In the last couple of months, I have been lucky enough to be part of a parenting group that meets regularly online, called ‘Happy Parents: Happy Children’ run by Tammy Furey and Sue Lachman. The aim of the group - called ‘Coffee Cup Conversations’ - is to discuss how to become more relaxed, more joyful and more patient with parenting using the 3 Principles approach. This week the conversation moved towards discussing how to cope with fussy eaters and how we can approach any tricky conversations or habits around food with our children. I thought it would be helpful to share some of it with you here.
Food has had quite a high profile in our house for my 8 and 10 year old - with a mum trained as a nutritional therapist it was kind of inevitable. ‘Good’ food choices were really key for me when they were very young and I had chronic fatigue syndrome. My diet became one that was free of sugar, gluten, dairy and any processed foods or chemical additives. Everything was homemade from fresh, whole and usually organic ingredients. The kids reaped the benefit of this healthy eating as did my husband.
My nutritional training and research has made it very evident to me that my predispositions to certain health problems were exacerbated by some of my dietary choices I had made over the years – for example, a family history of eczema and lung problems do not go well with dairy and other mucous forming foods and a high glycaemic index diet does not go well with blood sugar levels issues like diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis. It was for all of these reasons that I wanted to give my children the very best start possible in life with their health.
Food has always been hugely enjoyable to me and that certainly has not changed, even when there were restrictions on what I could eat to support my healing. Gluten, dairy and processed sugars were off the menu for quite a few years. I am not quite so rigid these days as my health is so much better, but I’m also a lot more aware of the effect these foods can have on me if I was to have them regularly and long term. I am also a lot better at listening to what my body finds challenging when it comes to food. There are days where I take more care than others, for example, if I feel the start of a cold coming on sugar and dairy are definitely a ”no”, (dairy is very mucous forming, which is the last thing you need with a cold, and sugar lowers the immune system for quite a number of hours after being consumed, just when you want your immune system to work at peak performance to clear the cold virus quickly).
For many of us food holds all sorts of meaning. Sadly for some children whilst growing up they’ve seen their mothers spend years battling to maintain a desired weight, eating a multitude of different diets and generally not being happy in their own skin. For others food is seen as a comforter and I see no end of clients that have established unhealthy eating patterns from childhood through ‘treat giving’. As a result many adults will indulge in a packet of biscuits or a chocolate bar to give them a feeling at the end of a hard day. A feeling of this kind cannot be obtained from food, what the person is doing is recreating the thought they had that was created by a parent in childhood, and not the actual food itself. Of course, food does have the ability to change a mood chemically too, for example sugar has the ability to give a high burst of energy that is then followed by a drop, which coincides with the blood sugar level drop.
My approach to parenting has been to try and teach rather than tell. During their younger years when their taste palate was forming sugar was limited to natural forms. This has paid dividends now that they are older and dislike foods that are sweetened in a highly processed way. They now self select food in a lot of situations, which I encourage as much as possible without comment, it is interesting to see their own intuition on food choices pop up. If we are not careful as parents, athough we may have the best of intentions, we can corrupt this process and get in the way of their choices, thinking we are helping. Children can go in and out of liking or even loving a specific food one day, to not liking it the next. As parents it is important to take step back and not comment on this behaviour. There are often very good reasons for changes in food tastes that may not be immediately apparent. Two separate incidents immediately come to mind with my son. A couple of years ago he started craving raw carrots like crazy. He would literally eat a bag of raw carrots in a day. I found out soon after that he was deficient in Vitamin A/beta carotene and so the carrot mystery was solved. Similarly he also suddenly went off tomatoes and soon after I found he had high histamine levels, (tomatoes are very high in histamine). I am sure many parents can also relate to times when their kids have not eaten a meal to later discover they were coming down with an illness. Again they know intuitively that the last thing the body wants to be doing when it’s fighting off an illness is to be digesting food.
We all have an inner wisdom or intuition that, when we don’t have a lot of contaminated thinking going on, shows up beautifully as it did with these 2 cases with my son. We have all been subjected to contaminated thinking, just look at the average diet junky. They are so busy trying to gather information from different sources in the aim of finding the health or weight loss they are striving for that they forget that they are completely unique and that their nutritional needs are completely unique. I know I have said this many times before, but there is no ‘one size fits all’. We all have the capacity to tap into our intuition as my son did and as parents we need to be respectful of their food choices for exactly this reason.
For me the danger has always been to enter that anxious place of wanting them to eat in the way I have done the last 10 years and that if they don’t their health may suffer. The three principles approach has really allowed me to take a step back from that and to not ‘give them’ contaminated thinking around food choices. It is also great to see that they are so used to eating what I call ‘clean food’ without additives that they have very high standards around what they want to eat. They recognise the difference in the quality of food they have at home and in different places out and about.
Here are some great tips to help you guide your children when it comes to food without getting in the way of their intuition when it comes to what they need:
1. Involve them in food planning – we sit down every Sunday and plan the meals for the week. You can exercise some guidance by having a good selection of healthy cookbook recipes to choose from. Not only does this take the pressure off having to come up with new and exciting meals all the time, your kids may really surprise you with what they choose. Mediterranean duck salad was one my daughter picked out and was her favourite meal for a while.
2. “You don’t have to eat it” – these words are so important. Not every meal is going to be a success but pressuring your children in to eating something they really don’t like turns mealtimes into an unnecessarily unpleasant battleground. It’s important you don’t then provide them with something else to eat, but equally you have to be okay with saying that they don’t have to eat. If they are extra hungry at their next meal that really is ok, they’re not going to starve in between. You’d be amazed at how many times after saying these words food then gets eaten.
3. No negotiations or bargaining over food – never enter into if you eat ‘x’ then you’ll get ‘y’. This is a sure fire way to create contaminated thinking around food. The classic is "no dessert if you don’t eat your dinner” or “you must eat up your vegetables”. This is the same as using the terms ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food, when it's not about labeling foods black and white.
4. Empower them - If they occasionally want to eat something that you think is unhealthy or they skip the odd meal, then let them. This is a chance for them to learn how they feel eating no so great food choices and what it feels like skipping meals and blood sugar levels drop. This is all part of experimenting with life and learning. By all means discuss with them afterwards if the opportunity presents itself but in a non-judgemental, curious way.
5. Lead by example – it’s how they learn to walk and talk and their food habits are no different. Don’t expect your children to have a healthy attitude to food if you don’t. And a plea for Mums – please don’t make restricted eating and crazy diets the ‘norm’ in your house. Equally don’t make comments about your weight. It is heart-breaking for daughters to see their mothers with a less than healthy attitude to their bodies and the way they love and nourish it.
6. Encourage them to try new foods without pressure – meals that are made up of a few different dishes (weekends are good for this), are a great way to put a selection of food on the dining table for your kids to help themselves. There is something very different about doing this approach to actually asking them what they want and putting it on their plate. You will often find letting them help themselves will lead to them making more daring choices than they would otherwise and therefore trying a more varied selection of food.
If you are interested in checking out the Happy Parents: Happy Children 3 Principles approach then you can find links for the website and Facebook page below: