
We also forget what it’s like to engross ourselves and truly experience the delights of food—peel a grape “Look, it looks like an eyeball”; lick an ice-cream so you can feel the cold sweet numbness on your cheeks; hold the yolk of an egg in your hands and watch the stringy texture of the white fall away.
Let your children guide you, while you guide them. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- When ordering your spray-free produce each week, ask your children what they would like to eat this week. If they can’t tell you, ask them to sink into their bodies and get in tune with what their body is telling them. Fill your online shopping baskets (and resist controlling what your child wants to put in). Let them know what’s in season, and what they will need to wait for.
- When your box arrives, let them explore the produce – smell, touch and taste the produce. Talk to each other about the freshness, the textures, the colours, what’s locally grown, what’s seasonal, and what they will need to wait for. If you don’t know, ask us.
- Talk with your children about what foods they like (and don’t like) and why; how different types of food makes their bodies feel - their energy levels, moods, and behaviors.
- Prepare meals from scratch with your children.
- Grow some of your own food, a few herbs or veggies.
- Dry your own fruit; share a picnic; sprout some sprouts; start a worm farm and compost.
- Create spaces in your home where your children can access a variety of interesting food and drink whenever they want to. Why should your children always have to ask for food?
- Don’t judge and assess “I told you so” when your children have food reactions (minor meltdowns) to some of the sugar/processed/additive packed foods they may consume (with or without you knowing). Support them making the links between food choices and their body and moods.
- Be a model for eating a variety of foods and living in wellness—children respond best to modelling, not control.
By Dr Sarah Lantz from Temptress Apothecary. International Speaker and Author of Chemical Free Kids, One Bite at a Time, and Forage, Ferment, Feast.