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Managing food issues

Managing food issues

How and what we feed our children can be one of the most fraught areas of parenting, sometimes leading to feelings of intense worry, guilt or even shame.  Are they eating enough? Are they over eating?  When will they eat more vegetables?  How much sugar is too much?  When we as parents add in our own often complex relationships with food, plus the ever present societal beliefs around health and body image, it becomes clear why it can feel such an issue.

Eating is about so much more than hunger and fullness.  Common associations with socialising, treating yourself, boredom, comfort, control or virtuous abstinence mean that it is rarely seen as merely fuel.  Food is such an emotive subject for many and can become part of how we describe ourselves: as a ‘foodie’, ‘chocaholic’, a ‘healthy eater’ or ‘being naughty’.

Our attitude towards food and diet inevitably impacts on our children, especially in the way we talk about or act around food.  It has a direct effect on our children’s choices and relationship with food throughout their life.  The good news is that, no matter, how young or old your children are you can influence their feelings and choices. Some careful consideration now can have a big impact over time.

It used to be a given that children were expected to clear their plate.  However, insisting that they continue to eat when they say they are full overrides their natural limit for what they need, making it harder for them to trust their instinct over time.  Portion sizes have crept up over the decades and it is hard for most parents to judge how much children need to eat to grow and be healthy.  If you dislike seeing food wasted then start children with a smaller portion and provide seconds if they seem hungry for more.  Rather than insisting on a clean plate, encourage eating until they are full.  Switching off the TV and ensuring older children put down books while eating encourages them to notice the food in front of them, rather than just eating mindlessly because food is there.
Parental anxiety usually rises even higher when children are fussy eaters or don’t eat as much as their peers.  Trying to force children to eat when they do not feel hungry or tricking them into eating more than they wish, by using distraction or bribes about pudding, often backfires.  Parents rarely win food related battles with stubborn children.  When children eat very little there is an urge to feed them every time they show even the slightest interest in food.  However, snacks are rarely as nutritious as meals, plus it is worth holding out till mealtimes to let your child actually experience and begin to understand the experience of being hungry then full. 

Most children have a sweet tooth and would happily fill up on sugar filled treats if they were allowed.  When talking about the need to limit these, it is helpful to emphasise that a little of anything is fine but eating too many sweet foods is unhealthy and causes damage to teeth.  Talking about going on a diet or our own battles with weight in front of children implies that struggles with food are an inevitable part of growing up.  Many parents are prone to making throw away comments about certain foods “going straight to my hips” or needing to “work off that extra doughnut”.  Children watch and learn from their parents and others around them. If you’re making comments about “being good today” by resisting a biscuit then at some point they are likely to feel that this is the norm and apply the same rules to themselves (even if they have no weight problems of their own).  Focusing on the health benefits of keeping active and enjoying good food with them, while having some sensible limits, is a far healthier message to pass on.
As adults, the way we talk about our bodies and those of others can have a profound impact on our children.  Commenting on looks, size, weight and shape often drops naturally into everyday conversations and children implicitly observe and note the way we do so.  When children hear us linking weight loss with looking amazing (e.g. “Have you seen Jenny recently?  She’s lost so much weight, she looks fantastic!”) or linking eating less with “being good” it can set up problematic lifelong expectations and ideals around food and our bodies.  We lead the way for our children and if we openly show dissatisfaction with parts of our bodies or comment on “having a fat day” then they will feel it is normal for them to do so too.  It is an important life lesson that happiness cannot be found by being thin or by having perfect hair etc.  The incidence of both obesity and eating disorders amongst children and young people continues to rise and careful consideration about the messages we give about food and weight can go a long way to helping your children steer a healthy middle ground.
Food can be an emotive subject but the balance lies in managing what your child eats without making food an issue.  Food plays a fundamental role in how we nurture and care for our children and it is far easier to feel like a good parent when we feel our children are eating well.  However, monitoring every mouthful they eat and becoming militant about their diets is unlikely to produce calm mealtimes or happy children (especially as they grow older).  As with most things in life, balance is key.  Modelling healthy eating habits, paying attention to your own relationship with food and how you talk about it in front of your children are important first steps.

Food & eating