So I haven’t had any public speaking engagements since October, then lo and behold, I’ve had two this week, both on childhood nutrition… Go figure!
Much of my career has been spent in the realm of helping kids eat healthfully. I’ve done everything from inpatient & outpatient hospital work, to school foodservice, to being a member of the psychiatric team for emotionally disturbed adolescents. And then, I’ve been feeding 3 kiddos of my own for over 14 years, so there’s that!
Childhood nutrition fascinates me because it’s more than just “put the food on the table and they eat it.” Don’t we wish it were that simple, ha? That’s why I wanted to speak on this topic for our church’s outreach program yesterday. I think moms (and dads!) feel more anxiety surrounding their kids’ eating than almost any other childhood issue. Just go to any playgroup or party and you’ll hear stuff like:
“How do you get your kid to eat vegetables?”
“Does your kid eat vegetables?”
“No… mine doesn’t eat anything but mac & cheese!!”
And so on…
But here’s the thing: we’ve made our kids’ eating our issue, i.e., we feel like we have to make them eat. Well, here’s the first bit of good news, folks: we DON’T!! Eating is THEIR job, not ours! Phew!! I think this idea of making kids eat carries over from when our kids were babies. We did have to feed them! But somehow we forgot to let go and gradually turn over some control & responsibility to them. We forgot that kids want and need to grow up with respect to their eating, just like in every other area of their lives.
So what roles do we have anyway? What are our responsibilities, and what are our kids’?
The way I see it, our kids need 4 things from us in this “feeding relationship”:
- Structure: it’s our job to create a predictable meal/snack schedule for our children, and stick to it most of the time. Kids thrive on routine (adults do too, by the way!) and they get antsy and uncomfortable if they don’t know when their next meal is coming- or if it’s coming. This leads to panhandling and nagging. You don’t want this… so just stick to the schedule. It’s also our job to decide what to have for breakfast/lunch/dinner/snacks… and put healthy foods on the table for our children to choose from. I guarantee you that if you wait until 6pm and ask your kid what he/she wants for dinner, virtually 0% of kids will say, “Let’s see, tonight I think I’ll have a nice grilled salmon filet, some roasted sweet potatoes, and steamed asparagus.” No. Here’s what’s gonna happen instead: “I want mac & cheese!!” So a little menu planning is in order. That said, kids can definitely help with menu planning… but not at 6pm.
- Encouragement: we need to help our kids accept new foods, and this means serving “new foods” so frequently that they are no longer new. This can take 20 times or more!! But think of it this way- you wouldn’t take your child to just one playground his whole childhood or let him wear just one item of clothing, would you? Well then, let’s help our kids get accustomed to many, many different types of food by letting them experience it in a safe setting- HOME. Kids are naturally curious but easily put off- so we also need to allow them to not like it at first, with no judgment. But as Theda, my 14-year old daughter, puts it, “You shouldn’t really say you don’t like it… you probably just haven’t tried it enough.”
- Role Modeling: our kids will do what we do, not what we say. So our kids need to see us eating healthy food. They need to see us trying new things. They need to see us eating slowly & paying attention to our “full” signals. Whoa! But yes, our kids are always watching us, for better and for worse. So we have to set a good example and we have to let them have an opportunity to observe us. Family meals, people!!
- Consistency: the more we stick to the structure and set a good example ourselves, the less our kids will test us. We’ve set our kids up to make good choices, so we can step back and let them do the eating. We don’t have to make them. Nor do we have to reward or punish. Consider this thought: eating/satisfying hunger is a reward in itself, and going away from the table hungry (should they choose not to eat) is its own punishment. So I’m not a big fan of “if you eat your vegetables, you can have dessert.” This actually gives kids the message that veggies are so bad they should only be consumed under duress. I’m more a fan of dessert being so small that the kids would still be hungry… if they didn’t eat a decent amount at dinner. Natural consequence.
So… all this stuff we have to do, but what do our kids have to do?? Eat. Just eat. Or not eat… that’s their choice. But they will have to accept the consequence that they’re gonna be hungry until the next scheduled meal or snack. Kids are smart… they won’t starve themselves. Eating is their job, not ours. Phew!!