It’s normal and considered sensible to have food limits and judgments on what our children consume, and people will commonly praise, affirm and nod approvingly when we do so. But are we doing more harm than good with this approach? Will it really lead to our children having a healthy relationship with food? In most households certain food is labelled as ’junk’ or ‘healthy’, and the ‘junk’ is then restricted, or completely eliminated. However, what is interesting is that nutritionists can’t even decide what constitutes healthy – current popular diets include Weston Price, No Grain, High-Fat, Low-Fat, Low-Carb, Whole Foods, Vegan, Organic, Raw, Atkins, Zone ( I could go on) – so if the ‘experts’ don’t know how can we?
The best judge of what is healthy for a person is the individual themselves, regardless of age. Being able to listen to our bodies, eat when we are hungry, stop when we are full, and enjoy our food without shame is a great gift and one that so few of our children will grow up to experience. What our bodies need changes over time; toddlers often gravitate towards a high-dairy diet, pre-teens to high-fat, and pre-menstrual women to high-sugar. Leafy greens and tofu may be great for one person but cause digestive problems in another. That is not to say we can’t have our personal beliefs on what constitutes a healthy diet but they are just that – personal. Our children aren’t us, and the more negative impact our beliefs have on our children’s lives, the less they’ll find them attractive. They may come to believe what you believe about food but the more pressure, restriction, and guilt you put on them, the less likely that is to happen.
One of my 25 year old friends told me recently how her mother raised her with all kinds of so-called ‘super healthy’ foods – green vegetable smoothies that she HAD to drink every morning. No soda, fast food, or sugar – EVER. She said when she left home she went ‘wild with food’ and felt guilty and ashamed as she knew her mother would be upset. She said for many years she made a point to never eat anything healthy as a reaction to her upbringing.
In comparison, my own children eat a wide variety of foods and, most importantly, they are totally in tune with their bodies. They eat what their body is ‘asking’ for at that time, they recognise what makes them feel good and bad, and they only eat when they are hungry, and they stop when they are full. I think this is really cool, and a recipe for maintaining a healthy weight in adulthood. I try to do this myself but still have to fight my ‘inner-script’, stemming from my own childhood, which reads like, ‘don’t snack between meals’, ‘eat your greens’, ‘certain foods are for certain times’, ’clear your plate’, ‘everyone should sit down together to eat’, ‘don’t eat too much sugar or fat’, ‘organic and local are best’…and so on. To my kids, and thousands like them without food controls, food is just food and they eat really well. My teenage daughter, unlike many of her friends, loves crunchy salad, chicken, pasta, chocolate, bread, cereal, cheese, curry, most fruits, and – her absolute favourite – strawberries, which she eats by the bowlful.
So often our parenting is dominated by fear. With food, the fear is that our children will grow up obese and/or unhealthy unless we control and limit and restrict them. The reality is that the opposite is true. Providing a wide variety of choice, and enjoying ‘food as food’ joyfully with the people you love most is a good place to start to ensure a physically and emotionally healthy relationship with food for your children — and yourself.
I would love to hear what your thoughts and experiences are surrounding this issue. Do you have fear surrounding food? What restrictions do you place on your children, and with what results?
About Chaley-Ann Scott
Chaley-Ann Scott is a parenting author, sociologist, counsellor, and mother-of-four. She writes widely on parenting and education for various publications, and is the author of The Shepherdess; A Guide to Mothering without Control.