Updated: Mar 13, 2020
Food and eating are one of those areas that can become complicated and heated. Patterns can be set up for life that don’t always serve our kids in the most supportive way. In this article, the area of food and eating is explored a little.
Using food for things other than just to nourish
When it comes to basics, food is there to nourish us and provide all that we need to physically grow. Using food for any other purpose such as rewards, bribes or treats shows our children that food is something that can be used for reasons other than just to nourish. It can be so tempting to offer a pack of something to while away a car journey, to keep them quiet, cheer them up, prevent an anger tantrum, etc. Using food as treats for when they’ve done what was expected of them may seem like a good idea at the time, but it communicates a message that food is there to reward, treat, calm, etc. This can contribute to having issues with their relationship with food later in life. Of course, it’s normal to want to soothe or keep our kids occupies sometimes; finding something that isn’t edible may be a bit more challenging but can serve them in their adult life. And, of course, if a child is hungry, they need to eat!!
Spending time together at the meal table
Having family meals is great. All sorts of important lifeskills are learnt by children when a family sit down around a communal table and share the eating experience together. Learning how to share, wait, pass things, share conversation, accommodating others needs, are just a some of these. Even if this can’t happen every day, doing it occasionally is great. Even if all of you can’t be present, it can still make a difference to give children their meals sitting down at a table and if you can sit with them whilst they eat, to chat and keep them company, even better, even when they’re small. Putting the food on a plate and sitting down to eat means they begin to build habits that will last them a lifetime. Eating on the go, quickly, without paying much attention to the food can lead to unhelpful habits later in life.
Should I plate up or let them help themselves?
Rather than giving your child what you think represents the ‘correct’ amount, try experimenting with putting the food on serving plates and letting them help themselves, providing they’re able to do so. This can be very helpful when children are going through a phase where they are only eating certain types of food. By taking the tussle and fight out of food and letting them be in charge of choosing, they may well surprise you and choose to eat foods they usually refuse. It might take a bit of time… so you may need to be patient. It also teaches them about appetite and portion sizes. They learn to decide how much they need and help themselves accordingly, another very useful skill which many adults can often lack.
Providing choice over when and what to eat.
Children are excellent intuitive eaters. Left to make their own choices over a long enough period of time, they know exactly what they want and how much they need. When there are lots of forbidden foods (the usual sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, etc.) they will often go for those, not because they particularly love them, but because they are forbidden and as a result, are seen as ‘special’. As an experiment, try restricting cherry tomatoes or another type of vegetable and using them solely as a treat and see what happens! Anything they can’t have… they want with a vengeance. Let a child choose freely and she’s as likely to ask for cucumber as chocolate. I know this sounds hard to believe and only children who have always been left to choose are so in tune with their bodies, that they do it for real. Having a variety of foods available and letting them choose, experiment and even get it wrong will teach them about their own likes and dislikes rather than us making those important decisions for them. It may require you to hold back your comments, but it will be worth it in the long term.
Should I force my child to finish what’s on the plate?
Children will not let themselves starve. If they are hungry, they will eat; as long as it has not become a sticking point between you. Sometimes it’s the only way a child can demonstrate their power, it’s one of the only things that we can’t force them to do. If you’re child has had enough, don’t force her to eat it all up and finish what’s on her plate. Trust that she knows. The best thing we can teach our children is how to regulate their intake of food and STOP when they’ve had enough. If they discover they were wrong, they can always come back to it later or have a quick easy snack.