I am not an expert in feeding children. But I am a parent who has to feed her children every day. I want to offer a few resources on how to feed children from those who know more than I, plus some perspective from someone who has heard countless stories about how a person's eating experience as a child shaped their relationship to food and their body as adults (and not in a good way).
This post was inspired by one cherry.
I was out with my kids the other day and we brought with us a bag of fresh cherries. A child playing with my kids asked their parent if they could have some and the parent said no - they weren't his cherries. A little while later, the child asked again, can I have some cherries? One, you can have one cherry, said his parent.
Barely containing my inner eye roll, I had to ask, "are your kids allergic to cherries?" The response was no - but since there was were so many parties at the end of the school year, with lots of food, the kids had to "get back on track" and the "free for all" had come to an end.
Oh my. If this isn't an eating disorder waiting to happen, I don't know what is. How did our society come to normalize disordered eating? When did we lose trust that our kids can listen to their bodies when it comes to food?
How are we eroding their trust in their own bodies?
When did we start counting cherries?
I get it. We don't want our kids snacking all day and losing a connection to their own hunger and fullness. We don't want them eating out of boredom. We don't want them using food as a crutch when they need something else. We don’t want them having an emotional attachment to food as their only coping mechanism to stress.
But our bodies are extremely smart and they know that if we eat more on occasion than usual, how to handle that situation.
How can we help children develop trust rather than micromanage them and override their bodies signals? One of the biggest ways is when we have trust in ourselves and then model that for our children.
In addition, my go-to resources for feeding children are Ellyn Satter, Leslie Schilling, and Katja Rowell.
I am the most familiar with Ellyn and have discussed her work with dietitians on numerous occasions. I employ her division of responsibility with my own children too.
The division of responsibility says - you provide the food at certain times and the kids decide what and how much they want to eat. You don't use food as reward or punishment. You don't use foods to bribe or alleviate boredom. And your child's body will grow and it will be the size it's meant to be. This may be bigger than average or smaller than average or average- but this is not your concern or in your control.
On the one hand, when the parent said no to the cherry, they were saying it was not snack time or mealtime yet. But rather than ask if the child was hungry, the answer was an immediate no. Rather than allow for flexibility, there was rigidity and control at play.
What is wrong with allowing the cherries in a situation where it was highly unlikely they were going to ruin their appetite for a meal and it was not an incident of mindless snacking? What is wrong with having food also be a pleasurable experience?
A fresh cherry on a summer's afternoon?
I suppose what bothered me the most was the control that parent exerting on the eating experience. The child in question was almost a teenager. How was the parent teaching them that they could trust their own body?
If a child doesn't develop a sense of hunger and fullness and only eats or stops eating because a parent says to, or who isn't offered a wide variety of foods, that is likely going to be the child who does overindulge at year-end school parties when finally given the opportunity to choose.
And if the child isn't free to enjoy a few cherries on a summer's day, I can only imagine what the food experience is at home.
If you give a man a fish, you will feed him for a day, but If you teach him to fish you will feed him for a lifetime.
Likewise, if you give a child a cookie after they see it in the store and beg you, you will satisfy them for a moment, but if you offer cookies regularly and normalize eating a wide variety of foods you will inspire normal guilt-free peaceful eating for a lifetime.
It's highly likely this parent also had weight concerns for their child. Here is another blog post to refer to if you want to hear what I would really like to tell parents about their children's weight.
In the meantime consider, what are you afraid of when you want to say no to a child's food request? How might it empower the child to say yes?
Are your boundaries in place to help make the child a competent eater? Or to restrict the child for fear that their body will be something you don't want it to be?
Setting arbitrary limits often leaves children wanting more - without them even knowing why. You end up creating the very food and body situations you are wanting to avoid.
I'm curious, how did your eating experience as a child shape your current relationship with food and your body?