Nurturing Their Bodies Without Losing Our Minds
Feeding our children sounds as basic and instinctual to parenting as loving them. But from the often surprising struggles with breastfeeding, to the mixed messages around how to be “healthy,” feeding our children has become another land mine of parenting anxiety. Balancing experts and science with reality, I offer ways we can all nurture our children’s bodies without losing our minds.
From before we actually give birth, how we will feed our children occupies us. The dream of the magic of breastfeeding often becomes a painful, fraught reality of stress and worry, not helped by some misleading headlines about the benefits of breast milk over formula.
For those who do primarily nurse, daily life revolves around baby’s feeding schedule, pumping sessions, and anxiety about having enough milk. I will never forget how excited I was to introduce solids to my first child because it represented relieving me of being 100% body and soul responsible for her nourishment.
Experience quickly replaced naivete as I realized giving my child rice cereal and sweet potato puree had its own set of anxieties. Three spoonfuls made it in her mouth: was she getting enough? How much was I damaging her to buy my food at Target instead of pureeing it in my own blender? Will she turn orange if the only veggies she likes are carrots and sweet potatoes?
In our culture hyperfocused on quinoa and kombucha while also offering supersize sodas and fried chicken doughnut “sandwiches,” feeding our children remains stuffed with guilt when making choices at each age and stage of development.
It doesn’t help that childhood obesity has been branded a public health crisis, which means pediatricians are on the alert in young child visits, as are we. I hear stories of pediatricians suggesting 3-year-olds watch their food intake, which brings up all kinds of fears from their mothers, who also worry that over-focusing on food because of weight may cause a lifetime of eating and body image issues.
So between social and cultural pressures, misleading information, and medical alarms, what are we actually supposed to do?
“Expert Tips” Meet Reality
Let’s start with the task of determining what “healthy relationship with food” or “healthy eating” even mean. In all my research on food and feeding kids, as a mother and as a professional, I keep it simple:
A nutritious diet – enough fruits, veggies, protein, and “good” fat to give my children vitamins and energy (carbs never seem to be a problem!)
Eating when hungry and stopping when full – knowing their actual hunger cues rather than social cues for eating
·Viewing food as fuel for the body that is also enjoyable
When I scanned online articles that popped up first in my search, I realized this seems to be another area of parenting full of aspirational tips that likely leave many of us feeling like we are clearly failing.
I found myself talking back to many of the cheerfully worded strategies. Offer nutritious snacks like low-fat string cheese or peanut butter and crackers! I DO and they don’t want them. And I don’t want to start their transition from school to home with a fight that derails making dinner. So bowls of goldfish it is . . .
Track how often they are actually having pizza and other treats – it’s probably more than you think! I KNOW. But those things are everywhere – birthday parties, potlucks, ice cream trucks. I also worry that saying “no” so often may do something else we are cautioned against – making certain foods taboo, which increases their appeal.
Once again, well-meaning expertise clashes with parenting reality.
To start, let’s get real about family mealtimes. The kids don’t want to eat what we prepare. We stress they will not get enough food. We start negotiations. Mealtime turns into anything but intuitive, enjoyable eating.
I love the dietitian bible for feeding children, Ellyn Satter’s Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. For years, our family has followed her philosophy as closely as possible, but we still fall prey to power struggles. No matter the advice across sources to include dessert with dinner, we just can’t bring ourselves to put a cookie on the plate next to the carrots, grapes, and chicken.
Our 4-year-old is the master of food refusal, and I humbly admit we have made very little progress in a year of dealing with his dinner shenanigans. Even though we have so far succeeded at prioritizing sit-down family meals most nights, we still live the hectic day-to-day routines that seriously challenge mindful eating of nutritious foods for every snack and meal.
So he sits night after night, eating the fruit on his plate and sometimes the veggies, and picking at the entrée as we go into a standoff about “just one bite” and “you need more than that in your body!” And then our heads spin as we get up from dinner to clean the kitchen and he says, “I’m hungry.”
Despite our best — and very exhausting — efforts, are we failing our mission to feed our children well, now and in the future?
What Does Science Say?
Does research back up our parenting fears? Probably the biggest concern I hear is that too much oversight and restriction of a child’s eating sets her up for actually having worse eating habits. It sounds like common sense: we all know that telling ourselves “I’m going to stop eating carbs!” makes us want that huge bowl of delicious pasta even more.
Yet, it doesn’t seem right to let our kids’ desires run wild either. Isn’t it our job as their parents to help their developing brains make good choices? Candy, cake and ice cream simply gets our dopamine going in a way that kale and baked fish do not.
Well, to summarize the gestalt of the research on how parenting affects child Body Mass Index (BMI), there are two key factors: moderation and child characteristics. (Note: *BMI can be a controversial measure of “health,” but it is the objective measure used by researchers, and has real-world implications as pediatricians rely on it to at least monitor eating behaviors on both ends of the growth curve.)
The extremes of a highly indulgent parenting approach (eg, no limits on food choices) and highly controlling parenting approach (zero candy allowed!) resulted in higher child BMI and more desire and intake for the taboo foods, respectively, across multiple studies.
The most effective approach falls under the authoritarian parenting style, which includes having expectations for following a healthy diet, and setting limits on certain foods. In fact, some studies found a protective effect of monitoring food intake, possibly due to the parent being involved and aware of their child’s eating habits.
Also, as every parent knows (cue eye-roll to researchers stating the obvious) – what works depends on the child. Many of the findings suggesting restricting food was bad for kids, could have been an effect of parents responding to concerns about their child’s weight and health rather than parenting behaviors CAUSING higher BMI.
On the flip side, parent “pressure” to eat was more likely for fussy children whose parents had concerns about them getting enough food to grow. These studies actually suggested that parent pressure predicted healthier status years later.
My take-home from a somewhat cursory look at recent research is that we need to be in tune with our kids, their vulnerabilities and habits, and modify our approach based on that. Some kids are more impulsive than others and may need more limit-setting; some kids may be more sensitive to food textures at young ages and need more monitoring and encouragement. Because since when is parenting a one size fits all model?
The final “duh” part of the science – there are MANY factors affecting a child’s eating habits and attitudes toward food. Parents matter, but parenting styles and strategies are constantly interacting with other influences.
It’s Not Just Us
Our culture has a pretty dysfunctional relationship with food and eating. We have grown up in that culture, and now we try to parent within it. I mean, we have outlandish offerings like cheeto fried chicken sandwiches, AND a booming diet industry telling us not to touch all the tasty foods.
In my research review, there were more studies on the negative impact of marketing on children’s eating habits than parenting approaches.
I recently read a book about how the lightning speed changes in our environments over the last few hundred years mean a risky mismatch with our body’s evolutionary changes, which move much more slowly. The bottom line is our bodies were designed to crave and consume starch and sugar because they were such a rarity in hunter-gatherer days; they provided important energy we needed to go long periods with just nuts and berries.
Of course, now starch and sugars make up a huge proportion of our daily diet, and we live in a state of energy surplus. This basically means constantly taking in more energy than we use, especially as our daily activity level is MUCH lower than walking miles every day. But we are designed to WANT and load up on what is now in plenty supply. Our bodies haven’t adjusted yet to this mismatch, which results in problems like the pancreas not processing all the sugar, hence Type 2 Diabetes (as just one example).
What Do We DO?
So the pace of evolution is as much under my control as the ice cream truck rolling up on the corner to ensure a battle between my kids and me. (Every time I hear that music . . . )
First things first, let’s all take a deep breath and think about what we might be doing well (focus on the positive!). My oldest child has a very adventurous palate . . . even after spitting out all non-orange Target veggie purees as a baby. The ornery 4-year-old apparently eats seconds and thirds at preschool for lunch. My middle child will actually stop eating mid-desert to say she’s full.
Some realistic tips I’ve gleaned as a plain old Mom (in case it wasn’t clear, I am NOT a dietitian or pediatrician):
Instead of talking about “good” or “bad” foods, or even “healthy” or “unhealthy” foods, talk about what foods DO for the body – I tell my kids salmon helps their brains think better (the fats boost brain function, apparently), vegetables give them vitamins, protein gives them energy and strength, and too much sugar can make their stomachs hurt.
Moderation. It’s probably easiest to minimize certain junk foods if they are just not in the house, but it’s not realistic to outlaw all access to all junk foods. So set some limits, but without full bans.
When a child says they are finished with their food or want more food, it can start a good habit of self-checking to ask “do you feel full?” or “do you feel hungry?” instead of projecting our own expectations of how they must be overeating or not eating enough based on what we see on their plates.
Involve the children in cooking and preparing food. Okay – I rolled my eyes at this one too, but it does get easier as they get older. In my family, I think it has added to their appreciation for and enjoyment of food.
*Find a compilation of even more specific guidance (even some recipes) in the resource list below.
Unfortunately, there is no meal plan for parenting, no straightforward solutions on Pinterest to feeding our children well. It’s trial and tribulation, and as changeable as their fickle appetites. Yet looking at my own children reminds me all hope is not lost (I’ll get back to you in a couple years about the youngest).
The bottom line is that once again, moderation in parenting wins! Limits and monitoring are good; total restriction or absence of limits is not. Just like any of us grown-ups actually trying to follow our own plans for “healthy” eating.
10 ways to raise a healthy eater, Harvard health blog
How to Raise a Kid with a Good Relationship to Food, Fatherly.com
Baby-Led Feeding, Real Baby Food, Smoothie-Licious, Jenna Helwig (The first 2 books I wish I had in the baby and toddler years!)