It’s no surprise that the habits we acquire in childhood stick with us into adulthood. For better or for worse, the lessons most often reinforced are the ones that continue to shape our behavior as we grow.
There are few places where this is as pronounced (and as difficult to change) as our relationship with food. Being an integral part of surviving, and an intricately woven part of our cultural and social identities, eating is so much more than cubes on a plate or mouthfuls on a fork.
What we eat, when we eat, where we eat, and why are all intricately connected to how our perception of ourselves, and our perception of the world. As parents, the interactions we facilitate between children and food till the soil for lifelong healthy habits. This can matter more than the specific nutrient breakdown of what we provide. (Although a curious palate is never a bad thing!)
The root of this conversation starts with our own adult relationship with food and our own personal habits surrounding it. We bring our own beliefs about the importance and role of food to every eating experience, so becoming clear on why and how we do what we do it essential to teaching the lessons that will best serve our little ones.
Think for a moment about what informs your relationship with food. How would you describe it? Do you eat for fuel? To be comforted? To be entertained? As a reward? Are you connected to your body’s signals of hunger, satiety, thirst, and exhaustion? (Can you tell the difference between these?) Do you have a good grasp of the foods that work best for you and which ones make you feel lousy?
These are the kinds of things we have the opportunity to teach children each and every time they are fed. By asking the right questions and introducing foods in an intentional, educational way, we can allow them to connect with the effect of food on not only their bodies, but their minds as well.
There are a number of things to consider when it comes to building a lifelong healthy attitude towards food. These include:
As caregivers, we choose the types of foods to introduce to children, which shape their preferences as they grow. A child fed primarily sugary or starchy foods will come to use these as the yard stick against which they compare all other foods. Being consistent with offering a range of foods can help little ones develop an openness to new tastes and textures, and prevent battles at the dinner table.
How do you describe food to your little ones? Are there foods that are labeled “good” and “bad” (in other words, ‘worth liking’ and ‘should be tolerated but not enjoyed’?) When we assign qualifiers like this to food, it can create negative associations with healthy options and an imbalanced desire for the less-healthy options. Finding alternative language – using ‘fueling’ or ‘growing’, for instance – to talk about foods can shift the connection little ones form around them.
Reason for Eating
When food is provided outside of a regular eating context like mealtimes or snack times, and instead is provided as a reward or a punishment (“You will not leave the table until you have eaten your green beans”), children can come to associate reward, punishment, guilt, and love with what they consume. Instead, we can do our best to regulate eating so that it is centered around family time and nourishment, strengthening these bonds instead.
Did you belong to the “Clean Plate Club” when you were growing up? Children – like animals - have an impeccable ability to tell when they are hungry and when they are full; that is, until we get in the way. Requiring kids to finish every last bite can actually be detrimental to their health and their relationship with food in the long run. Instead, we can explore how to give kids the flexibility to decide how much they’d like to eat by offering a variety of foods in the consistent structure mentioned above. It is unlikely they will be malnourished. Focusing on a diverse diet will cover their nutritional needs while building a connection to internal cues.
Think back on the formation of your own habits again: how many meals and snacks did you have each day? What were they comprised of? What were your favorite foods as a child? Which do you prefer now? Did something change?
Now think ahead to what you’d like your child’s habits to look like in the future. Childhood is the time to establish the practices that will have the most lasting impact: reinforcing these habits each day will allow your little one’s relationship with food to develop along with them.