A doctorate in child development and years of working with children and families did not prepare me for the sheer frustration and stress of feeding my own family.
Three different children with three different preferences and three different eating patterns and bodily rhythms = headache on a grand scale.
And as much as I sometimes longed to be one of those like-it-or-lump-it Mamas who rigidly adhere to their own timetable, only cook one thing and forbid the eating of anything else, I couldn’t do it.
Memories of my own miserable mealtime experiences and later battle with an eating disorder also made me reluctant to force feed, or to battle with my own kids over food.
Embracing a peaceful, respectful, conscious approach to parenting changed all aspects of my parenting experience so much for the better.
But applying this to eating? This I found so much harder. I spent a long time trying to make sense of the huge amount of information out there, much of it contradictory.
I will spare you the examples for now, but suffice it to say that initially I found it all mega confusing.
So what changed? How did I finally get to a place of clarity and peace?
I’ll tell you; it was a simple process of working backwards.
And by this I mean, thinking about what I wanted for my children in the long term. Working out what I didn’t want my children to associate with food in the future.
For example, I imagine that like me you don’t want your children to associate eating with feeling loved and ‘good’ and comforted, right? And you don’t want them to eat by the clock even if they’re not at all hungry? And you don’t want them to associate eating cake or ice cream with being a naughty treat that they only deserve if they are ‘good’ and already full from main course, right?
And yet, with a traditional approach to eating and mealtimes these are all messages our children are hearing. Particularly when…
- We have rigid rules about when they can and can’t eat
- We insist they eat everything on their plate
- We forbid pudding until they eat their ‘healthy’ main course
- We use all manner of techniques to coerce and distract them to ‘get’ them to eat
- We talk in their earshot about our own diets or being ‘naughty’ having that cake
None of these things normalise the process of eating or teach children to eat purely for nourishment and enjoyment.
None of these approaches convey trust in our child to utilise their incredible innate capacity to know what their own body needs and to choose accordingly.
And surely we owe it to our children to get out of their way and give them the freedom to do this. We owe it to them to find a way to stop the growing problem in the western world with compulsive eating, with obesity, with eating disorders. And we owe it to ourselves to find a way to make things less stressful, and find a simpler way that we can feel calm and confident about.
So I urge you to consider whether the path you are on at present is the one you truly want to continue with, and whether you are giving your children the messages that you really want them to hear. I urge you to consider whether winning the short-term eat your greens battle is truly worth it at the expense of a healthy life-long relationship with food.
Let me clarify again; the easiest way you can make mealtimes less stressful and make the biggest impact on your ‘fussy’ eaters is to re-visit your whole approach to mealtimes and think of it only in terms of what habits you want to develop and teach for the long term.
Here’s a few things it might help to think about more specifically:
- Get realistic about how much your child actually needs to eat. We tend to vastly overestimate our children’s appetites. Very roughly, their tummies are the size of their fists, but sometimes even smaller. Vegetables, in particular, are very bulky. If they say they’ve had enough and are full, they probably are.
- Children eat more when they are growing and not in order to grow. So their eating patterns and requirements will vary greatly according to the particular stage of development they are in. Babies up until the age of one, for example, eat a ton more in proportion to their size than they will again until they are teenagers. So when at this age they appear to become ‘fussy’, very often it’s merely because they no longer need to eat so much.
- Examine who your current food schedule suits and what the rationale is behind three square meals a day. As stated above, children have varied but generally significantly smaller tummies than we always remember. Eating little and often may well be what suits their appetite and metabolism the best.
- If you are happy for your children to eat sweet things and puddings, consider what the logic is behind having it after the main course, and the message you are sending if you are requiring a clear main course plate first. What do you fear would happen if they have their fruit or yoghurt or fruit lolly presented at the same time as the main course?
- What are you (and any other adults in the household) modelling to your children about eating and mealtimes? Do they see you enjoying a varied diet, respecting your body, and enjoying both sweet and savoury food equally? If not, what messages are your eating habits (and your partner’s) sending to your children?