Nurturing your child’s nutrition and eating habits is a worthy endeavor, but it may or may not be at top of mind in your daily activities. Of course feeding your kids makes the list (they’re total bears when they get hangry just like you). But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about nurturing healthful eating with your kids, but more so, how they think about and approach food and eating. Believe it or not, helping your kids think about food and the way they approach eating can be more important than the food you put in front of them.
But I get it. This may not have ever crossed your mind, mush less wound up on your to do list. And right now? Really? It’s the holidays which adds an extra layer of mayhem that’s just going to push this important task further down your list.
Worry causes panic and panic leads to poor decision making (1). Instead, relax and rest assured that with a few easy changes, you can nurture these healthful eating habits without it adding anything to your mile-long “to-do” list.
Your kids current behaviors, eating habits, and food choices are the result of learning and watching from you, from friends and family, and from the media and outside and social influences. The sum total of all those influences, as well as the message they are sending about how we think about food and our bodies, is what we call diet culture. And if you know anything about diet culture, you know it’s EVERYWHERE and it’s IN-FLU-ENTIAL.
Unfortunately diet culture has worked against our society where healthful eating is concerned.
Let’s Define Healthful
And when I talk about healthful, I’m not referring to “healthy” foods because that implies “unhealthy” foods. I’m talking about food choices and ways of eating that bring about physical, mental, and emotional well being. And really any food has a chance to do this. Sometimes it’s the brussels sprouts, and sometimes it’s the cookies. It’s not judging either of them, rather permitting BOTH of them. Overall it’s harmony and choices based on what’s best for the person.
Doesn’t that sound like every parents dream? To be making decisions for their kids that center around what is best for them?
Parents naturally have a tendency to want to protect their children. Unfortunately, this often comes out as controlling behavior…which will repel your kids and backfire on you. So how does a parent do this then? We as parents have to first understand how our kids learn.
How do kids learn?
While there are lots of different ways to learn and teach, kids learn best when they are:
- Asking questions
- Being engaged
- Understanding why
Let’s briefly explore each of these in a healthful food and eating choices setting. When you present your child with opportunities to engage all of these learning avenues, they have a chance to learn what foods they enjoy eating, what it does in their body, and how it makes them feel. This hints at their inner wisdom, which we talk about in intuitive eating. What you’re doing with all of this is nurturing your child’s inner intuitive eater. They are born with it and between our behaviors and diet culture, they learn to stop listening to it and not trust it.
What Are Your Kids Observing?
Kids notice EVERYTHING, right?! All the things you wish they didn’t notice, they notice. And inevitably they repeat EVERYTHING they observe too. It’s no different when it comes to food choices and eating styles. So whomever they are around when they eat, the choices they SEE others around them making, are going to end up being the choices they make for themselves.
So who are they around? Who do they see eating? What choices are being made in front of them? This is not and can not be a situation of “do as I say, not as I do”. That simply does not work. It actually instigates feelings of resentment and can lead to feelings of restriction which lead to obsessive thinking and behaviors around the restricted foods.
What Are Your Kids Hearing?
Similar to what they see, kids will hear it all and will repeat what they hear. And between the observing and the hearing (or listening), these behaviors become deeply imbedded in the child’s psyche…it becomes a part of their identity.
So once again, ask yourself some questions about what your kids are exposed to. Who are they listening to and what is being said? Is it in alignment with your goals for them?
Let Them Explore
Trying new things is not only great for expanding your brain and nurturing flexibility in your ability to think, it’s a great way to help kids learn more about themselves. Trying new foods and in new settings helps them learn what they like. This then becomes a part of their identity as well.
When’s the last time you tried some new foods or explored new ways and places to eat with your child?
Nurture Healthful Eating With Your Kids Through Trial and Learning
Experiments are meant to both succeed and fail. By design they don’t have any known outcome (we can guess, but the idea of experimenting is to learn, not preconceive outcomes). Giving your child opportunities to experiment with food choices helps them learn more about themselves and the things they like and don’t like.
Make Room for Curiosity
Asking questions and getting curious about food and eating and hunger and fullness helps open brain space for learning. So ask those questions of your kids, rather than assuming you know the answer. Here are some questions you can ask to nurture healthful eating with your kids:
- What about supper they enjoyed the most and why?
- What foods do they think they want to eat for lunch?
- Ask about texture and flavor and how their body is feeling as they eat.
- How does their tummy feel as it fills up?
- How much food do they think is filling and enough energy for their next tasks?
Ask. Ask. And keep asking.
But beware. Ask in open-ended, non-judgmental ways. Don’t skew their answers by asking, “What did you think about those slimy brussels sprouts?” or “I’m full, how about you?” Asking questions that hint at the correct answer doesn’t give your child permission to think differently than you. And be cautious that your reactions stay neutral. Screwing your nose up at their desire to have ice cream for dinner places judgment on not only the ice cream but them as well. Instead, respond with a curious look and ask them how they think that might make their body feel if they ate only ice cream for dinner. And then allow their answer to stand.
It may be tempting, but don’t be threatened by any of this. You’re still the parent; your job is still to present a variety and balance of foods for your child to choose from at each meal. You don’t have to only have ice cream just because that’s what they said they wanted. But I do recommend ice cream is ONE of the options they can choose from.
Getting Them Involved Leads to Nurturing Healthful Eating With Your Kids
Children learn a great deal when they are actually DOING something. So involve them in the planning of the menus, in choosing the recipes, in shopping, preparing, and cooking. Involvement at meal times doesn’t have to be restricted to setting and clearing the table.
When They Ask, Answer
Part of your kids learning process is knowing WHY things happen or work the way they do. So When they ask why there’s always a vegetable on the table, or why you like to eat spinach, give them an answer. What is it about the vegetables you choose, why DO you like spinach?
Caution here with spreading more judgement. I know, I’m big on the whole judgement thing. But think about it. How do you feel when you’re being judged? It’s not a great feeling. And it’s a pretty powerful feeling too. It can settle into the depths of your mind and live there and shape your choices until death do you part.
So I beg of you to use every caution when answering your child’s questions about the world. Demonstrate your love of their curiosity. Encourage them to find their answers. Show them your answers are based on your experiences and other’s may answer differently. Especially when it comes to food and eating.
You’re Raising Intuitive Eaters
By doing all of this, you will in effect be raising your own little intuitive eaters. Intuitive eaters have healthy relationships with food. They don’t cycle through diets or do battle with their weight. They have lower levels of depression and anxiety. If all this sounds good to you, download my free e-book, How to Get Picky Eaters to Eat Well Without the Fight, and explore more ways you can nurture your child’s healthy relationship with food and help them to develop their inner intuitive eater.