Raising children with a balanced approach to food is the aim to provide them with the opportunity to have a satisfying relationship with eating and a sense of self-trust and freedom in their relationship with food. Children take on a lot of the information we tell them, and often learn by seeing and doing what their role models do!
You may do everything right and still end up with a child who can be fussy around food. That’s okay! Take that pressure off yourself. Remember fussy eating is a normal developmental stage, as children become and gain independence, they learn to be more skeptical of unfamiliar tastes.
Intuitive eating is a guided process that takes people with any form of not normal eating to normal eating. Naturally, we all eat normally, it is just when the messages from outside sources (i.e diet culture) create noise that sometimes people get confused.
Intuitive eating aims to unpack the reasons why someone may not eat normally. This can show up in many ways, because what even is normal eating? From an intuitive eating perspective, normal eating is listening to your body and feeding yourself enough to satisfy your needs when you are hungry, and eating regularly (every 4-6 hours, with 3 meals and 2 to 3 snacks per day). Normal eating allows you to choose foods that you like and eat them until you are satisfied. Sometimes normal eating because you are happy, sad and bored or because the food tastes amazing. Normal eating allows you to be flexible and varies in response to your hunger levels, your schedule, your feelings and experiences. Most importantly, no foods are off limits with this practice, because you have the tools to let yourself eat a satisfying quantity of food to meet your needs.
Intuitive eating approach follows ten principles that guide the process to provide an evidenced framework for individuals and health professionals to use. This practice encourages individuals to have self-awareness, building the ability to perceive physical sensations that arise from within ourselves and focus on being present in the moment. Building self-awareness is key for our physical and mental health. And can help you ‘eat normally’ by honouring your cravings and fueling
There’s a pressure to raise perfect eaters and due to diet culture, we are taught there is a right or wrong way to eat. Children don’t understand nuance and see things in black and white. Using food as treats or rewards can be a confusing message. Children may not understand, when adults tell them a food is ‘unhealthy’ or ‘naughty’, they could interpret this as they are ‘naughty’ or ‘unhealthy’ for eating those cakes or biscuits. When this food is offered to them, like at parties or at home, it can be a hard message to understand. ‘Does the parent who is offering me this naughty food, think I am naughty?”. This puts food on a pedestal, causing restricted food to seem more appealing and exciting, meaning that kids may want to eat more of it. This may potentially lead to picky eating, sneaking or stealing food or overdoing it when they eat. As well as eating for comfort, and in the long term can be a risk factor for the development of disordered eating. Using appropriate language and attitudes towards food and aiming to remove the good vs bad message can support a healthy relationship around all foods.
Through these confusing messages around certain food items, children may never learn how to manage these foods and navigate them with confidence and competence. This could lead to overconsumption or underconsumption, which may lead to unnecessary stress on the children. Providing easy to access and nutritious snacks such as fresh fruit or vegetables, crackers and hummus, nuts, seeds and cheese can provide readily available options for when your child is hungry between meals.
When introducing new foods to children, research shows it could take up to 20 exposures to the food before children may accept it as a food to try. This is normal and healthy. It’s important to use a variety of foods to teach children about colours, textures, and patterns, whilst taking the focus off the nutrient and health elements as this can add pressure. When your child is adamantly having a standoff about eating ‘X’ food, do not bribe them or cajole them. We all want children to have lifelong positive relationships with foods, which is what they deserve. With this one, you are in for the long game.
Take a relaxed approach, and incorporate the foods away from the plate. Allowing the children to get involved with the food shop, meal planning, preparing the food, cooking, and cleaning up. It teaches them essential skills and encourages them to be involved with the food decisions. It can be fun playing with all foods and this allows the children to be comfortable with the variety of foods available.
Staying calm and relaxed around the food can help children do the same. They want to feel independent with their choices. Giving them trust and education around food choices can help them make their own decisions on what they put in their bodies. Children have an innate ability to listen to their needs and self-regulate their food intake that is suitable for their growth and development.
Children don’t belong on diets. When given the message to lose weight, children can suffer from poorer wellbeing and dysfunctional eating. Diets are the strongest predictor for the future development of an eating disorder. Weight gain is normal, children need to grow outwards before they can go upwards (i.e gain height). Their bodies need to lay down essential fat stores for their health and development through puberty into adulthood. Children can become obsessed with food, learning not to trust their natural hunger and fullness intuition. Children may start to steal or sneak food in an unhealthy manner. Finally, dieting teaches children that their worth is determined by their body size and shape. When feeding your child, look at the bigger picture and the overview of their diets throughout the week, to ensure that your child gets everything they need for health and wellbeing.
As always, speak to a registered accredited nutritionist or dietitian, or your GP if you have any concerns over your child’s eating behaviour.
Christchurch Food Festival Education Trust: Charity Number 1127292
Bournemouth University: MSc Nutrition and Behaviour: Francesca