In a completely perfect world we would eat when hungry, stop when full and eat the foods our body tells us to eat. However few of us are that tuned into our bodies signals. We are bombarded with outside signals for example the media, advertising, other people, shops, restaurants – food is all around us.
You walk down the road and pass someone eating a burger, “hmmm I fancy one of those now”. Then you pass a billboard advertising ice-cream, “oh I could eat an ice-cream later”. Then someone in the office has a birthday so you have a slice of cake. Later on the radio is advertising a meal deal which makes you think of buying one for your lunch. In the shop you are standing waiting to pay and see a cereal bar so pick it up to nibble on. All those extra signals that are overriding your actual body signals. It’s all so easy to be overwhelmed by the external and takes a lot of quietening ourselves to hear the internal cues.
Many people I work with cannot actually initially pinpoint what hunger feels like. I ask how hungry they are and am met with a confused look. Hunger on the one hand is quite a simple idea, your body is hungry, it tells you, you eat. Other the other hand it is complex, so complex. There is head hunger, body hunger, stomach hunger, emotional hunger.
Here is my 7 year olds take on how she knows she is hungry. I think this is such an important conversation to have with children AND adults. So have a think this week, how do you feel hunger and how hungry are you before you eat?
In a time when there is a focus on reducing sugar, countering obesity and improving the long term health of the nation, it can be hard to know how to approach these topics with your family. On the one hand we want children to be aware of what is in food but we don’t want them to be obsessing over it or feeling they need to go on a diet.
Personally I think that teaching children about nutrition, food preparation, healthy behaviours and their bodies early on is really important and can be part of the solution that our society needs. So as a mum I do my best to educate my children on a daily basis. Simple messages that we use are “There are no good of bad foods but some foods we eat less of as too much of them are helpful for our bodies”. We also talk about what is in a food and why it is good for us – often using “Funky Facts” such as the fibre in bread or the vitamin C in a kiwi. Top facts like this are things I find they store up and remember.
We may talk about dental health or how out tummy feels if you eat too much of certain foods. Both my older children (age 4 and 7 yrs) can associate with a time they have eaten sweet foods and felt unwell from it! I love talking to them about how their tummy feels and what do they feel it needs as well as what does it want!
I prefer to focus on these messages rather than focusing on weight/size/shape. Being a dietitian who works in the eating disorder field I am well aware of the issues that can occur when there is too much of a focus on weight, shape, size and how your body looks. Instead I like to focus on the enjoyment of food and on healthy behaviours such as being active, getting fresh sunlight, being outside and taking care of our teeth, hair, nails.
Here is a little video of my 7 year old explaining her thoughts on food:
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Ever get the feeling that the children in the house are in charge? Oh my days, I know I sometimes feel like I just run from child to child doing things for them!
Letting them be in charge of some things can be empowering and really positive. When you think about it there isn’t that much that they are actually in charge of. That can be hard as these little people want a chance to grow their independence and show their preferences. Eating is one of the ways that they can do this. So from a very early age they can show which foods they like/dislike and how much they want to eat. As parents it is whether we take note of these signs or think we now better! I’m trying to raise my children as intuitive eaters but it is hard as often I think I know their tummies better than they do. I then have to sit back, breathe and let them lead. When you are in a rush or have other children to also look after it can be frustrating to do this but we are setting our children up for life. I want mine to know how to pause, think about how their bodies feel and then respond accordingly and not be rushed because I have a schedule.
I find toddlers fascinating as they are so in tune with their bodies. My 22 month old will literally refuse to eat when she doesn’t want to, there is no way I can force her. She now chooses what she wants to eat from a selection of foods and she tell me when she is hungry with “Eaaaaaa” or “Snaaaaa”. A funny example this week was when I made a cake for Mothers Day and then we had some for pudding. However the toddler shunned it and ate a bowl of peas instead!
As we grow up eating becomes more complicated. Foods plays more of a social role, there is an enjoyment factor and just seeing things that you fancy. Advertising, being around food, media and other peoples food choices also influence us. This is why I think it is SO important to encourage our children to build great relationships with food whilst they are young and to continually reinforce these principles:
- Listen to Hunger – eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full. Think about your hunger at the start, middle and end of mealtimes. I sometimes talk about hunger being a butterfly in your tummy that grows to a dinosaur. Where are you on that scale?
- Listen to Fullness – this can be fun with kids. My 4 yr old boy pokes his tummy and that can help him connect with how full he is. My 7 yr old girl just knows and will leave her food for later.
- Eat a balance – I teach my kids that all foods are great but that our bodies need balance for energy, protein for building, fat to keep us warm and protect our organs and all the vitamins/minerals to keep it working properly.
- There are no good/bad foods. I love this conversation with my children. We’ve used plastic foods to group them into food groups and then talked about what all the foods contain that is great for our bodies. Instead of foods being good/bad for us I talk about how we need to moderate foods that are higher in sugar due to our teeth and balance our snacks as biscuits don’t keep us full for long.
I’d totally encourage you to let your children lead a bit more with food. If you want more tips on how we do this at home then do let me know.
Being a dietitian is the easy part. Being a mum, now that’s a much harder job. Currently I have 3 children, Miss K aged 7, J-boy aged 4 and Miss E, 18 months. Teaching them how to eat a balanced intake, how to listen to their hunger and fullness signals and helping each child on their journey with this in different ways is hard. I find myself having to change my language, change my mindset and be flexible a lot. My children do not eat like I do. They are their own individuals and have their own signals to listen and respond to. Too often I try to parent their eating and actually I’m not in their bodies. They are.
Here are some of the mistakes I’ve made along the way. A dietitan who makes mistakes, with her own kids, ummmm yes. All the time. I’m sharing these so hopefully it will help someone else and to show that we all make mistakes.
- Don’t be the Food Police. This is all too easy a trap to fall into. Oh so easy. As a parent boundaries are important and you don’t want your child to be eating all the biscuits all day, everyday. I’ve certainly had a child who will ask for a biscuit continually until they get one. No matter how often you offer another snack it just comes back to that biscuit. For ages I would say No to the biscuit, I’ve had a lot of biscuit tantrums. It’s now with great relief I can say I now say yes to the biscuit in the context of a balanced snack. After pre/school snacks are often a biscuit with apple and crackers, or toast with peanut butter and something from the sweet tin.
- Keep the sweetie tin open. Ours used to be on the top shelf of the cupboard. Visible but out of reach. However all this actually did was make the sweetie tin special and lusted after which is the opposite of what I was trying to achieve. When you restrict a food it can make it more desirable, we want the things we cannot have. It also sets those foods apart from the rest, but why are sweets anymore special than say an apple? So the sweet tin is now lower down and we have sweets at the end of a meal or as part of a snack. I talk about having less of the sweet foods so we don’t get tummy ache and to keep our teeth healthy in the same way we talk about this with dried fruit.
- No foods are less healthy. Much like I would not recommend you call foods good or bad, try not to call some foods healthy and some less healthy. Why? Well it is often the way nutrition and healthy eating is taught in school but it actually doesn’t make sense. What makes a food bad? Thinking about foods as good/bad or healthy/less healthy can lead to guilt when you eat them. In actual fact it is not a problem to eat any food as long as you are enjoying it and eating it guilt free. We focus on all foods being good foods, it is just some you eat less of as they make you feel sick or damage your teeth. I encourage the children to think about how their tummies feel when they are eating and to stop when they have had enough as there will be another day to finish it. If my children choose to overeat sweeter foods it can be quite useful, as later we can reflect on why they feel a bit queasy! This happened recently after too much Eton Mess, resulting in a mess on the floor.
- Eat your vegetables but don’t force them to. Oh boy, this is one I struggle with. I want my children to eat their veggies so much. Yet the more I push this, the less likely they are to enjoy them and just eat them under pressure. This could then lead to them not liking veggies at all. I had a boy who was not into his veg at all, but by keeping things pressure free, ignoring him and just putting the veg on his plate each day he eventually just started to eat it. Role modeling is so important here, showing how much you like vegetables and talking about why they are needed by the body can have more impact than you expect.
- Pudding is not on a pedestal. It is so easy to use pudding as a way to encourage your children to eat their main course. I know, as I’ve done it. Guilty. By using pudding as the carrot, it makes it seem like the prize and if we are saying all foods are equal then the pudding is the same as the main course. Tricky hey. So let your children leave some of their main course if they want to. Perhaps talk to them about how full they are feeling. If they are really full then they may not have any space for pudding anyway! It makes for an interesting conversation at the table. We sometimes rank our fullness from 1-5. It you are at 5 then you don’t need pudding.
Some examples from my family in the past couple of weeks:
We bought some large cookies, I gave the older 2 kids free range to eat as much as they wanted and to stop when they had enough. I fully expected my boy to eat the whole thing and yet he only ate half and handed it back. I don’t think he would have done this if we hadn’t have chatted about fullness beforehand.
When visiting Santa they were given sweets/chocolate and again I suggested they ate what they wanted and then stopped and kept the rest for another day. What fascinated me with this was the constant chatter about “hmmm I think I will have one more and then that it enough for my tummy” and the lovely sharing that went on.
I’m certainly still on the journey with intuitive eating and I have a feeling I will be for many years. However it is a journey I am enjoying and such a priviledge to be able to encourage and watch my children as they do this too. They often teach me more than I teach them.