Is it time to rewrite your family's food rules?
My two children – now in their teens - couldn’t have been more different when it came to their early eating. The youngest would hoover up practically anything with great gusto. The oldest was far more cautious and – let’s say - “discerning”. At the time, I just accepted this as a reflection of their individual personalities. After all, each of us has different taste preferences. It never occurred to me that perhaps it was also a reflection of other things too – including their own bodies’ individual needs.
What I didn’t know at the time, but what researchers are becoming increasingly certain of now, is that we don’t all metabolise food in the same way. What each of us needs to eat in order to stay as fit and well as possible, is unique to us as individuals. Tim Spector’s excellent book, ‘Spoon-Fed’, delivers this message loud and clear: nutritional guidelines are highly unlikely to be perfectly right for any one of us, and we need to start experimenting with food and getting in touch with how different foods make our bodies feel, “We need to tune into our own body’s needs, and these will change as we age over time. Life is one big experiment.”
This might feel scary at first, particularly if, as parents, we start applying it to our own children. But beating ourselves up about what we think our children ought to be eating can be a recipe for angst, self-recrimination and mealtime conflict. And it’s unlikely to be helping our children develop good, intuitive eating habits either.
Parents under pressure
As parents we’re under pressure from all sides when it comes to feeding our children: the food industry, the health and diet industries, media, government guidelines, others’ opinions, and our own learned beliefs about what is good for our children to eat.
This pressure can turn into food rules: 'you must eat your veg'; 'you can't get down until you've finished what's on your plate'; 'you can't have pudding until you've eaten your main course'. Then there are rules about portion sizes, or what behaviours around food are acceptable, or which foods are 'good for us' and which aren't.
Letting go of any of these rules that aren’t serving you and your child well, and instead building your own feeding confidence and intuition, could make mealtimes a lot less stressful. You could take your family’s wellness into your own hands, stop comparing your child’s eating to others’, and even transform your enjoyment of eating with your children.
It all starts with understanding what works best for you and your children when it comes to feeding and eating.
Ellyn Satter is a veteran child-feeding expert, who has more than 50 years’ clinical experience of research and practice in feeding children. Her pioneering feeding model has become known as the ‘gold standard of child feeding’ in the US. She talks about the wildly changing official advice meted out to parents over the years and recalls the negative impact following this advice had on how she fed her own eldest child. Her conclusion, "A good bit of pain has been created by the need to be controlling of infants' and children's eating."
She goes on to explain, in her book ‘Child of Mine’, that, “If you are being given arbitrary feeding advice, it is by definition, logically unfounded and as a consequence it will only by chance be right for your child and supportive of your relationship. Children will survive and seemingly even thrive on a variety of foods and feeding regimens, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that those regimens are best for them – or for their parents.”
Mapping out a healthy, happy food journey for our children
This doesn’t mean that it's a good idea to eat nothing but junk food on the basis that if you or your children like it, then it must be doing you good. Sadly, we live in a food culture that’s flooded with 'ultra processed' foods that have been designed, through the addition of many industrial processes and added ingredients, to be as palatable as possible. Once we get a taste for them, we want more - or at least in the moment we do. We know that food can have a powerful effect on our health, both mental and physical, and that a diverse diet of whole foods is, generally speaking, the most supportive diet we can eat.
Nor does it mean that if your child only wants to eat a very narrow range of foods – even if they’re healthy foods - that you need to serve them only those foods because it must be what their body is telling them to eat. Children can be cautious about new food for a variety of reasons. But they can also learn to accept new foods – although helping them to do it isn’t always a straightforward task for parents. However, once you find the right approach, one that works for you and your child, they can become more accepting of new foods and start expanding the number and types of foods they want to eat.
And it certainly doesn't mean that we need to be making a different meal for everyone in the family to cater to individual preferences. There's a middle way between expecting everyone to eat everything you make, regardless of whether they like it on the one hand, and making everyone something special on the other. It's this: letting people eat what they want out of what you've made, knowing that you've always included something they'll be happy to eat in what's being offered.
Becoming a content, intuitive eater, whose diet promotes good health, is the ideal destination for every child.
As parents, we’re responsible for guiding our children towards that destination. Most of us make it up as we go along - I know I did. For some the path just happens to be clear and easy. And then there are those who experience a few twists and turns along the way, but nothing that takes them too far off course. For many others, though, the journey feels like a maze of dead ends and wrong turns, with no end in sight. If this is you, it’s just the luck of the draw – it doesn’t make you a bad parent or mean that you’re failing. But if that’s how you feel, please consider asking for help.
I know what it’s like to feel as though you aren’t feeding your child well, and I know the feelings of self-criticism and failure that can come with it. The best advice I can give to anyone in a similar situation is this: don’t let it drag on – life’s too short. Don’t miss out on years of enjoyable meals with your kids and exciting family holidays exploring different cuisines – they could really be some of the best times of your family life, where some of your happiest memories are made. If what you’re doing now isn’t working for you and your child, find a different approach that does. You have an opportunity to rewrite your family's food rules. There is so much love, fun and enjoyment to be had from family meals – grab it while you can.
If you’d like more support to implement any of these approaches, or you have any other questions about your family’s eating that you’d like to discuss, please get in touch - I offer a free initial consultation.
Sarah is a family health coach with a specialism in child feeding. She offers one-on-one and small-group coaching to parents who want to change what their family eats for the better. If you think Sarah might be able to help you with your child's eating, please get in touch and ask for a free initial consultation.
If you’d like to read more about this topic, see Sarah's article on tips to tackle fussy eating.
Satter, E (2000) Child of Mine, Feeding with Love and Good Sense Bull Publishing, Colorado
Spector, T (2020) Spoon-Fed, Why Almost Everything We've Been Told About Food is Wrong, Jonathan Cape, London