Secrets to Enjoying Healthy Meals With Our Children (Guest Post by Helene Skantzikas)

I am often asked what “tricks” I have to get my toddler to eat well, or how I cope with food rejection and other issues at the table.
I guess you could say I have a mantra, words our family lives eats by:
Trust, Respect, Model, Accept, Slow Down and Enjoy.
Probably because of my family and cultural background (French), I was confident in my approach to food, and introducing it to my son felt natural. As I learned more about RIE(thanks to Janet), I realized I was applying a lot of the major principles of respectful, mindful parenting to my attitude toward food and mealtime with my toddler.

Trust

Since my son was an infant, I have trusted that he knows what his body needs, and that he is capable of determining how much of a food he should eat. I trust and know that children do not starve themselves. So I offer a variety of nutrient-dense, flavorful foods in reasonable quantities, letting him decide how much to eat, and at his own pace within the boundary of mealtimes.

Just as we don’t direct our child’s play, but rather trust him to choose activities that he needs in the moment, we should not direct our child’s eating, but rather trust his body. Our trust teaches our children to trust and listen to themselves.

Embracing this trust helps relieve the stress, anxiety or even panic of meals (is my child eating enough? Will he like what I make for him?). In this relaxed, stress free environment, children start to create positive associations with meals and food.

This trust has benefits, as well. As we trust our children and respect their desire or refusal of a food without drawing conclusions (like “He hates my cooking”, “she hates all vegetables”, “he’s picky”), we create an open-minded, safe, food environment, conducive to trying new things and hopefully stimulating curiosity about food.

Food is an obvious area for a lot of children to test their power and control. It is particularly important to not slip into that struggle with them. When you accept their decision not to eat something, you are telling them: “You are in control of your body, it belongs to you.”

They may also reject a food to see our reaction, using food as a testing tool. And it is an effective one. When tested in such a way, in order to maintain trust and open-mindedness about food, we have to remain nonchalant (i.e trusting), matter-of-fact. “You do not want to taste this right now. It doesn’t appeal to you. Maybe another day.”

Because many factors can be part of a food rejection — growth, teeth, mood, testing, agitation, fatigue — and not just a true like or dislike of a flavor , the key is to re-offer foods a number of times. If the rejection is repeated, then to try again a few months later as tastes evolve. I have applied this consistently with my son since he started solids at 6 months, and while he has some preferences, I’ve found there’s virtually no food he actually dislikes.

Respect

The respectful approach to food (and to all areas life for that matter) with our children is to avoid all manipulation: never using food to distract, to bribe, to punish, or as a means to any end. There should be no emotional entanglement attached to food. (Examples of this would be: “No dessert if you don’t eat your veggies”, “one last spoon for mommy”, offering snacks to keep a child occupied or distracted…)

Respecting our children also means avoiding labels.

The same way I find it limiting and unfair to label a child as “shy” if she’s being quiet, I don’t see anything positive in labeling a child as “a picky eater”. Such expectations tend to be self-fulfilling. If our children are not be in the mood for a food a certain day, it’s not to be taken personally. They’re not rejecting us or our hard work in the kitchen. They’re not being ungrateful or difficult. They’re listening to their bodies.pablo at fruit market

Respect is treating our baby or child as a whole person…

…not to be underestimated. He’s capable of enjoying vegetables and all kinds of (age appropriate) foods.

Being open and paying attention to our baby’s reaction to foods and putting ourselves in her shoes is also a fulfilling and fascinating exploration as a parent: to imagine what it must be like to taste a food for the first time. Narrating and sharing that back to them plants the seeds of mindful eating.

If a toddler shows interest in the kitchen, share what you are making, look at recipe books together, talk about ingredients, include them in the process and they will feel empowered and engaged.

Much like the best toys aren’t kids’ toys, the best foods aren’t kids’ foods. The idea of “kids foods” (this preconception that children naturally only like fried foods, sweet processed foods and pizza), or hiding broccoli and kale under a mound of pasta, lying about the presence of a vegetable, or even sweetening a baby food puree because we assume children only like it sweet, is disrespectful, a form of “dumbing down” that often is self-fulfilling.

Model

Modeling a healthy, joyful approach to food and our bodies: Being engaged in the enjoyment of food preparation and meals, being willing to try new foods ourselves, listening to our bodies and slowing down to experience food, seeing the family meal as an opportunity for connection and togetherness where everyone is an equal member and participant. Nurturing a healthy, joyful, positive relationship to the nourishment of our bodies is a key element, and responsibility, of parenting.

The dinner table can be a powerful place to model interacting with each other in a respectful manner, a mini version of life in society really. The family meal can be an opportunity to practice and model being in the moment with our loved ones, taking turns, sharing, listening, exchanging stories and thoughts. You know, the human experience.

Accept

…and acknowledge feelings. Don’t rush to fix them.

One of the things that help a child listen to his body and eat well is giving him an opportunity to feel hungry. I find that having clear limits on snacking improves the meal experience greatly. This may sound controversial, and many moms have a hard time saying no to a child asking for a snack. The instinct is to rush to satisfy that request for fear of the child sensing hunger for even a minute.

If a child asks for a snack 20 minutes before a meal, I think of it as an opportunity for him to be in his body and feel his body, to become aware of what his body needs. I acknowledge: “You’re feeling hungry right now, your body is ready for some food. Let’s look at what’s for dinner together. I’m hungry too and looking forward to sharing this meal with you.”

I trust that my child is capable of patience, of the pleasure of anticipation. I am ok with his feelings, and know he will benefit from this self-awareness.

Slow Down

Eating mindfully, without distractions, as an end in itself, as a moment to enjoy and focus on. Talk about the food we eat, the flavors, the sensations we experience. Slow down and enjoy the togetherness of a meal.

In our busy lives, the meal can be a moment to be completely present with our children and enjoy a shared experience with them.

Enjoypablo custard

…thanks to self-care and clear boundaries.

Because the table is an obvious place for children to test what they can and cannot do,self-care and clear boundaries are key. I cannot enjoy my meal if my toddler is walking with food around the house, throwing food or dipping his toys in the salad dressing.

My 2 ½ year old son recently tested this boundary. He wanted to leave the table to go play. I explained we must be at the table to eat, so if he’s still hungry, he should finish now and go play after. The meal is there for a given amount of time, then the meal is over and we clear the table.  “If you want to go play right now, you are telling me you are no longer hungry. I will put your plate away.” He decided to go play. I did put his plate away, and we continued eating. He came back 20 minutes later asking for his plate. I explained I put it away. I acknowledged his frustration and disappointment. Since we were at the cheese or fruit course, I did offer him a small piece of cheese or fruit if he was still really hungry. But he insisted on getting his plate back, which really showed me this exchange had nothing to do with food and hunger, but everything to do about his getting a clear answer on where the boundary stands.

When we are nervous or afraid that our children won’t eat, or not eat enough, we tend to be inconsistent with our boundaries.  It’s the same dynamic as the fear of a tantrum. We cannot set consistent boundaries that make our children feel safe if we are trying to avoid tantrums and strong feelings at all costs. Avoiding the tantrum suddenly takes priority over self-care, and that often ends in a lot of frustration on both ends.

Similarly, if “getting the child to eat” takes priority over self-care and the boundaries necessary to the family enjoying a meal, frustration ensues for the parent, as well as negative associations to mealtime (stress, power struggle, fuzzy boundaries, testing) for the child as a result.

These approaches are self-fulfilling because they create good associations with food. So changing or adjusting our perspectives as parents, with patience and trust, is so rewarding: instead of being synonymous with power struggle, fear, stress, manipulation, and isolation, our children will learn to associate food with pleasure, connection, and nourishment of body and soul.

Helene is the French mom of almost three year old Pablo, living in Los Angeles. Her blog, French Foodie Baby, chronicles her journey in the nurturing and expanding of her son’s tastebuds and love of life through good food. It includes baby and family cuisine recipes as well as musings on parenting, cooking, and the many life lessons learned in the kitchen and at the table.

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