Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What exactly is my "job" in feeding?

"Just one more bite of broccoli and then you can have dessert."

"You didn't eat anything!?  Go back to the table and sit down and eat something and then you can be excused to play."

Statements like these roll off our tongues at our children with great ease. And, when taken at face value, they seem pretty logical. Everyone knows kids are supposed to eat vegetables, right? And if a child goes without eating, won't they be hungry later? My answer to these questions is yes and yes. But meddling with our kids' decisions around the table prevents our kids from learning to make their own good choices. Requiring kids to take one more bite or just to eat something period are just a couple common examples of what I will refer to as "feeding interference" at the table. 

I introduced the idea of the Division of Responsibility in feeding awhile back and promised I'd dive into greater detail. If you need a refresher on this methodology or if this is your first time reading my blog, see my original post here. The jist of it is this: when it comes to feeding, it is the PARENT'S responsibility to determine the what, when and where and it is the CHILD'S responsibility to determine how much and even whether they choose to eat. I'm pretty sure that, for 98% of you, this was not how things went down in your house when you were growing up. Most likely, you were told to clean your plate or that you must eat your veggies before you could have sweets. Your parents meant well, really they did, but I'd like to think there is a better way.

So what the heck does it mean to be in charge of the "what, when and where?" Essentially, it means just as it sounds - you, as the responsible adult, are in charge of WHAT foods are offered, WHERE these foods are offered (the table, on the go, in front of the TV) and WHEN they are offered. I do better with bullet points and so found this short and dirty list of parent "jobs" from the book Fearless Feeding very helpful. Our jobs include:

1) choosing and preparing food
2) providing regularly scheduled meals and snacks
3) making eating times as pleasant as possible
4) showing your child what to learn
5) allowing your child to grow up to have the body that is right for him/her

Let's start with the job of CHOOSING AND PREPARING FOOD.

I think the most fundamental thing to remember here is that YOU ARE THE GATEKEEPER. As the parent, you get to be in charge of what you put in your fridge and allow to take residence on your pantry shelves. I remember toward the beginning of my career as a registered dietitian, I saw a patient who was a severely overweight three year old. I began by interviewing his mother and asking about some of the foods he usually ate. She threw her hands up in surrender and exclaimed, "He can reach the Kool-Aid on his own now and mixes it up and drinks it when I'm not looking! I can't be there all the time to stop him."

Now the solution to this dilemma may seem obvious to a lot of this, but this mama so close to the problem that she couldn't see the forest for the trees. She hadn't yet reached a point where she could step back and see that the answer in this case was rather simple: to stop buying Kool-Aid. In order for the Division of Responsibility to work and for us to raise healthy eaters, it is vital that the array of options available to our kiddos be healthful. If you find yourself getting frustrated whenever your child begs for a particular snack in your pantry because you can't suppress the guilt that comes along with giving it to them, maybe it's time to consider a pantry makeover. Though I try not to label foods as YES and NO Foods but rather as Often and Not-So-Often Foods, there is certainly a time and place to eliminate items completely from our shopping lists. Your own inner cringings might offer good insight as to what these foods might be in your family. Take a pause and go look in your pantry and in your refrigerator. Do you feel good about feeding your family what you see 90% of the time? If not, it's probably a good time to do an overhaul and restock with some staples that you know your family will thrive on in the long run. If you don't know what these foods might be, let's talk. :)


This next topic has been well-researched and the verdict is this: kids with structured meal times tend to feel more supported and reassured in general and they tend to have increased security around food. They are less food-focused and are more inclined to eat amounts that are right for them and to choose healthier options. Sounds like a dream, right?

There is so much in parenting literature that emphasizes the importance of boundaries and structure when it comes to raising kiddos who thrive. It's no different when it comes to food. Kids need to know when they will eat next (with some flexibility of course) and that they can count on you to offer them something to eat at regular intervals. I really try to encourage families to adopt a pattern of 3 meals a day with 3 sit-down snacks. That last one is a real kicker for a lot of us, isn't it? Guilty as charged! Yes, my kids have definitely been those kids running around and noshing on a snack. But as much as possible, I practice what I preach and encourage parents to have snack time be a sit-down operation at the table, just like meals. It's important to avoid multitasking when we are eating as this is one of the easiest ways to ignore our innate hunger and satiety cues. The last thing we want is to do is to train our kids to drown out their feelings of fullness with the sounds of the TV or the distraction of toys. So create for your family set meal and snack times and stick to it! When the troops grow restless and start begging for food in between these times, hand them a glass of water and remind them when the next eating time will be (every 2-3 hours is a good goal).  


Ok so here's the fun part, actually. If abiding by the Division of Responsibility hasn't been your default at mealtimes thus far, it's quite likely that times around the table have been less than pleasant. When we interfere with our kids and try to encourage them to eat what WE want them to eat, rather than what THEY want to eat, food fights and arguments abound, making mealtimes more like a stressful war zone than a time of connection and pleasantness. I mean, let's think about it. You just went to a LOT of work making a nice meal (or let's be honest, sometimes you just reheated a nice meal that some God-send of a company made for you and shipped to your local Trader Joe's freezer). You survived that horrid witching hour and are finally, FINALLY getting to sit down, maybe for the first time today. And now you get to spend the next 20-30 minutes trying to coerce and shanaggle your kids into eating what you are serving? No. Thank. You.

But this is the reality for so many of us. We are trying to be "good" parents and "good" parents have kids who eat their vegetables, right? Let's go back to the Division of Responsibility. We've done the hard work of putting together a healthful meal (the WHAT) at dinnertime (the WHEN) and we are finally seated together at the table (the WHERE). Now it's time to sit back and enjoy! How do we make that a reality? I have a newsflash for you: THE MOST IMPORTANT THING AT THE TABLE IS YOU (you or another trusted adult). Not the heaping bowl of broccoli or the pot of steamed brown rice, believe it or not. YOU! Your job is not to make your kids eat but rather to be present, to keep them company, to make easygoing conversation, to help them get served as needed, to enjoy your own meal, and to let them enjoy theirs. Sounds like a much better time to me than the whole shanaggling and coercing bit! 

Surprisingly, the conversation at mealtime need not be about the actual food. In fact, the majority of the time, I would urge you to avoid spending too much time talking about the meal (except for praise for the chef of course - there should ALWAYS be space for compliments to the chef!!) :) Avoid reasoning with your kids and offering praise for eating or cleaning their plates. Instead, compliment them by saying they always do a good job eating when they listen to their body. Approach meals as an opportunity to connect with your kids while acting as a role model as they watch you serve yourself and enjoy each dish. It's your kiddo's job to take it from here! 


Though it may not seem like it the vast majority of the time, our kids do want to be successful at mealtimes and they are watching our every move. You've likely heard it said that kids learn to like food through repeated exposure. And y'all, I'm not talking two or three times. I'm talking over and over. And over and over. And over and over. You get the point. Most of us parents give up on introducing a "new" food and add it to the "don't like" list LONG before a child has had the needed number of exposures. I mean, if we were "introduced" to someone as if we'd never met them 13 times, things would start to get awkward. It takes a ridiculously, unnaturally, illogical number of introductions to a new food for a child to accept it as one of their own. So in the words of one of my favorite mommy bloggers, Momastery, Carry On Warrior! Keep on serving those "rejected" foods. One day you may be surprised when you child heaps their plate with a giant spoonful and dives in.

Also, as the responsible, experienced adult, you know best all the fun and exotic dishes out there and your child will never grow to like them if they aren't exposed to them. Take it slowly and introduce one new food at a time but don't by shy! Some kids do like curry! And baba ghanoush! Just because you decided to have kids does not mean you are resigned to a life of macaroni and applesauce. If you loved "crazy" foods before you had kids, bring back the crazy! Kids are incredibly adaptable but you need to make the first move. Allow your child to join the family table instead of altering the family table to suit them.


Lastly, it is so important to always keep in mind that growth naturally ebbs and flows. Every child is hard-wired with a body type that is their very own. We may look at them and think they have "our hips or grandma's short stature but it is important to remember that their body is in fact theirs and to keep these comparisons to ourselves. Our job as the parent is to help them have the healthiest body possible, to view their body as strong and capable, and to use it in a way that works well and makes them feel good.

So all that being said, do your jobs and then let go!

No comments:

Post a Comment

posted by kelsie