Given how important it is to teach our children to eat right, and the consequences for failing to do so, it is surprising how often it is overlooked. It’s not overlooked completely — parents worry all the time about what foods to feed their kids — but I’ve never been to a play group where parents were talking about how to mindfully teach their children to eat only when they were hungry, or to stop chomping when they were full. I have never heard a group of moms talk about how to teach their young ones not to use food for emotional support or how to help little Johnny learn not to use food to exert control.
Perhaps we don’t teach our children these lessons because we think they’ll learn this stuff when they grow up (they might) or maybe it is because it is hard to do (it is, but only if you don’t have a plan). Unfortunately, though, unless you consciously teach your children how to eat, you end up inadvertently teaching them things you may never have planned for them to learn.
For instance, when you make your children finish their meals, you risk teaching them to overeat. When you give them ice cream for being good, you risk teaching them to use food as a reward.
I once knew a two-year old who consistently said she was hungry the moment she was disciplined by her parents. Coincidence? Maybe. But I doubt she was genuinely hungry each and every time she got into trouble. It is much more likely that she was already turning to food as a way to cope with her feelings. And it is even more likely that she learned that strategy in her home.
Ideally, we only eat when we’re hungry and we stop when we’re full. You know this, you’ve heard it a million times. In reality, though, most people eat for a host of reasons: something looks particularly tempting; it seems like the polite thing to do; we might not get to eat later. We know we really shouldn’t eat out of boredom, anger or depression, but if we’re honest, most of us have to admit that we occassionally do.
It should not surprise us, then, that we pass these eating lessons onto our children. Sometimes we do it deliberately (like when we tell them it is not nice to hurt grandma’s feelings by refusing to eat the dinner she cooked) and sometimes we do it inadvertently (like when we offer them a treat to make them feel better). And sometimes we do it by example.
Right now you are probably thinking that it seems too ambitious (and perhaps even foolhardy) to think you can teach your small children to eat right; it is hard enough for adults to master these skills. But isn’t that the point? One reason adults have a hard time eating heathily is that most of us weren’t taught how to do it when we were young (and you know what they say about old dogs…).
With each day our children gain a growing awareness of the social nuances of eating. All around them they see people eat for all sorts of reasons. It is not surprising that they pick up these patterns too.
So if your kids aren’t eating the way you want them to, look at the lessons they’re learning and the habits they’ve formed. Shift your gaze from nutrition to habits and you will solve a lot of your problems. They won’t simply vaporize into thin air, but the benefits are worth the effort.