For today’s parents, feeding children can feel a bit like wandering in the desert: an exhausting enterprise filled with adversities and conundrums at every turn.
On the one hand, we are bombarded with warnings about the obesity epidemic facing our children, the evils of trans fat, and the perils of too much salt. On the other hand, we and our children are inundated with the prolific marketing of sodas, chips and sugary breakfast cereals.
We are told Americans are fatter than ever, yet we are the nation for whom the super size is the norm. And if that’s not enough, we are led to believe that going on a diet will provide entry to the Promised Land, as diets are marketed as the solution to all this excess and the sole means to achieve lasting happiness.
It’s no wonder parents have so much angst about feeding their kids, and that they feel exhausted and demoralized in their efforts to teach them healthy eating habits.
In my workshop, “Sacred Spoonfuls: Feeding our Children the Blessings of Food, Not the Burdens,” I help parents navigate this complex terrain by drawing on Jewish spiritual teachings as well as research on eating disorder prevention and nutritional science.
In the big picture, one of your most important roles with regard to feeding your kids is to help them strike a balance between the enjoyment of food — which is an essential Jewish teaching — and the need for some self-regulation. Here are some ways you can achieve this goal:
• Make space for an appreciation of food. Judaism tells us that we must eat consciously. Part of this means not rushing your children at the table, and not rushing yourself. Don’t indulge in guilt and shame for having eaten and enjoyed what you have eaten, and don’t do that to your children.
In order to cultivate conscious eating, make sure kids eat at the table and not in front of the television. Provide ample, but not excessive, portions and allow your child a few minutes to digest his meal before you plop more on his plate. If he wants more, let him ask.
• Provide access to nutritious foods and provide moderate — and discerning — access to non-nutritious foods. Stock pantries with nutrient rich, unprocessed and child-friendly foods, and make sure that these are the foods to which they are primarily exposed so that they learn early to develop a taste for those foods. Continue to expose them to these foods even if they reject them outright at first, as the research shows that it may take seven or eight tries for a child to cultivate a taste for a food they initially reject.
• Decide what types of sweets and treats you will allow into the house and the frequency with which you will allow them — but don’t ban them altogether. Anytime something is labeled “bad” and is prohibited, it creates heightened interest, and the irony is that children are far more likely to seek out the foods they are denied and to eat those very foods in far greater quantities than if they are allowed access to them.
There are a number of foods — other than vegetables and fruits — that kids will enjoy and parents can feel OK about offering as a treat. Dixie Cups of ice cream come in child-friendly portions, and kids like eating them with the wooden spoon. For a savory taste, Oriental rice crackers and pretzels are fat-free and relatively low in calories.
Another gift you can give to your child to set him up to have a healthy relationship to food and to his body is to respect his bodily needs by responding to him in ways that cultivate instead of override his innate capacities to identify hunger and satiety. Here are some ways you can achieve this aim:
• Notice your child’s hunger patterns, the times of day he seems most hungry, and try to schedule meals or snacks to coincide with these spikes and you will have a far more reasonable and contented child. Let him be the one to regulate how much he eats.
• Don’t sweat the small stuff: Nutritional science and new research
have identified that children’s bodies need one to two weeks to receive and absorb all the range of nutrients necessary for healthy growth and development. What this means is, it is not imperative for a child to eat a balanced meal at every meal, because what she doesn’t get in one meal she can make up for in another meal, or even the next day.
• Help your child to tune into her body and to connect the act of eating to a bodily experience. For example, if she has eaten a full plate of food and still wants more, ask “what does your tummy have to say?” Or, “Is your tummy still hungry?” You want to help your child distinguish between her bodily needs and her emotional needs.
Hunger needs should be met with food. Emotional needs should be met in other ways, like a soothing or empathic statement from a parent, some cuddle time or, in the case of boredom (which can often lead to a foray into the kitchen), by parental interaction or some other engaging activity.
A hallmark of a healthy child is a child who feels at home in his own skin. If you want to set your child on a path to have a healthy relationship with food, with his body and with himself, you will do well to allow your child’s unique being to come into shape, both literally and figuratively.
We come in billions of shapes, sizes and colors, to great extent determined by genetics. Parents need to celebrate these differences rather than denigrate or seek to control them. Far more damage is caused when well-intentioned parents try to interfere with their child’s innate physical endowments.
Let exercise be connected to meaningful family time, and encourage your child to find activities that he enjoys and that enable him to feel a sense of confidence and empowerment in his body. Make your house a haven free of negative body talk and other forms of self dissing, of dieting and calorie counting, and of lashon horah (gossiping about others).
In such an environment, your children will truly learn to respect and value themselves and others. They will blossom and be freed up to make manifest the extraordinary mitzvah of their being in the world.
Lisa Bograd is a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco.
Seven simple ways to sanctify the act of eating together
1) Express gratitude for the bounty of food and for those in the food chain process that had a part in bringing the food to the table.
2) Express gratitude for blessings in family members’ lives at mealtime.
3) Before eating, have moment of thanks for and contemplation of the food that has been prepared.
4) Eat slowly, so that the food has time to digest and so that you and your children can be more aware of your internal cues of satiation. It takes about 20 minutes after food has been eaten to register the experience of fullness, so if you are eating slowly and with consciousness about what you are doing and teaching this skill to your children, both you and your children will be more able to determine when you are full and to stop eating accordingly.
5) Don’t discuss tense topics or air conflicts or grievances at the table. Instead, make meal time a pleasant experience and a time to check in with kids and family about each others’ lives.
6) Celebrate Shabbat. Make the Shabbat meal a sacred and special family experience and teach kids to embrace and attend to the sensual elements inherent in this experience — from the smells of the challah, to the beauty of the special table settings and the glow of the Shabbat candles, to the pleasurable tastes of the special Shabbat meal.
7) Get your children involved in dinner preparations so that they can engage their senses and be more intimately connected to what they are eating.