One of my least-favorite back-to-school rituals is the Writing of the Lunchbox Note. In it, I politely but firmly request that any adult present while my daughter is eating respect our family's wishes and LEAVE MY KID ALONE WHILE SHE EATS. In other words, do not urge, coax, comment or attempt to bully her into eating more than her body tells her to. I provide her with foods for eating healthy lunches and snacks. The school provides her with (never enough!) time to eat and a table upon which to do so. I trust her to do her part. SHE ALONE is responsible for selecting what and how much to eat and drink.
If you start early by introducing kids to lots of different healthy foods and if you provide a wide range of yummy, healthful options, you've done your part. Now zip it and trust your kids. And what more and more studies are confirming is that if you overinvolve yourselves in your kids' eating process, they'll have a harder time reading their own hunger/fullness cues and will more likely suffer from eating disorders.
This is advice I also follow myself. I let my kid eat in peace. I know this is a challenging position for many. But today I am pleased to announce yet another study whose results strongly show that the more parents (particularly mothers and grandmothers) force their kids to eat and are generally overinvolved in their kids' and grandkids' eating process, the more unhealthy the kids become, especially in later life.
Want your kids to make healthy eating choices? Butt out.
Again, what's the take-away lesson?
Moms: Stay out of the conversation between your young kids and their eating. Offer healthy foods and then ZIP IT or they will not make healthy food choices and have a far higher chance of being obese later in life.
That, in a nutshell, is the official advice of experts studying the impact of "maternal parenting behaviors" on what kids eat, how much kids eat and if they end up obese. While it's true, they're always trying to blame us moms for everything, in this case, the official expert advice is to leave your children and grandchildren alone to make their own food choices. Why? Because the bottom line of an increasing amount of research is this: The more meddling and controlling the mom is about what and how much kids eat, the fatter the kids are and the fewer healthy choices they make.
Here's what you need to know about your kids and food:
One of my favorite things about this research is that it means I get to say I TOLD YOU SO!!!
In the post Kids and Food: Stop Forcing My Daughter to Eat! I describe my endless efforts to protect my daughter's sacred relationship between herself and her body, her appetite, her hunger, her ability to self-regulate. If you want to read a copy of my Lunch box Note, it's in here, too.
Since becoming a parent my food policy has been to provide healthy options at regular intervals, to model a healthy relationship with food and then let the kid decide what and how much she eats or doesn't eat.
Kids and a healthy eating philosophy
My philosophy is simple: Food is neither reward nor punishment. It is simply fuel for your body. You are not being "good" when eating certain things, nor are you being "bad" while eating others. You make choices, you eat when your body signals hunger and stop when your body signals fullness. You do not let yourself wait so long that you feel "starving" nor do you stuff yourself until you feel sick. You listen to your body's signals and respect them. And you spend some time each day moving your body in some way. That's my whole philosophy.
Fight the Clean Plate Club
This is not the standard parenting operating procedure regarding food, alas, and so I have had to do battle with a wide range of Clean Plate Club types and "you must eat six more green beans, two bites of blah blah and three sips of blah to deserve ice cream."
Over and over I try to explain to camp counselors, parents of friends, lunch ladies, teachers, babysitters, well-meaning family members that when you force a child to eat beyond her fullness, when you monitor her every bite, when you comment constantly on what and how she's eating, when you use food as bait/carrot/stick/reward/punishment/weapon, you are disengaging her from the absolutely crucial relationship she has with her own body. You are drowning out the utterly necessary signals she must listen to in her body so she - and only she - can healthfully regulate her own eating.
Once you disrupt that relationship, once you disconnect that connection, (especially as learned, patterned behavior in childhood), it's incredibly hard to get it back.
Overparenting how your kids eat
Research shows that disrupting your kids' internal dialogue with their bodies can result in a wide range of disordered eating - anorexia, bulimia, obesity, overeating, anxious eating etc....
So it is with great fanfare that I present the latest in a long line of research confirming this idea. The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior has announced, in their weightily-titled article "Maternal Parenting Behaviors during Childhood Relate to Weight Status and Fruit and Vegetable Intake of College Students" the following:
"Results: "Mothers' psychological control during childhood was associated with higher body mass index and waist circumference in students, and behavioral control was associated with lower waist circumference. Parent-centered feeding behaviors related to lower fruit and vegetable intakes of students, whereas child-centered feeding behaviors related to higher fruit and vegetable intakes."
"Conclusions and Implications: "Findings suggest that parental use of behavioral control and child-centered feeding practices and minimal use of psychological control and parent-centered feeding practices during childhood may promote a child's healthful weight status and fruit and vegetable consumption in young adulthood, specifically during college."
Experts: Kids and Food
Ann Douglas, a columnist who wrote about the research, breaks down the jargon here:
"Your 6-year-old is scowling at the veggie platter you just placed in the middle of the dinner table. Should you (a) tell him you won't be able to sleep tonight if he doesn't try at least three veggies from the platter; (b) say nothing; (c) encourage (but not pressure) your child to try something; (d) load up your own plate and comment about how yummy everything is; (e) work some food and nutrition chit chat into your family's dinnertime conversation?
No pressure, moms and dads, but how you handle the Great Veggie Standoff (and other fruit- and veggie-related skirmishes over the years) could determine how much your 6-year-old weighs by the time he heads off to college and how often he chooses to consume fruits and vegetables during his college years. That's the conclusion of a study to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
The researchers concluded that encouraging children to make their own decisions about eating (so-called child-centered feeding practices — option c in our quiz above) as opposed to trying to exert control over children's choices (parent-centered feeding practices — option a in our quiz) tend to promote healthier eating habits over the long term."
Read more about healthy parenting, eating disorders and body image issues in tweens, teens and college students: