As we embark on (another) indulgent and calorific Christmas, Mam Cymru is pleased to share this useful and brilliant article sent in by Rebecca Storch, which shares lots of tips and ideas about how to promote healthy eating in our family homes, as well as encouraging a good and happy relationship with food.
Raising Healthy Eaters.
I set up Eat Happy / Bwyta Hapus to help people get back into balance with food. Many having wandered down the long and winding (and very boring) path of calorie counting, syn counting, food journaling of every mouthful they consume. Where this path usually ends up is in frustration, either by completely losing faith in themselves or not knowing what the heck to eat anymore.
And that’s just for the individuals who have an only ‘slightly’ poor relationship with food and eating – others go way off course, and only consume a small fraction of acceptable foods, having almost a fear of new tastes, or have never learned some basic understanding of eating – a food education if you like, which leaves them either overweight, underweight or starving for nutrition.
We wouldn’t want our children to go down these paths – some of which are familiar to us. What would we like our children to be able to do when food becomes something they have more choice and direction over?
I’m betting most of us would like our children to be able to feel completely happy in what they eat, knowing how to balance out nutrients naturally (without it being the main focus of their meals), a feeling of being at home with moderation and balance, an enjoyment of cooking, and ultimately living a life where feeling taken care of, comforted or treated doesn’t mean a night time raid in the fridge, and never ending stuffing, stuffing, stuffing.
I work in the field of addiction within Public Health Wales, and I’ll say at this point that I’m not a mother. I have two amazing step children, and have worked with kids for many years (as a nanny, forest school leader, youth worker etc.).
Along the way, with my interest and education in food, addiction and habits – I have picked up how easy it is for us to unwittingly point our children in the direction of bingeing, or not knowing what constitutes a healthy diet or having a poor relationship to food.
How can we raise healthy eaters – both nutritionally healthy and with a healthy mind-set?
- The Food On Their Plates
The actual food on children’s plates is only ever up to the adult in charge. Be that broccoli and potato pie, or white bread tuna sandwiches. What you serve, is up to you only. Especially when the child is under 3 or 4. How much is eaten, is however, up to the child. Wanting to see the children finish their meal makes grown-ups feel comforted that their food was good and that the child will not starve to death. This is understandable. But as long as the food in general (not just on the plate, and on that day) is well rounded out in a variety of ingredients and how they are cooked, then children will not starve nutritionally. Let the child eat until they feel comfortably full. Encourage children to try foods by not lifting the fork to their mouth, but to say “we all try new foods here”. It’s a blanket statement then creates an expectation of behaviour around food. If the child doesn’t try it, try not to get too upset. A child can take up to 15 tries of a food to like it, but to try it in the first place means the food should be presented in lots of different ways; mashed, steamed, boiled, plain, in sauce, with seasoning, in a dish. You might not like those fried mushrooms in breakfast dishes, but accept them in a sauce or with pasta.
In m experience, children and choice goes like this – the riskier, or more weighty the consequence of a choice, and the more people it impacts; the less the child should be allowed to make that decision. Sounds obvious when you think of things like crossing the road, or deciding when to go to bed even. But things like choosing a teddy or a dinosaur to go to school with is fine for a kid to decide. But food often creates a blurry line on this boundary. People can forget that today is not the only day for that child, there will be a tomorrow and an adult life ahead. So letting a child choose their own meal today, means choosing their own diet tomorrow, and their own habits for life.
2. What to feed the child?
Children eat smaller portions of most adult foods. And that’s it really. If your diet is poor, then so will your children’s. Don’t go for ‘kid’s food’, just make ‘food food’.
If you get confused, imagine a line in your mind. On the far end sits laboratory created franken-food (coco cola, most ready-made meal ingredients, oddly coloured biscuits) and on the other side are natural foods; grapes, carrots, etc. In the middle there’s a whole range of foods from ever so slightly processed rolled oats, towards one side and then white bread might sit on the more processed side. Simply aim to choose more food towards the natural end of the scale, and less (if any) food, on the very furthest side.
How do you know if what you are buying or making sits towards the over-processed side of this scale?
Ask yourself some questions:
1: When reading a convenience food, ask yourself; “Do I have any of these ingredients in my pantry at home? And would I even know where to get them, or even what to do with them if I had them?”
2: For what it is, does it have too many ingredients?
For a shepherd’s pie, you’d expect a fair few ingredients. But does there seem like overkill? In sushi that I make at home, I have about 5 ingredients in there – in shop sushi there’s often up to 30 or more ingredients. Add this fact to the above question and you’ll know if it sits on one end or the other.
3. What are your food structures?
We are a bit of a culture of ‘snackers’. But why? My theory is that we eat such sugary and over processed food, our bodies are on a constant insulin roller coaster – which means, we feel very hungry often. Our food is fibre-free and nutrition, or wholesomeness free. Meaning we are hungry for goodness. This means it’s hard to go between meals without food. We seem to fear starvation. Nothing bad comes from being a bit hungry. Children actually cope with it better than grownups! As long as you have fibre-ful food (read: whole and real) then you will feel full. The same goes for kids. They can go from breakfast to lunch usually quite easily. A structured snack at around 4pm means they can then wait to eat food with the family. Snacking means that kids are more exposed to sugar and chemicals, and the habits they are learning into adulthood is that they have to keep hunger at bay. This isn’t the healthiest mind-set. If they don’t snack, then they are ready to eat their food at the proper times of the day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. Another structure is where food is eaten. Keep your car clean and eat at the dinner table! Not in front of the telly, in the pushchair or out walking. Not that you can never do these, of course. But consider that these are times to enjoy the actual experience, not to eat with them too. You’ll probably be saying ‘that’s boring!’ but this is something that you are feeling challenged with as you may seek comfort from food when you are out and about too.
This comes down to having a good attitude to food yourself, if you aren’t willing to try something green and crunchy, then teach yourself in what way will you accept that flavour and texture, and use that experience to help your children. You need to take responsibility that poor nutrition is dangerous. If you aren’t willing to eat a variety of foods, then you need to accept that this can be harmful to your child. This week on the BBC, Louis Theroux talked to anorexics. From poor nutrition they lost their fingernails, hair and sometimes eyesight and hearing. I’m not saying that this is what will happen to your child! Not at all, in fact, humans are amazingly resilient in the face of poor nutrition. But this isn’t always a laughing matter. Just eating chips isn’t always funny.
Remember that you are the person who protects the child. Be assertive and calm, you are okay as you are. You have the amazing ability to comfort with hugs and understanding, not biscuits. Give yourself some respect and a well-deserved pat on the back. When a child falls, or is poorly, just be there and stroke their heads and apply a warm flannel and a kiss. Your child wants you in these instances, yup ‘just’ you. If you give a biscuit in this instance, perhaps they learn that you (a.k.a ‘their world’) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
You are far more capable and strong than you think. You are a grownup, who can go through life and has many life lessons and wisdom to impart. Be that person to your child. This firm, kind, wise and strong person. This is a person who makes meals when they can, and believes they are good enough, and does not cook to order after a rejected meal. You have better things to do, I’m sure! You are the one keeping the outlook for the family, keeping the big picture in view, like a boss, but you are kind and understanding too. Firmness is not cruelty. Letting a child feel the natural consequence of not eating means to know what an empty belly feels like, and there’s always going to be a new meal tomorrow.
If you want more tips on how to get your kids to eat better, let me know and I’ll write what I’ve learned for you.
All the best!
About Rebecca Storch
Rebecca created Eat Happy / Bwyta Hapus to help people feel much happier with their eating! Having experienced disordered eating for many years and realizing that dieting and wanting to be slim weren’t making her happy, she decided to change. She now blogs, runs workshops and talks to share what she learned to help others to stop dieting and finally, eat happy!
By Heulwen Davies, Mam Cymru.