We were at a birthday party when I noticed a mom trying to keep her two girls to one cupcake each. She announced that “everyone only gets one.” When she left the room, Big A came to me, asking for another cupcake, and I said yes.
Two minutes later Big A came back, with a couple of bites taken (see picture), saying “I’m full mommy.” Another few minutes passed by and the other children came back in begging for another cupcake but the mom stood firm.
This got me thinking about how we live in a society that talks about moderation, but has a hard time executing it. So I’m dishing on what I believe are the 3 things children need to practice good old fashion moderation.
#1 Permission to Eat
Nothing makes moderation more difficult than lots of rules and regulations around food. Treats that occur seldom, or only allow for a certain amount, are hard to eat without the panic of when they will be eaten again. The irony is that when we put much of our energy trying to keep something in check, it instantly becomes more powerful. Evelyn Tribole, co-author of Intuitive Eating, sums it up perfectly in this Eating Disorders Today piece:
If you look at just the health merits of any food or meal, it is a one-sided view that does not take into consideration the importance of fostering a healthy relationship with food. Paradoxically, it’s only when you truly know that you can eat any food, whenever you want, that the food becomes less compelling.
When we go to parties or have sweet items for a snack, my kids can eat as much as they want as long as they sit at the table. We do have times we have small amounts, like a “little bit” of chocolate after certain meals. While there is an unspoken rule in our house that it’s usually one sweet item daily, this is not a strict rule because there are days (usually weekends) when we might have more and some days none at all.
#2 No Judgment
One key element with practicing mindfulness is the removal of judgment. It’s the ability to look at something for what it is without letting perceptions color reality. Helping children understand what a balanced diet looks like is one thing, but doing it with judgment can negatively affect eating. When I interviewed Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, she said that when we label something as forbidden or “bad,” the brain associates it with pleasure. And pushing healthy or “good” food can negatively affect intrinsic motivation to eat healthfully.
“Cookies, candy, donuts, an extra helping of starches – anything I was denied as a kid I can’t control myself around,” says Melissa. “I was bombarded with so many negative messages about foods as a kid and was rarely allowed dessert.”
So in our house food is just food. I stress eating a variety and rotate food groups but there’s no “you’re having another serving?” “You ate WHAT at grandma’s?” “You barely touched your vegetables!” or “You haven’t been eating any fruit, and it’s good for you — remember?” My kids simply enjoy what they eat from carrots, to fruit, to chocolate. No guilt!
#3 Structured meals
What brings the concept of moderation together is the prioritizing and structuring of meals. If parents allowed kids to choose what and when to eat they would have a limited variety and might choose to eat when bored or because the tube is on.
Instead, parents show kids how food is balanced by how often different items are served. And the structure of eating at the table helps children get the right amount of food for their body. This predictability of meals also helps children to feel secure around food, eat for hunger and enjoyment and listen to their body.
So in our house we eat most meals at the table or breakfast bar. If my kids are hungry and it’s not time to eat, they know they can have some fruit. Eating in front of the TV is only for special occasions as is eating in the car. And there’s no reading or playing while eating as I tell my kids “food deserves all of your attention.”
Putting it all together
When just one of these three elements is missing moderation can get thrown off. Say you have a child who has no judgment with eating and eats with structure but his parents limit him to small portions of his favorite treats 1-2 times a week. When he gets them outside the home, he goes hog wild and begs for treats all week.
Another child who has permission to eat and structure may experience lots of judgment around food. For example, the parents might make frequent comments about how good or bad certain foods are. The child starts to feel guilty for liking the bad foods and even starts to sneak them because he knows how his parents feel and he wants to please them.
And lastly, you can have permission to eat with no judgment but a loose feeding schedule. A girl who knows all she has to do is say “I’m hungry” and gets handed whatever she wants, is learning to eat for other reasons than hunger. She eats when she’s watching TV, is bored and isn’t exposed to enough variety.
The key is to observe how your child acts around food, remembering that each kid (and family) is different. For example, some kids might be okay with a treat once a week while others will not.
Do you feel your child is on the right track with learning moderation?
For more research-based strategies for teaching kids moderation check out my book: How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food.