Why ‘getting your child to eat’ is a bad idea: an introduction to Intuitive Eating for parents
Do you feel like it’s your job to ‘get your child to eat’? It’s an idea that’s deeply ingrained in parenting lore. A kind of unwritten parenting rule, circulating in the ether, that we all seem to absorb. But it's a rule that's worth challenging, because it could be doing more harm than good.
No doubt it’s based on a fundamental parental responsibility: to ensure that we provide our children with enough quantity and quality of food for them to grow and maintain good health. But a responsibility to provide food is not the same as a responsibility to get a child to eat food.
At a profound level there is only one person who can control what a child eats out of the food they have been provided with – and that’s the child themselves.
From an early age, our children instinctively know this. For a weaning baby who’s had enough, their mouth clamps shut, their head turns away, their hands go up. They send a clear message: ‘I don’t want to eat that. It’s my body and I’m in control. That food’s not coming in.’
Those pesky instincts that cause your child to refuse to eat, might be precisely the instincts they need to develop.
We might try and get one more mouthful in, perhaps by playing a game, using a distraction or offering a bribe. And if we succeed, it can give us reason to think that we, the parents, are in control after all. But we’re just kidding ourselves. The bottom line is, no matter what tactic you use to get them to take that extra bite, it was still their choice to eat it.
Realising this and letting go of trying to control something that’s essentially outside of our control, can be a great relief for parents – particularly parents of fussy eaters. It can also be a hugely beneficial step on the road to becoming better ‘eating tutors’ for our children, and ultimately to empowering our children to try new foods and to eat a more balanced and varied diet.
More than that, it’s likely to play an important part in helping our children to have a healthy, lifelong relationship with food. And by this, I mean consistently recognising and respecting their own hunger and fullness cues, feeling relaxed around food, and instinctively eating a variety and balance of foods to nourish their bodies and minds.
In fact, those pesky instincts that cause your child to refuse to eat something you want them to eat, might be precisely the instincts you want them to develop. And helping them to develop and respond to those instincts appropriately, rather than trying to override them, could well be a better long-term strategy for raising a lifelong, healthy eater.
One of the theories behind this thinking is an approach known as Intuitive Eating (IE). It’s an approach that aims to help you to eat what you want, to trust your body to know what it needs to look after your mental and physical health, and to have a positive body image.
If you’re like most adults, Intuitive Eating is a forgotten art that you’ll need to relearn. But even having a better understanding of what it involves and the benefits it might bring, could help you to let go of the ‘get them to eat’ mindset and start to embrace more productive alternatives – for your child, and maybe for yourself too.
An Introduction to Intuitive Eating for Parents
Intuitive Eating provides an alternative to diet culture and a rules-based approach to eating. To give you an idea of what it involves, here are its 10 guiding principles:
1. Reject the diet mentality (it won’t work for most people)
2. Honour your hunger (learn how to respond to your own body’s hunger cues appropriately)
3. Make peace with food (it’s your friend not your enemy)
4. Challenge the food police (your self-worth isn’t tied to what you eat or don’t eat)
5. Respect your fullness (pay attention to your own fullness cues through mindful eating)
6. Discover the satisfaction factor (enjoy what you eat - again, mindful eating is helpful)
7. Honour your feelings without using food (become aware of any emotional eating and develop alternative coping strategies)
8. Respect your body (and learn to enjoy its capability and beauty)
9. Exercise — feel the difference (enjoy movement to feel energised, strong and alive)
10. Honour your health — gentle nutrition (learn which foods really make you feel nourished)
So to eat intuitively is no small undertaking. But the effort could be worth it. Research suggests that learning to eat intuitively may lead to better heart health, better glucose control, better diet quality and variety, less disordered eating, improved weight maintenance, and better psychological health.
Where to start with Intuitive Eating
A good place to start your IE journey, for yourself and your child, is by learning to tune into your ‘interoception’. You can try this right now. Just take a minute to sit and notice what’s going on inside your body:
· Is your heart beating fast or slow?
· Is your breathing deep or shallow?
· Are your muscles tense or relaxed?
Interoception is internal sensation that enables our brains to take care of our bodies’ needs. And it’s central not just to eating, but to thought, emotions, decision making and even our sense of self. So it’s something that’s well worth paying attention to!
Modern life is fabulous at encouraging us to ignore our interoception, though. Need the toilet? (Nope. I can’t get up and leave this meeting.) Need a drink? (Nope. I’m busy replying to this email.) Need to sleep? (Nope. I’m going to watch the next episode on Netflix.) Am I full? (Yes. That advert for chocolate means I’ll eat anyway.)
We often realise that we have been ‘getting ourselves to eat’ in certain ways for years.
One of the ways IE focusses on interoception is in terms of developing our awareness of our own internal fullness and hunger cues. These may be buried under years of unhelpful eating practices that often start in childhood. Anything from ‘making a clean plate’ and ‘not wasting food’, to eating to rules determined by various diets, to eating in response to emotions other than hunger.
And this is where, as parents, we can help our children to tune into and understand the different feelings they experience when we present them with food. By working with our children’s instincts, rather than against them, we can start to create the right environment for implementing a whole host of strategies to support them to become more confident, adventurous and balanced eaters.
To be clear, none of this means that we need to take a permissive approach to our children’s eating. It’s about being effective, and achieving the best, most sustainable results we can – which means working with their feelings about food, in the context of a structured approach to developing their eating competence.
I like to think of it as part of developing a child’s resilience. Once we know how to listen to, understand and respect our own bodies, we’re going to be so much better equipped to look after our health, no matter what life throws at us.
Feeling relaxed around food, talking about food in a helpful way, and enjoying healthy, happy family meals, are all great steps in supporting a child’s eating. But they’re not steps that all parents can take easily. Our own upbringing, cultural influences, and lifetime of experiences around food can mean that it may be hard to parent our children the way we want when it comes to their eating. Which is why, as well as supporting parents with their children’s eating, I also support parents who feel as though their own relationship with food is a barrier to improving their children’s eating.
As adults, one action we can take on the journey towards eating more intuitively, is to examine our own internalised ‘food rules’. Once we do this, we often realise that we have been ‘getting ourselves to eat’ in certain ways for years. Becoming aware of that is the first step in empowering ourselves to make different choices. And as parents, one of those choices is to decide whether we want to hand that ‘getting you to eat’ baton onto our children – or help them to drop it.
Sarah Griffith is a fully qualified and insured family health coach and children’s eating specialist, who helps parents transform their children’s diets and resolve fussy eating. If you’d like to find out more about how she can support you, or if you have any questions about the issues raised in this article, please get in touch by email or DM on instagram.
Thomas, L (2019) Just Eat It. How intuitive eating can help you get your shit together around food. Bluebird, London