I have a 2 year old. I am a Dietitian. When these two worlds collide during mealtimes, sometimes I get frustrated… like really, really, REALLY frustrated! Why won’t she just try the chicken? Why won’t she just eat one more bite of broccoli? Why is she refusing the pasta today when she gobbled it up yesterday? How could she only eat a fourth of her meal and be done already? Or refuse the entire meal altogether?!! The struggle is real for me and my tot, as it is for so many other parents. But recently it dawned on me that us adults have it all wrong! I realized my daughter is actually eating (or not eating) in a very natural, normal, innate way. A way that us adults should be modeling. Yes, I said we should model our kids! And here is why you should EAT LIKE A KID!
Think about a newborn… it seems like all they really do is eat, sleep, and poop right? Well their “on demand” eating patterns are established to meet their bodies’ physiological needs. Their bodies tell them when they are hungry or need to eat (i.e. that dreaded… I mean, adorable… infant cry 😉 ), and their bodies tell them to stop once they’ve had enough. And we, as parents, honor that. I mean it would be pretty hard to force a baby to drink more milk if he/she refuses to suckle anymore, right? So why is it ok for us to push our kiddos to “eat two more bites” or “finish your plate” when they insist that they are done? Who are we to decide how much they need?
And then there are those times, when my daughter can’t seem to get enough, like when she’s having a growth spurt. For all of the times our kids refuse to eat, they most likely will make up for it at another time. So us parents should just lighten up, right? Easier said than done… but WHY is it so hard for us? Maybe it’s because we have a different idea of what “normal” eating habits are. Somewhere along the way in our own lives we were trained, influenced, triggered, or somehow programmed to eat for reasons other than just to meet our physiological needs.
As we grow up… through environment, experiences, family or interpersonal influences, food somehow turns into much more than just fuel for our bodies. I mean, how many of us have bribed our children with a treat if they just behave themselves? Unfortunately, I’m guilty of this more times than I’d like to admit :(. For many of us, food may be a reward, a comfort, a stress relief, a social activity, or an outlet for boredom. You may have been trained to “clean your plate” or not waste food, or you may eat just because food is available or offered, regardless of physical hunger. And then on the other hand, there’s DIETING— the deprivation, restricting certain foods, skipping meals or eating too little in efforts to lose weight, when your body is actually screaming “feed me!” Either way, we are letting our brains, not our bellies, run the show!
So what can we learn from kids?
- Listen to your body- Young children will eat when they are physically hungry, and stop when they are full, regardless of how much food is left. Plain and simple.
- Mindful eating- Young children often take a lot of time to eat. Between bites they might babble/talk, laugh, make silly faces, whatever. And the most common of all— every young child has played with their food. But is this so wrong? In most cases, absolutely not! They are exploring the color, shape, texture, and taste of food. They are simply appreciating what they are about to put (or not put) in their mouths. Something all of us should do! Did you know it takes 20 minutes for the brain to get the signal from the stomach that you are full/satisfied? Chances are, if we all took more time to eat, we would probably EAT LESS, and ENJOY FOOD MORE!
- Be choosy about your foods- Kids are picky. They don’t eat just anything. They may eat something one day, but refuse the same thing another day. Not to mention, it can take up to 10 times to offer a new food before a child accepts it (like in the case of certain veggies with my daughter :/ ). The main point is, kids tend to eat what they feel like at that particular time, and they don’t necessarily eat something just because it happens to be available or offered. By choosing what our bodies need at the time, and what our taste buds enjoy, we will ultimately be satisfied in the long-run!
So to wrap it up… listen to your tummy and taste buds, and EAT LIKE A KID!
As for me? I’m trying my best to lighten up on my daughter during mealtimes, but even more so, I’m trying to follow her lead… even if that means I play with my food every now and then 🙂 .
Take Action: If you are a parent, how can you make mealtimes easier on yourself and your kiddos? OR, if you realize that you need to improve your own eating habits, what can you start doing today to rewire your behavior and thinking about how and why to eat?