Food! Glorious food! Yummy, delicious cookies, cakes and pies! Or yucky, nasty, disgusting brussel sprouts, asparagus and kale! Hmmm.
Food is a necessary part of life and it should be pretty simple, right? Eat when you’re hungry. Eat what you need to maintain good health. And be on with it.
Unfortunately, in our culture, we have a love/hate relationship with food. Instead of using food to simply satisfy our hunger and nourish our bodies, we tend to have a complicated psychological connection to food. We might label some foods as “special” – especially sugary foods. We might think of some foods as “necessary evils’ like kale or spinach.
And we might use foods as rewards or punishments for ourselves. If I complete a difficult task, maybe I will reward myself with ice cream. If I’m upset maybe I can find solace in the cookie jar. And if I don’t go to the gym today, I might deny myself dinner as punishment.
How did it get so complicated? Why do we use food to make ourselves feel better emotionally? Why isn’t food just food … something to eat when you’re hungry and not eat when you’re not?
When you were a baby, you were in tune with your body. You knew when you were hungry and you cried to be fed. You knew when you were full and you rejected offers of food. Being fed was about satisfying hunger, plain and simple. That healthy, natural relationship with food probably continued until you were a preschooler.
So, what happened then? Somewhere between the ages of four and six, you learned to disconnect food from hunger and connect it to your behavior and feelings.
How did that happen? You were taught it. And your teachers were well-meaning, loving people. Maybe it was your mom who told you that you could have dessert only if you ate your broccoli. Or your dad who said, “No cake for you because you didn’t clean your room.” Maybe your teacher said that you were using ugly words during playtime so you couldn’t have a cookie at snacktime. And it probably happened over, and over, and over again throughout your childhood.
This is such an easy trap for parents to fall into. Especially because it works! Bribe your three year old with a lollipop if she behaves well at Grandma’s house. Promise the kids in your preschool classroom cookies when cleanup time is over. Comfort your child who fell off his bike and skinned his knee with a bite-sized candy bar. And on and on.
So, what’s wrong with that? It works, right? It’s easy to do, right? So why not use food to get the behavior you want?
It might seem like an easy fix for the short term. It is, actually. But we’re in this parenting thing for the long haul. Think ahead, moms and dads. What do you want your child’s relationship with food to be when she’s 18? Wouldn’t it be great if that relationship could be healthy, enjoying a nice variety of healthy food for the nourishment of the body instead of having a hot mess of emotional attachment to food? Wouldn’t it be super if your child never had to deal with eating disorders, being a picky eater, binge eating or obesity?
So, if this is a family pattern that you want to break, how do you do it? Actually, it’s pretty simple, on the surface.
Just change your thinking. Easier said than done, but you can do it if you make a conscious decision to do it.
Remind yourself over and over again that food is fuel – a natural thing that people use to be healthy – and nothing more. It is not a bribe, a reward, a comfort or a punishment. It is just fuel for the body.
Remember that you are your child’s role model. Watch what you say and how you behave around food. The kids are watching. So, if you’ve had a hard day at work, reward yourself by going outside and playing with them instead of having a chocolate bar.
Don’t hold up one type of food as better or more desirable than another. Serve a variety of good, nutritious foods and let the kids decide which foods they will choose. Even desserts, as long as they are healthy, nutritious desserts.
It is not at all uncommon for kids to go on food jags, when they want the same things over and over again. Stay calm and see this through. As long as the only food choices they have available to them are healthy, the jag will pass on its own and no harm will be done.
Avoid pressuring your child to clean his plate. Some days she will be hungrier than others. That’s ok!
Eat together as a family and model good eating choices.
Never force a child to eat a particular food. Make sure you take some of everything on your own plate and be obvious in your enjoyment of the brussel sprouts or carrots. It’s ok to tell your child that they are delicious. But forcing them to eat it will not make them find the food desirable.
I hope this is helpful to you and that you and your family enjoy healthy, happy mealtimes together! If you have questions or if I can help with any parenting issues, just let me know. Send your questions by email to email@example.com or stop by the Children’s Ministries office on Wednesday afternoons or Sunday mornings. I would love to visit with you!