I hear the fridge open in the kitchen. My almost two year old daughter tells the dog to “stay” as she pulls something out and places it on the ground. A chair is pulled across the floor to the counter and the silverware clanks as she finds a spoon…..and then silence.
Many parents might be feeling a bit of worry at this point. What did she get to eat? Is it good for her? Will it ruin her dinner?I walk into the kitchen to find my girl dipping cucumber spears, cherry tomatoes, and flax seed crackers in homemade hummus and organic plain yogurt. Ok, kinda weird, but definitely more balanced than a snack most of us would choose.
I will preface all I am about to write by saying that we only have one kid and I understand that all kids have genetic differences, preferences, and tendencies. People are often curious how we approach food with our daughter after seeing her eagerly eat kale straight from our garden or scarfing down a bowl of salad. However, there is no guarantee this works for all kids and in no way am I saying parents whose kids won’t eat vegetables are at fault for their kids food preferences.
In fact, my motive behind how I interact with my daughter around food is not to get her to eat vegetables. I was completely motivated by cultivating within in her a peace with food and a trust in her own body.
After years of my own food and body issues and being a coach for people with food and body issues, I swore when I had a baby that I would allow space for my daughter to listen fully to her own body. I promised myself that I would encourage her own intimate trust and relationship with her body rather than teaching her to look to any external source (like a clock, or her mother’s rules) in her decision of what or when to eat. This promise meant I had to adopt the belief that as long as I surrounded her with healthy yummy food and modeled an enjoyment of that food myself, her body would tell her to eat when and what it needed.
Therefore, the single most important belief that guides our approach to food with our daughter is…
While it is our parental job to put a healthy (and tasty!) array of food in front of our kid, it is NOT our job to get her to eat it (unless she has a health condition that requires us to).
With this belief as our foundation we do not feel compelled to tell her to eat when she chooses not to nor do we feel responsible for finding something that will get calories in her body, even if it doesn’t meet our idea of nutritious.
Here are a few other assumptions about kids and food that we chose to throw out the window from the beginning in order to let our daughters body guide us…
Kids don’t like vegetables.
Kids don’t like spices or flavor.
Kids need to eat a balanced meal at every meal or everyday.
Kids need to eat at regular mealtimes.
Kids will need different meals from parents.
Although some of these assumptions may seem true of our kids at times, if we assume them to be true we miss out on seeing that some days our kids have different preferences. Our assumptions may lead us to actions that cement the habits we assume they have… like never putting anything green on their plate, saying “oh she won’t eat that”, hiding vegetables, or cooking separate meal.
So far we have a little girl who loves vegetables and a rather peaceful dinner table absent of the typical food fight of trying to get a kid to eat their food. Maybe this is a result of our approach or maybe its just genetic preferences. However, most important to me, is that I feel our approach will allow her to grow up with a deep trust in her own body and in the nourishment of food rather than a lifetime of battling her own internal messages for the sake of getting approval or following the rules.
Here’s what it all looks like for us….
#1 We allow her to choose what to eat and how much.
Our dinner table conversations do not include pleading from us for her to eat more of something or “take one more bite”. We actually don’t pay much attention at all to what she eats. We trust her body. We put the same healthy tasty food that we eat in front of her and whatever she doesn’t eat goes in a bowl that is accessible to her next time she is hungry. We always have healthy snacks for her when we are out if she gets hungry.
#2 We don’t try to sneak bitefuls into her mouth or hide vegetables.
I don’t blame parents for their good intentions. If my kiddo had picky eating tendencies from the beginning I might be very tempted to do both of these things. However, I want eating to be a conscious act for my daughter. I want her to choose to eat something and then actively bring it to her mouth. Otherwise, I feel like I am teaching her to just go along playing and never stop for food (because mom will do the work of getting food in my mouth!) or telling her that her body is wrong for being full or not interested in the food in front her. I also want her to see vegetables and associate them with a good taste rather then never seeing a vegetable because they are always cleverly hidden. Even when she was a baby, we didn’t feed her by spoon…yes, a lot of her food ended up on her face instead of in her tummy, but she got what she needed and learned that what goes in her mouth is her choice from the beginning.
#3 We do not keep her to an eating schedule.
Many parenting books would disagree with me on this one. Something about establishing routine and not getting used to eating snacks or eating for entertainment or emotion. Again, I want to support my daughter in tapping into her own hunger signals. She may be more or less hungry and hungry at different times based on her activities, growth, and many other variables (just like adults are!). Furthermore, many people do better eating many small meals a day rather the 3 big meals. Even if sometimes she does eat for entertainment, that is not inherently bad. I can help her feel how that might feel different than eating for hunger.
#4 We involve her in growing and cooking her food
All summer when we need to pack a snack for our daughter to take with us on an outing, we take her little snack bowl out to the garden and let her pick what she wants: cucumber, radishes, beans, tomatoes, kale, lettuce, apples , little broccoli florets, carrots, green peas, little bell peppers, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. She is a part of planting the seeds, harvesting our dinners, and for almost every meal we cook, she stands next to us and helps with cutting, stirring, and sprinkling. I believe this type of involvement in their food helps kids develop both a connection and excitement around the healthy food, but also a taste for how delicious produce is pulled straight from the garden.
#5 We keep the house stocked with healthy food and make it visible and accessible to her.
There is almost never anything in my house that is highly processed or sugary… except the occasional carton of ice cream that gets into our freezer. She doesn’t eat hot dogs, white bread or Mac and cheese because that’s just not available. If a parent says “but that’s all my kid will eat” I go back to the belief that it is not our job to get them to eat by giving them unhealthy options out of desperation just so they will put something in their mouth. Without the belief that we are supposed to do everything possible to get calories in their mouths, there is no reason to introduce foods to your kids that you would rather them not eat. If they don’t want to eat at a mealtime, offer them some healthy choices the next time they seem hungry. Now that she is getting older, we make sure she can reach healthy snacks so she can feel empowered to consciously choose herself when and what to eat, and take action to make it happen independent from us.
#6 We make vegetables taste good.
The best way to make vegetables taste good is get them fresh from a farmer or grow them yourself. Then learn simple tasty ways to prepare them that utilize healthy fats, spices and herbs. I notice our daughter will not eat steamed broccoli but will scarf it down if it’s prepared 5 star restaurant style with yummy seasonings or accompanied with a tasty dip. If you yourself don’t like the taste of the vegetable dish that is being served up to your kids, they probably won’t like it either. And while us adults have been taught to choke it down on autopilot in the name of nutrition, kids actually eat based on pleasurable experience. Not to say it has to be cooked fancy or with heavy sauces. A ripened tomato from the vine is just about the tastiest thing there is.
#7 We let her play with her food.
The other day my daughter prepared a salad alongside me…her little hands put fistfuls of mixed greens into the bowl, poured olive oil and vinegar, sprinkled salt and pepper and nutritional yeast, cut cucumber and beets, added some lentils and some feta cheese. Then she sat down and forked the awkwardly shaped leaves into her mouth. About halfway through she started putting the leaves in her water cup and mixing. I watched. I felt the feeling of not wanting to waste our precious homegrown food or expensive organic ingredients. But then she put some more leaves in her mouth in between mixing and proceeded to eat a good amount more of her salad alongside her playing. We do often remind our daughter about the preciousness of our food and resources, however, I also think it’s important to remember that just because a kid is playing with his food, doesn’t mean he is done. Eating is a sensual experience. Kids are getting to know their food…it’s tastes but also it’s properties of touch, smell and texture. They are experimenting with mixing and cooking and, yes, sometimes throwing it across the room. Every parent will have a different balance of tolerance for this 🙂
#8 We don’t assume she won’t like a food today just because she didn’t like it yesterday.
When my daughter was just starting to really eat a variety of solid food, we came across the first food she refused to eat: avocado. Her “favorite” food so far was sweet potato. We continued to put both on her plate for the next week and on the seventh day she ate all the avocado and didn’t touch the sweet potato. Kid’s bodies are magical little things. They know what they need unlike us adults whose signals from our bodies are all screwed up by years of rules, restrictions, and emotional associations. Even now, Aza will go several days without eating a certain food group, and then will spend a whole day just eating that food group. It may be hard to think of a kid not getting vegetables for a few days but as soon as we get involved it starts messing with their natural instincts to listen to their body and starts associating vegetables with something they “have” to eat rather then something they love to eat…on the days that their body feels like eating them. While us adults have all kinds of reasons for what we choose to eat, kids start out choosing based on what their bodies need. I once heard that over the course of a month kids will eat a balanced diet. If we keep surrounding them with healthy food and don’t get involved in their eating beyond that, I believe our kids’ ability to listen to their bodies can last into adulthood and avoid so many of the food and body issues we see in society today.
#9 We model eating and enjoying healthy food.
Often a parent or grandparent will use food to connect with their child or grandchild….an ice cream cone after school, a surprise candy from their purse, a special dessert to celebrate a good grade. I think showing celebration and enjoyment of food is wonderful and using it to connect is also totally healthy. Instead of ice cream, how about taking the kiddo to the farmers market and talking about the sweetness of the nectarine tasters or choosing a special recipe to cook together. Or bond over starting a container garden on your deck. Kids will enjoy it just as much so sugar is not necessary to show love, celebrate, or make a moment special. Our family has a tradition of the family salad bowl. Sometimes (ok, often) when we don’t feel like cooking and have tons of lettuce from the garden, we make a huge bowl of salad, add some yummy toppings like nuts, beets, seeds, beans, feta or goat cheese, and sit down with three forks to eat from the same bowl. We literally have to fight our daughter’s fork off if us parents want to get anything and we all end up laughing. Note: When vegetables actually taste good (see #6), it makes it easy for the parents to model enjoyment as they eat them!
#10 But what about sugar?! People ask. Do you let her eat sugar? And if not, how do you live without having your own sugar fix?
As I said we don’t believe in rigid restrictions around food for us or our daughter. We as adults do indulge in treats, even the not so healthy kinds sometimes. However, we treat very sugary, unhealthy or processed food products just like we do other drug substances like coffee or alcohol. We ourselves eat them in moderation as part of an otherwise healthy diet. Although we will consume these treats in front of her, we say to our daughter “this food/drink is for parents not babies”. I don’t feel guilty for modelling this because it is exactly what I would say if she tried to take a sip of coffee or alcohol. Like other drugs, sugary processed foods are just not healthy for young bodies but as she gets older she can make her own decisions about consuming those in moderation.
The truth is now that she is 2 years old, she is exposed to more “junk food” just because she is more out in the world. We don’t deprive her of participating in any food consumption but we don’t make a big deal about how much of a treat a sugary food is or go out of our way to make sure she gets a piece of cake at a birthday party if she doesn’t even seem interested. She usually takes one bite and moves back to her cucumber. Her taste buds have developed a taste for fresh veggies and fruits, and therefore, sugary things just don’t have the taste or emotional draw they would had she grown up eating them as “treats” and “celebrations” or with feelings of guilt and rules surrounding them.
So yes, sometimes we sit and eat ice cream in front of her and she is perfectly happy with her bowl of plain organic yogurt with some fruit on top.
If you have food battles in your home with your kids or your own body, maybe you want to come out for a visit to The homestead… Check out The Food Revolution Farmstay package to set the foundations for a healthy relationship with food for you and the whole family.
Please share this post if you want to continue the conversation about how to end the food battles that so many of us have at our dinner tables….within ourselves and with our kids!
In the comments below…
I am curious…what do you find works for you and your kiddo around food? Where do you still struggle? What’s the most important thing that you want to cultivate in your child’s interaction with his/her food?