December 18, 2013

5 Ways to Nurture a Healthy Relationship with Food

chefmom-happy-toddler-eating

I love posting recipes, but I wanted to preface my next recipe (which is really yummy by the way), with a little bit of information about raising healthy eaters.

I have a confession – I love holiday treats.  There is something about the flavours of candy cane or gingerbread around Christmas that makes me giddy.   So I always make sure I eat a candy cane and gingerbread man at some point over the holidays.  I’m a big advocate of balance – and balance to me means eating healthy most of the time so having treat that I truly love and savour isn’t something I worry much about.  Most people have this strange idea that Tyson is never allowed any sort of treat or forbidden food.  Because I’m a nutritionist, they assume I must ban anything sweet completely and poor Tyson is denied all that is good in the world (insert the violins here).

Yes, I’ve gone on about how sugar isn’t great for you.  So yes, when Tyson didn’t really have any idea what he was missing (which also happened to be a critical development period for his brain, body and palette), I chose not to allow him to have it.  Besides, there were so many other new foods to try that there wasn’t much time for sugar.

Now that he is approaching two, he aware of all the sugary treats out there.  He eats cookies and pudding at daycare, and like I’ve mentioned, sugar tends to be a common theme in most people’s diets, so clearly he is exposed to it quite often.

And that is the reality of life.  I find that often, parents can fall into the trap of being a  “food cop”, trying to restrict anything that is bad for their kids at any opportunity.  I can totally understand this mentality – it’s hard to watch your child eat food that you know is bad for them.  However,  this can backfire in the long run as research shows that children who are completely restricted from eating the  typical “forbidden” foods (high-fat, high-sugar foods with little nutrients), will eat more of them when given the chance.  This is not a healthy relationship with food, which can lead to obesity, disordered eating and other health problems in the long run. Plus, it’s stressful for everyone involved.

Instead, our focus as parents should be on raising competent eaters who have a healthy relationship with food.

I’ve said this before and you will hear me say it again and again, however I realized that I haven’t told you how to do this.

So today, I’m introducing 5 things that you can do to help your child develop a healthy relationship with food and eating.

1.  Introduce variety at an early age

Introducing solids is your first (and best) opportunity to start shaping your child’s palette.  The tastes, textures, colours and flavours that we expose our babies to in those early days of solids (and even in the womb!) will help shape his/her eating preferences in the long run.  The more variety, the better.  This will also help them become more accepting of “new” foods, as they will be seeing new foods on a regular basis.  And as your child gets older, a varied diet will help make sure they get all the nutrients they need to stay healthy.

Here’s what to do:

  • Instead of starting with bland rice cereal, start your baby on a variety of vegetables and fruits.
  • Switch it up often.  Make sure to hit all the different tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, pungent etc).
  • Don’t be scared to introduce foods that are not traditionally thought of as baby foods – asparagus, parsnips, leafy greens, papaya etc.
  • Continue to incorporate more foods and textures as your baby gets older.
  • If they don’t like something, don’t give up.  Continue to put it in front of them.  It can take up to 10-20 tries before a child learns to like it.  If you never put it in front of them again, they definitely won’t ever learn to like it.

Read here for my experience with starting solids.

2.  Have set meal and snack times (no grazing)

One of the keys to helping kids learn to understand their own hunger cues, and to encourage healthy eating habits, is to be strict about set snack and meal times.  Offer kids food every few hours.  They shouldn’t be eating on demand all throughout the day (otherwise known as grazing).  Make sure all meals and snacks are complete and filling, with at least 2-3 different foods offered and allow kids to eat as much or as little as they want.  Serve both snacks and meals to kids sitting down at the table (no TV!)

This structure offers a number of benefits:

  • Kids always know that food is coming in a few hours, so they can focus on the other activities they are engaged in throughout the day (without constantly begging for food)
  • Kids will arrive at meals hungry, meaning they are more likely to be open to trying new foods.
  • Kids will learn to enjoy and focus on the eating experience, rather than just eating because the food is there.
  • Planned snacks allow you to offer nutritious options, instead of trying to scramble to find a snack when your child says he/she is hungry.

Obviously, there will be times when you deviate from this schedule, but if you stick to it for the most part you will see the benefits.

3.  Eat as a Family

Eating as a family is an extension of #2.  Everyone should eat the same meal, and you should not “catering” to your child’s food preferences (see #1 above regarding variety).  Having a sit-down meal promotes the benefits I mentioned above, as well as providing you with an opportunity to demonstrate healthy eating habits to your kids.  And I think most parents know that our kids are always watching and learning from us.

So as much as possible, sit down to meals (and even snacks) as a family, serve and let your kids see you eating a variety of nutritious, real food, and make the eating experience as fun and pleasant as possible.  But remember, the focus of meals should be the conversation, the laughter and not on what/how much your child is eating (see #5 below).

4.  Allow “forbidden” foods

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, trying to restrict all nutrient-void/unhealthy foods may help your kids be healthier in the moment, but will not help them learn to be competent eaters as they grow older.  Remember, you’re not always going to be there to snatch that cookie from their hands.  And if they haven’t learned how to manage treats as a child, this could result in disordered eating as an adult.

It is our responsibility as parents to serve as much nutritious and real food as possible, but once in a while we need to let them indulge in the bad stuff too.  But not when and wherever they want – if they are grazing on nutrient-void foods all day, they won’t be hungry for a nutritious dinner.  I still recommend sticking to set snack and meal times, but once in a while make the food at snack time a “forbidden food” and at that time let them eat as much as they want.  If they know that they food is not being “restricted”, they will eventually learn to eat enough to satisfy their hunger and then stop because they know it will be served again in the future.   I often serve Tyson cookies and fruit as an afternoon snack and let him eat as much of it as he wants (sometimes it’s 1 cookie, sometimes it’s 4 or 5).

Read here for what expert Ellyn Sater has to say on this topic.  Oh, and Sarah Remmer has some interesting points on why we shouldn’t label foods as good or bad.

5.  Relax!!!

This should actually be #1 in my opinion, as the best thing we can do to help our kids have a healthy relationship with food and eating is to stop putting so much pressure on kids about what they are/are not eating.  

As parents, we are responsible for what (healthy nutritious meals), when (set meal and snack times) and where the child is eating.  However, we need to keep in mind that the child is responsible for whether they eat it and how much.

So put the food in front of them, always being sure to serve at least one thing that they like, and just trust that they will eat. Sometimes they will be hungry, sometimes they won’t.  Sometimes they will like things, sometimes they won’t.  Don’t get too worked up about it!  Eating should be enjoyable for both you and your child – not a stressful experience.  The less pressure you put on your child, the more likely they are to actually eat a variety of food in the long run.  Pressure will almost always have the opposite effect that you want it to.

It can be really, really difficult (sometimes I have to hold my tongue during meals!) but try to keep these points in mind:

  • Don’t force your kids to clean their plate, eat their vegetables or “try just one bite”.  This is pressure.
  • Don’t reward kids or clap and cheer when they eating something you want them to eat.  This is pressure.
  • Don’t withhold something they like unless they eat something they don’t like.  This is pressure.
  • Don’t ask your kids to eat more or less or something.  This is pressure.
  • Don’t go on and on about the health benefits of broccoli and why french fries are the devil.  This is pressure.

I will be talking more about this when I discuss picky eaters, but the main takeaway from this point is just to allow kids to enjoy eating so that they have a healthy relationship with it as they get older (as opposed to the disordered relationship with food that most of us have, even if we don’t like to admit it).

Side Note: I find that pressure about eating is an issue in society in general.  Honestly, sometimes I avoid giving Tyson “forbidden foods” when I am away from home, because people tend to make such a big deal about it – watching him, oohing and ahhhing about the fact that Tyson is letting sugar cross his lips and looking at me to see if I’m freaking out.  We need to stop putting so much focus on kids eating in general.  Just let them eat!  Kids are pretty smart.  If they see you making a big deal about something being a “treat” they will start to associate it with something that they should be desiring and they will want more, regardless of whether they really want it or are hungry for it.  And the opposite is true as well.  This is not a healthy relationship with food at all.

That’s it for my introduction to this topic but there is way more to talk about so you will likely see more on it in the future.  In fact, this is something I’m pretty passionate about so you can bet you will see LOTS more about it.  In the meantime, feel free to contact me if you are dealing with a picky eater or want to learn more.

Happy Eating!

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11 comments
  1. MommyIsa

    December 19, 2013 a las 10:10 pm

    Excellent tips, Sarah! Thank you :)

  2. Sarah @ Kids Heart Real Food

    December 19, 2013 a las 10:10 pm

    Thanks so much!

  3. Lex

    December 19, 2013 a las 10:10 pm

    I think I need to print this and pin it up inside one of my cabinets. :)

  4. Real Food Gingerbread Cookies | Kids Heart Real Food

    December 20, 2013 a las 10:10 pm

    […] my last post, I wrote about how important it is to avoid completely restricting your kids from treats and […]

  5. Sarah @ Kids Heart Real Food

    December 20, 2013 a las 10:10 pm

    Me too sometimes :)

  6. Ashley

    December 21, 2013 a las 10:10 pm

    I really enjoyed this post Sarah – thanks for breaking down your strategies one by one. Very interesting concepts.

  7. Sarah @ Kids Heart Real Food

    December 23, 2013 a las 10:10 pm

    Thanks Ashley – glad you enjoyed it!

  8. amanda

    December 27, 2013 a las 10:10 pm

    Sarah please post more on this topic! We are dealing with this with Owen and all have different “opinions” on how to handle it! This sends him mixed messages! More info to share with hubby and Gramma would be sooooo helpful!

  9. Sarah @ Kids Heart Real Food

    December 27, 2013 a las 10:10 pm

    Consistency is very important, but I agree that it gets very tricky once family starts to get involved. Hopefully once you decide how you want to approach this, you can explain it to your family and they will follow your lead. I will definitely be posting more on this as it is such an important topic.

  10. Avocado Cucumber Dip | Kids Heart Real Food

    March 4, 2014 a las 10:10 pm

    […] as adults we can agree that this can get boring after a while.  Plus, since I am a big advocate of set snack times, I want his snacks to be more nutritionally complete by incorporating protein and […]

  11. Elizabeth

    August 29, 2014 a las 10:10 pm

    I’d love to hear how parents of picky eaters deal with planned snack times. That sometimes works for us…up until she doesn’t want to eat at the planned time but does an hour or two later. I know it’s not ideal but I often offer grazing when my daughter is working on a project because it’s sometimes one of the only ways to get her to eat something!