If you’re a parent, you’ve probably gone through a food stage or two. Maybe you’re tackling a picky eater right now, or you might be starting solids for your baby and have no idea which food groups to try first. For me, as a newish mom (my son turned 3 this past summer), we’ve had only a few challenges with food. My son’s palate is adventurous and we encourage getting messy at mealtime – meaning if he doesn’t like something, he can just spit it out. This approach has helped him try a varied group of foods: currently, some of his favourites include prosciutto sandwiches with pickles, vegetarian sushi with lots of tangy dips and Hungarian stews.
My challenge? It’s convincing the people around me (and admittedly, myself at times) that foods often deemed by diet culture as “bad” or “not as healthy” should not be thought of as such and that yes, even a cookie can sometimes be part of the main course on a child’s dinner plate. I’m not suggesting overloading a child on sugar, but I believe moderation is key – at any age. And there are a group of nutritional experts that agree. They advocate parents to approach mealtime using intuitive eating and speaking about foods in a more positive way. They say this helps kids build a healthier relationship with food overall, rather than only focusing on what types of healthy foods are available. And yes, they say this means sometimes adding a cookie, a square of chocolate, a piece of cake or a more favoured food with the child’s main meal, instead of after.
Intuitive eating history and what it means for kids
The concept of intuitive eating for adults was created by two dietitians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in 1995. The main idea behind this approach is to reject diet culture in its entirety. Diet culture tends to focus on eating foods for weight loss, often grouping foods into “bad” and “good” categories and even extending this to moralizing food decisions such as getting a “cheat-day” or eating something because you were “good” all week. When it comes to kids, intuitive eating takes on a slightly different meaning.
“[What we mean by intuitive eating for kids] is that they stop eating when they’re full and to follow their bodies’ cues,” says Thalia Prum, a dietician who is currently based in Australia. I came across Thalia’s Instagram posts about mealtime tips for toddlers last summer when popsicles and ice cream were overflowing in my household and admittedly, I started to feel a little bad about it. Thalia’s philosophy about serving sweets like fruit and desserts with regular meals – and not after – or not glorifying sweets at all, really spoke to me, but also made me question my own issues around food and the diet culture I’ve subscribed to my entire adult life.
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How could a little cone of ice cream have so much power? Maybe it didn’t have to. Megan McNamee, who is a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in maternal and child nutrition, food sensitivities and eating disorder prevention says as parents, we’re constantly being challenged to break past our own cycles that may not have been the most positive – and eating is on the top of that list.
Megan is the co-founder of Feeding Littles, a business that she runs with Judy Delaware, an occupational therapist and feeding specialist. They offer courses for parents from newborns to older kids with a methodology rooted in intuitive eating. Their Instagram community is comprised of more than a million people – possibly a sign that parents need more help in this area then they let on.
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“The way we’ve been teaching kids about eating is not working,” says Megan. “What we’re trying to do is allow kids to grow up with a healthy relationship with food, not just focusing on healthy foods. We want them to not feel the pressure of ‘eat this and not that’.”
Related: Kid-Friendly Dinner Recipes
What intuitive eating for kids is not, Megan stresses – a free-for-all. It’s not a rejection of eating healthy foods, which she says is often the most misunderstood part.
“What we teach is not like, just give them all the food all the time and let them decide, because kids still need structure and they need to understand what to expect, Megan says. “It’s flexible structure, and it’s allowing kids the opportunity to say no to something that they don’t want to eat or to eat more of something if that’s all they’re eating.”
Food labels and positive food language
While I’m working on being more aware of my negative thoughts around certain food groups (think: carbs, sweets and anything not deemed to promote weight loss), I realized I had a tendency to describe foods as “bad” or call them “good for you” when inherently that’s just not true (I mean, a cookie isn’t “bad” or “good” – it’s just a cookie!). Instead of putting the focus on the benefits of eating these foods, what I was doing was actually moralizing foods with these labels. The joy in my son’s face when he eats foods he likes is indescribable. He is so in the moment, truly loving every bite that he even makes a little humming, sing-songy sound as he chews. I don’t want to take that away. And using these words at times, some experts say, can weigh heavily on not only our own psyche, but a child’s as well.
“Kids can kind of internalize those labels,” says Megan. “Like this is healthy or this is good. This is bad. They don’t have the understanding to know the nuance there. It doesn’t mean you’re bad for eating it, but because we’re labelling foods in that way, especially in how we teach kids about food, it’s confusing for them, especially if their parents are providing those foods.”
Dr. Dina Kulik’s take
Surely, untangling ourselves from decades of diet culture beliefs won’t be as easy as adding a cookie to our child’s dinner plate (and trying not to feel bad about it). But what we can do instead is to create a safe, happy and social family meal environment where the pressure is off everyone, says one Toronto-based pediatrician.
“I don’t think you can convince most children that they want to eat the salad instead of the cookie,” Dr. Dina Kulik says. “By and large, that’s what most kids and truly most humans tend to gravitate toward. Carbohydrates get a deep immune response and make you happy to make you feel good.”
Dina, who is also a mom of four and the founder and director of KidCrew, a multidisciplinary kids health clinic, agrees that we shouldn’t be putting certain foods on a pedestal. However, she doesn’t believe calling a cookie a treat is giving it more power, saying “kids just know that it tastes better than asparagus.”
What she says instead works for most kids is to help them “eat the rainbow,” eat in-season and try different foods in a social, family environment. She says giving picky eaters the autonomy to decide what and how much to eat might not be the best approach. While it works for some kids, the children that struggle at mealtime won’t do well with intuitive eating, she says.
“They’re at the risk of deficiencies, particularly iron deficiency and that’s not good for their brain and growth,” she says. “As long as they’re eating iron-containing foods like legumes, beans, animal proteins, tofu and eggs,” she says “there’s a place for sweets in our diet and we can enjoy those things, sometimes even daily to some small degree,” making sure we’re mindful of doing so in moderation. Making mealtime stress-free is also key to building a healthy approach to food.
“The big trick is that we’re not fighting, there’s no negotiating,” she says. There is no, ‘if you eat this properly, you’ll get a cookie’. There’s none of that.”
So where do we go from here? Even though the task of undoing our own bad food habits and creating more positive ones for ourselves and our children can feel daunting, it doesn’t have to. Read on for Prum’s very best tips for creating a healthy eating environment for your child.
Struggling with a picky eater? Here are some tips from Thalia Prum
- Parents have positive power: Thalia says she wants parents to know that they have the power to make changes when it comes to their language around food, the foods they choose and how they approach mealtime.
- Make a mealtime and snack schedule and stay consistent
- Make mealtime fun and enjoyable (play with your food!): Thalia says instead of putting the focus on making sure the kids eat, make it your job to have fun. “You want to make meals enjoyable with your child.”
- Don’t leave this phase for too long: Thalia recommends not leaving picky eating phases for more than a month as it could lead to long-term nutritional problems.
Photo courtesy of Victoria Revay.