Teaching your kids how to eat is a big part of teaching them how to take care of their whole-selves. Teaching eating fundamentals when they are young -- the younger the better -- sets the stage for them to manage their eating well by themselves when they are on their own.
Most American parents don’t teach their kids much about eating. In France, teaching kids how to eat has always been a fundamental of parenting. I discuss this in the blog French Lessons. But, here in the US, meals are haphazard and nutrition is just a list of food they should be afraid of. This leaves kids with a vacuum or space where knowledge about feeding themselves could be. This gap often gets filled in with diet culture’s ideas on eating.
In college your daughter could fill in this gap with the common eating behavior in dorms or sororities where the girls binge and purge all the time – 40% of college women engage in this disordered eating behavior. Better your child goes to college with a structure in place for how to eat from you, so this disordered behavior will seem weird to her when she gets there.
I advise teaching your kids the structure of intuitive eating based on the seminal book Intuitive Eating by Elyse Tribole and Evelyn Resch. Intuitive eating has you clue into body cues to figure out how and what to eat. It's how people ate forever before dieting and diet culture interfered with our intuition around food. Intuitive eating is used by nutritionists, dietitians, and in eating disorder treatment.
I’m going to show you how to teach the basics intuitive eating to your kids from a tool I created for habit change in adults. This is my Post-it note pad on the right. For both kids and adults the first 4 questions are identical on the pad. When you are teaching this to kids you don’t need to use the tool because you are simply instilling a habit. You teach by sprinkling in a question or so during some of their meal and snack times.
For adults, you are changing a many years-old habit, which is harder to do. For habit change, you'll use a Post-it at each meal or snack and go through the first 4 questions. There is a bonus fifth question if you are reaching for food and are not hungry. I have complete instructions on Post-it use in my aptly-named blog Post-its.
1. Eat when you are hungry
The first question you sprinkle in at some meal snack times is, “Are you hungry?” You are trying help your child get in touch with their internal hunger cues. These are just like the body cues that tell them when to use the bathroom.
Diets teach you to ignore your internal hunger signals, and many people who’ve been dieting for years literally cannot locate these signals anymore.
For adults, we try to get them to notice different hunger values on the Post-it with the gas tank graphic. If you’re interested in these values for yourself, I go through them in detail in Post-its.
But for teaching intuitive eating to children, it's enough to just notice their hunger signals.
2. Figure out what to eat.
You want your kids to learn how to make a mindful food choice. As adults we end up making about 200 food choices a day. To teach your children to do this, you ask your child, “What are you hungry for?”
We want to teach them to choose foods that make their body feel physically well as part of caring for their body. Teach them that there are nutritious foods that fuel our body well and allow us to have the energy to work our muscles and our brains. And there are play foods, that are fun and give us pleasure, but don’t necessarily help our bodies run.
Guilt and food morality
It is very important to teach them that there are no good or bad foods. Nutritious foods and play foods both have their place in our food choices. Nutritious foods fuel us well, and play foods are for fun. You need fuel and you need fun, just like in life. The French know that you can’t be all work and no play.
Having good and bad foods just sets them up to have food morality. It can make them feel guilty or bad about themselves when they eat a certain type of food. Our culture does this all the time when it labels certain foods guilty pleasures or sinful. The French wouldn't think of doing this. They are taught that they deserve pleasure from a meal.
Our American culture takes this a step further, and we often actually define ourselves by what we eat. We hear this all the time when people say, "I was good today, I didn't eat dessert." We see people equate eating healthy food to being a good person or, worse, being morally superior. You don't want to have your child's self-worth layered on top of their food choices. It makes food too important, giving food too much power to get caught up in their ideas of themselves. This is a path that leads to disordered eating. Food is just food.
You also need to teach that there are no foods off limits because forbidding food only creates deprivation. Deprivation is the kryptonite to healthy eating behavior. It is the direct cause of all of the binging behavior we see on college campuses.
It is important to notice when you or your child might be feeling deprived – it is personal to everyone. And, your feelings of deprivation are different from the other people in your home. I know a family where the mom keeps tight control of the food in their home. It works okay for her food needs, but her son binges on play food when he goes to other people’s homes because there is no fun food in his home. This can happen in families that outlaw sugar, for different reasons. It could be that a parent is a dentist, it could be that a parent is a dieter and has just read a book saying sugar is the devil, or in today's world, a parent could be suffering themselves from an undiagnosed eating disorder. Whatever the reason, the point is to notice when your child is feeling deprived, and adjust for their needs in your home. You are trying to avoid the deprivation that the child is feeling to spark disordered eating behaviors like binging and purging. This happens 25-30% of the time with the deprivation from restrictive eating patterns. This parent could take seriously the reports of her son's binging at the friend's house and use this opportunity to ask her child what he likes in his friend's home. Then she could simply keep some of that for him in his own home.
With no good and bad foods and no food off limits, kids will learn to listen to their bodies and eat what their body wants. This is where your family’s everyday habits will end up being really important. I think your everyday habits end up forming the basis for how the children eat, maybe forever. So this is worth taking a thoughtful assessment and define how you want to feed your family. What do meals and snacks look like in your home. Your child won’t ever crave fish, if he’s never exposed to it. And, if they are too tightly controlled by the food police, they could rebel against the control or react to the deprivation. Your job is provide healthy, nutritious food at regular times, and provide pleasurable food. Like everything else in life, this is a balance.
3. Enjoy food for pleasure
Enjoying food for pleasure is an exercise in mindful eating. This is where Americans really drop the ball teaching kids to eat. The French teach their kids that you need to feed your hunger and deserve pleasure from food. They don't have the same guilt around food that we see in America, because there is not an idea that food is a guilty pleasure, it is just a pleasure!
To teach mindfulness to kids, you can talk about the enjoyment you experience from eating. You can ask them, "How does the food taste?" or "Do you like what you are eating?" Focusing on eating the food while eating gets them to hone in on their tastes and the experience of eating. It also slows them down. So many people learn to eat distractedly, with the TV on or while doing something else. Paying attention to eating and eating slowly helps your stomach register when you’ve had enough, making it easier to sense physically when you are finished.
4. Stop eating when you are satisfied
This clues them into their satiation signal that has 2 parts. First, there is the gas tank part; which I have drawn on the Post-it. So, you can ask, “Do you feel full yet?” After a big meal ask, “How does your stomach feel?” You are trying to get them to notice fullness signs and discomfort when overfilled.
Then, we want to know, "Did what they ate hit the spot?" This is where lessons are learned for next time. After a healthier meal, you might want to ask hours later, “Did you notice that you have energy to play more easily after that nutritious meal?” Even if he didn’t notice he had more energy, point out the lesson you want him to learn, “When I eat veggies and chicken for a meal rather than chicken nuggets, I notice I have more energy to play tennis better.” He’ll be on the look-out for it next time.
5. Become aware of your emotions around eating
Number 5 on the Post-it is not a part of what we teach our kids. It is used for adults to clue into existing habits that don’t serve them well, like emotional eating. As parents we want to become aware of where we can avoid having a child use food for emotional reasons. We don't want this to become his go to method for coping when he’s feeling bad.
If your child looks sad, frustrated or irritated, give him a hug and talk to him. Keep the cookies in the cupboard until after you address what's bothering him.
- Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, Body Respect, 2014.
- Paul Campos, The Diet Myth, 2005.
- Carolyn Costin, Your Dieting Daughter, 2013 (2nd edition).
- Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb, 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder Workbook, 2017.
- Renee Engeln, Beauty Sick, 2017.
- Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, 2014 (2nd edition).
- Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue, 2006 (2nd edition).
- Rachel Simmons, Enough As She Is, 2018.
- Julia V. Taylor, The Body Image Workbook for Teens, 2014.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, 2012 (2nd edition). I boil down some of the essence of this book to 8 steps in MyBodyMySelf Post-its.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch,Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food, 2017.
Favorite Podcast: Cristy Harrison's FoodPscyhe.
Favorite Blogger: Isabel Foxen Duke, Stop Fighting Food. If you are interested, google Isabel on YouTube; she does lots of interviews with host of different podcasts.