“I know what to do, I just don’t do it.”
As a dietitian of almost 15 years, this is what I’ve heard most often from clients. Many people feel guilty for not following the healthy eating advice that is virtually everywhere.
What most people don’t realize is that “what” they eat is the wrong place to start. It’s more important, in my opinion, to focus on “how” to eat first.
How you eat is vital in helping you develop a healthy relationship with food, eat well and maintain a healthy weight. But as a parent you have the added advantage of having kids to learn from. Let me show you what I mean.
Do Parents or Kids Know Best?
In our society, it is generally accepted that parents know what’s best when it comes to nutrition and eating. I believe this is only half right. Parents are better equipped than children to make value judgments for food choice meaning we consider nutrition, taste, and variety.
But what young children do very well is eat the right amount of food that they need. Research shows that infants and toddlers are particularly good at regulating food intake. But as kids get older they tend to lose this skill. No one knows exactly why but it probably has to do with feeding practices, the environment, and a whole slew of other factors that teach children to eat for external reasons (eat in the absence of hunger, finish what’s on the plate, visual cues, etc.).
In a 2007 study published in Appetite, 85% of 142 families interviewed said they try to get their child to eat more at mealtime by using reasoning, praise, and food rewards. The authors argue that parents may be teaching their kids to eat past their internal hunger and satiety cues.
A Case Study
I had the pleasure of talking to Katja Rowell, a physician whose mission is to help families bring peace and joy to the family table. When her daughter was born almost ten-pounds, she was worried and wasn’t quite sure how best to prevent weight problems.
“I struggled with how best to feed her,” she said. “But once I understood the feeding process and got the right information it helped me relax and feed her from love, not worry. I learned what I had to do to support her internal skills. She knew how much she needed to eat so that she could grow in a healthy way.”
Rowell trained with Ellyn Satter and applied the Division of Responsibility of feeding. But she didn’t stop there. She took what she learned about feeding her daughter and applied it to herself.
Even though she wasn’t overweight, like a lot of adults she struggled with her favorite “forbidden” foods that she found hard to eat in a healthy way. She explains how, pre-kids, a bag of Tostitos wouldn’t last in her house for more than two days. She denied herself sodas as “empty” foods, only to crave them and drink more when she had the chance. Her vices: coke and salty foods.
But that changed when she saw her daughter intuitively eating and stopping when she was full – even with favorite foods.
“I’d watch her turn down food when she was full and leave cake unfinished,” she says. “I thought to myself if she can do it why can’t I?”
So Rowell stopped denying herself salty foods and soda and allowed them back in her diet in a non-judgmental way. At first, she often ate chips for lunch and drank a soda most days. It wasn’t long before she found that they could sit in her fridge or cupboards for weeks. She paid more attention to hunger and satiety cues, continued to eat regular meals, and found herself more at peace with food.
“I’m a more comfortable and competent eater now,” she said, “and my daughter was the inspiration.”
What to do?
As Rowell demonstrates, learning how to focus inward may be as easy as using your kids for inspiration. Here are some tips and things to think about:
- Instead of zeroing in on what and how much your kid is eating, give your meal your full attention. Are you eating slow enough to enjoy every bite? Do you stop when you’re full or go past that signal?
- When your child goes too long without eating he or she might throw a tantrum. Recognize your own adult-like tantrums. Do you forget to feed yourself only to have hunger come back with a vengeance at night time?
- Notice how your kids enjoy foods like sweets without guilt and do the same. If you crave a non-nutritious food, have it without judgment but sit down and be present for each wonderful bite.
- Watch out for food associations that cause you to eat in the absence of hunger such as eating while watching TV, when bored, or for comfort.
Has having kids changed the way you eat? Do you focus on your internal or external cues to tell you when you’re done eating?
For more tips on raising mindful eaters (and becoming one yourself), check out my book How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food