When the hubs and I first started talking about having a baby, I was convinced we knew exactly how we would parent in almost every situation. Then, when I became pregnant, I realized there were definitely [ a few ] parenting decisions we hadn't considered. But how we would feed our child...this we were FOR SURE about. I just knew my kid would not be eating any sweets or processed foods except on very special occasions. I was confident he would love vegetables and have the palate of a world traveling chef....Also, I was going to serve him all of his meals. every one of them. and cook his snacks. from scratch. HAH!
Luckily for my son, sometime during or immediately after my many, many months of sleep deprivation and constant breastfeeding, I was forced to let go of this perfect feeding ideal. Doting grandparents got involved and real-life schedules took over. Needless to say there was no way I could control all the food that entered his mouth (or didn't) without driving myself bonkers or without going ape on some very sweet family members. And so, although I cannot mold my son into being a perfect eater (as if there was such a thing), I am doing all that I can to help him be a normal eater.
What exactly is a normal eater? That’s a loaded question, and the specific answer is different for every person, but in general a normal eater is someone who eats when they are physically hungry and stops when they are satisfied. A normal eater is in touch with what foods they enjoy, what foods make them feel good and what foods give them energy. They eat based off of their own internal signals, not environmental cues or rules. Normal eaters don’t fear food and they also don’t look to food to solve all their problems. So really, in today’s nutrition obsessed world, normal eaters aren’t very normal at all. But still, I want my son to be one of these eaters. And just like every other area of his life, it’s my job as a parent to guide him along the path he should take until one day he doesn’t need me to guide him any longer.
But like everything, what’s right for me and my family may not be right for you and yours. Before you make any snap judgments though, let me present a few facts on raising intuitive or normal eaters. In two scientific reviews of the intuitive eating research, authors reviewed all studies looking at intuitive/normal eaters who ate based off internal cues, they found the following:
- Intuitive eaters were less likely to develop an eating disorders or disordered eating
- They have increased levels of body acceptance/ body image and self-esteem
- Intuitive eaters have lower rates of depression and anxiety
- Normal eating was associate with lower BMIs
- Finally intuitive eaters are less likely to struggle with weight cycling
(1)“Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: literature review” published in the journal of Public Health Nutrition 2012 and (2)“A Review of Interventions that Promote Eating by Internal Cues” published in the Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics 2014
I see too many hurting people in our world who struggle with disordered eating, low self-esteem, anxiety and body dissatisfaction to ignore those odds. But to each his own, and I truly do respect every one’s opinion, because hey, I’ve been there and ultimately we are all trying to do what we believe is best for our kids. I only want to offer information and hopefully from it you’ll be able to take away a few nuggets and apply them with the littles in your life. So let’s get down to it, HOW do we encourage normal eating in kids?
Well first a disclaimer: I am a NEW mom. I have ONE (count em) 16 month old son. My personal experience is limited. But, I am relying on the literature of much wiser and experienced pediatric dietitians along with the wisdom of better moms to lay out the foundations of a plan. Almost all of these principles can be applied no matter how old your child is, but of course each age group has its own challenges. Implementing this with a teenager for the first time may be harder than with a toddler, but it is still doable! With that in mind, here are 3 (or 7 depending on how you look at it) principles of bringing up a normal eater:
Start with Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibilities for the parent and child feeding relationship.
1. Parents are responsible for when children eat. Kids need a little bit of structure and routine in their lives. It helps them feel safe and it assures them that there will be a next (usual) time for eating. This makes them less likely to overeat at one meal or graze all day at the sight of food. Secondly, their bodies, like ours, work based off of a circadian rhythm. Digestion, energy levels, and even mood are optimized with eating on a regular interval. For children it is generally best to feed them a meal/snack every 2.5 to 3 hours. This schedule is flexible in that if your kiddo wakes up early and is hungry you do not need to wait until an exact meal time to feed them, but rather, start when they wake up and continue feeding them throughout the day at regular intervals. The trick to this is not letting your child graze in between eating times, but offering water instead. This might be awkward for a few days, but I promise they will get what they need over the course of time, and they will adjust to the schedule.
2. Parents are responsible for where children eat. The parent is responsible for setting the standard for where their children eat. Ideally kids eat at the table with family. The benefits of family mealtime and the communion of eating together are vast and beyond the scope of this post. I recognize that this can be a struggle with some children for several different reasons (in fact currently I’m working on keeping my 16 month old in his high chair for the entire duration of the meal, and its no small feat), but like everything, taking some imperfect steps forward is better than perfect inaction. To further this point, obviously there will be times when you cannot eat at the dinner table – there is nothing wrong with this. Again it’s the patterns of our life that matter over the long run.
3. Parents are responsible for what food they offer their children. Kids will eventually eat what their parents eat if their parents will serve that food to them. I decided early on I would not be a short-order chef for our kid(s). Our son has eaten the same foods that we eat (for the most part) since he began taking solid foods. In fact, this is the majority of what baby led weaning is all about. I love this principle, because most parents want to feed their children wholesome, balanced meals – if parents will commit to eating the same family meals, they’re more likely to properly nourish themselves as a result. I often encourage offering a starch/carbohydrate, a protein, a produce and a fat (or cook some of the previous foods in a fat). This will allow your child to choose from several different foods to get the macronutrients and micronutrients that they need. The important thing here, is to keep offering a variety of foods even if your kiddo doesn't accept them the first or 10th time. Offer, don't push and you might be surprised what they will eventually try.
4. Kids are responsible for how much they eat* Raising a normal eater means allowing them to decide how much or how little they eat at meal/snack time. Studies have shown that kids who are given the space to eat the amount they want to eat regularly meet nutrient needs on their own over the course of a week. We are not smarter than the body, no matter how many degrees and scientific studies we have -- Just saying. If we teach kids to eat beyond their hunger cues they are at risk of either a), chronically ignoring satiety cues and becoming overeaters, or b), developing an aversion to meal/snack time resulting in further picky eating. I know for parents with picky eaters this is so so scary, but again, given time, children will not starve themselves but will begin to eat what they like in the amounts that their bodies need.
*Children with certain conditions require higher energy/nutrient needs and parents are certainly supposed for helping ensure these kiddos get the nutrients they need through supplements/additional meals/snacks.
5. Kids are responsible for what and whether they eat the food parents provide. This one seems to be the hardest for parents. A lot of us grew up being told we had to eat our vegetables before we could have dessert or maybe we were that picky eater that battled over every meal with our parents. In which case, see the above point. Kids will get what they need – think about the big picture, we want to shape kids who trust their natural hunger and fullness cues, not ones who force down extra food at dinner time, just to get to dessert (clean plate club, anyone?).
Learn to accept that your kids have different nutritional needs than you and allow them to explore what foods they enjoy and what foods they do not enjoy eating (from what you offer them).
I know it can be hard to watch your kiddo eat seemingly ONLY starchy foods, but as long as you are offering a balance of different nutrient rich foods (whole grains, beans, & starches, veggies, fruit, dairy, nuts, meats, etc.) they will get what they need (have I said that enough??). On the flip side, realize that research shows that growing children metabolize and need significantly higher amounts of carbohydrate foods than adults. Their brains use up more glucose than us to fuel all of that wonderful learning & development – this is why I can’t stand to see a parent on a low carb diet restricting their children in this way.
As a rule of thumb, don’t make a big deal about foods, especially foods you offer less often. When children know a food is off limits, research shows they may be more likely to increase intake of that food and have increased risk of excessive weight gain.
The key here is that kids KNOW certain foods are off limits because parents regularly inform them of such. So this is not to say that a child who has never eaten lobster is going to have a big hang up about lobster all of their life, obviously this isn’t true. But children who grow up in homes where sugar is never given and vocally discouraged by parents are more likely to seek out sweets whenever they get a chance. This is nothing new, in fact in the light of Halloween and all the articles out about kids eating or not eating candy, you may know where I’m going here. It boils down to this, do you have a moderate or restrictive parenting approach with food? It is completely okay to not want to give your 1 and 2 year old a bunch of sweets. If you yourself don’t eat sweets regularly, they will never know the difference. It gets tricky when they are older and see other kids and family members eating sweets and are told that they can't have any.
We aren’t there yet, but I hope to take a moderate approach with this when our son gets older. I want him to view dessert as just another food that we serve as a part of meals from time to time. I want him to know that it is okay to eat sweets when he’s at a friends house, but that it’s also okay to not eat sweets if he doesn't want them. The freedom to turn down foods will come with the knowledge that he is allowed to have them with meals when he wants, they’re no big deal, they have no special power.
My mission as a parent is to get my kid(s) to adulthood with as little shame and bondage as possible. I know that every one of us experiences guilt and shame, some of which is necessary and some of which is undue shame we put on ourselves. I can only hope that by encouraging a normal relationship with food, my kid(s) will have one less chain to break when the time comes.
I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with teaching your kiddos normal eating behaviors! What works for you?