When comparing notes in the playground, I’m sure we all want to be the one with the children who eat everything and are a dream to feed. For me, 9 years ago, when my daughter was born, I put immense pressure on myself to feed her the perfect diet and assumed without question, that she would eat it. Oh, how wrong I was.
What followed was a stressful and confusing time for all of us, fundamentally because the lines had been blurred between what my responsibilities were, and what were hers. In my desire for great nutrition to go into her growing body, I had forgotten that how we eat is just as important as what we eat. Thankfully, I stopped spying on her from behind the fridge, chilled out and am now pleased to say, she has a good attitude to food.
How do we define what is healthy for our children?
In a world where nutrition is constantly in the spotlight, it can feel like what we’re eating plays a dominant role in health, when actually it is only a part of the puzzle. Nurturing a healthy relationship with food, is really important to optimise our health from both a physical and mental perspective, which means we need to consider the conversations we have around food at home. Children pick up on all sorts of subliminal messages, and labels that we put on things, which suddenly gives food a moral value. For example, labelling foods as good and bad. Does that mean they are therefore bad if they eat or crave those foods? Or if as parents we have beliefs that certain foods should be avoided. The children and Daddy are eating carbs, but Mummy isn’t, why is that?
How do we decide where our responsibility ends?
Ultimately, we want our children to have complete trust in their own bodies and what they are telling them and to experience harmony among food desires, food choices, and amounts eaten. These are the wise words of Dietitian Ellyn Satter who outlines her Division of Responsibility Model as follows:
Parent/ care giver:
• WHAT food to offer.
• WHERE to offer that meal or snack.
• WHEN that meal or snack should happen.
• WHETHER to eat the food or not.
• HOW MUCH of the food to eat based on how they are feeling and/or their internal cues of hunger and fullness.
How can we bring this to life at home?
Babies are born with the ability to respond to hunger in its rawist sense, but this can soon get lost, if we fail to trust in the signals they give us and start to put our own agenda onto them.
As a dietitian I work with both adults and families. Many of the adults I support, have challenging relationships with food, and often struggle with their weight. When explored in more detail, we often find issues stem back to childhood in which food might have been used as a form of reward or held back as a form of punishment and the general narrative they were exposed to was quite skewed. The division of responsibility is a trust- based model, and parents who have lost trust in their own bodies, may inevitably find this much harder to do. However, approaching it with kindness and curiousness is key as we need to be open to the following:
• Offer structured meals and snacks which provide a foundation that they can work from. Having a structure (that still has some flexibility) is key to support children to learn and recognise cues for hunger. Ideally, we want our children to go to the table hungry, enjoy food until they are full, safe in the knowledge that another meal or snack will be along soon.
• Make the table a place to come for meals, as often as possible.
• Avoid negative body talk in the home, which includes commenting on body shapes and sizes you see on TV or on social media.
• Provide a safe environment in which they can do the learning for themselves.
• Remember healthy is also about the way we relate to food, it’s not just about whether you’ve hit their fruit and veg servings that day.
• Don’t get bogged down in the healthy eating mantra – remember they are learning so much more from your own interaction with food, your beliefs around it and how they feel when eating ALL foods, no matter whether it’s kale or a cookie.
• None of this ignores the value of good food and nutrition, but it protects us all more.
My son Sam said to me the other day, Mum I really miss doughnut day. This was a Sunday tradition we put in place where, as you can guess, we ate doughnuts. I began to feel that perhaps there were so many other treat foods throughout the week, that we hadn’t earnt the doughnuts, so it fizzled out sometime last year. But in him telling me he missed it, I don’t think he was referring to the doughnut at all. I think it was the ritual of eating them together and all that that encompassed. Time to go and buy some more I think.