A client once said to me, “I really just don’t know how to feed my body. Like at all. I need you to teach me how to eat.” It was during that session with a client pursuing eating disorder recovery that I realized she’s probably not alone. Many have no positive foundation for enjoying food, putting meals together, and honoring their bodies. And it’s likely not their fault. Chances are good their parents never passed along these vital skills.
I usually ask clients, “What was the culture of food like in your home growing up?” Most of the responses are negative, ranging from traumatic to haphazard. Some days it’s one heart-breaking story after another. Stories of parents putting locks on refrigerators; stories of pressuring one sibling to eat more and another sibling to eat less; missed opportunities for family meals; kitchens being replaced with drive-thrus; and hour-long stare downs of, “I will not eat this broccoli” resulting in children literally spending the night at the dining room table.
There are so many opportunities for parents to take a wrong turn in the child feeding process – forcing children to finish all their food, making body bashing comments while children are in earshot, forbidding desserts, or offering only desserts and avoiding vegetables. There’s a lot at stake and a misstep can result in an adult who truly struggles in their relationship with food, with eating competence far out of reach.
Many of these possible slip-ups come down to language and semantics – how we speak to our children matters more than anything in supporting an uncomplicated relationship with food. Labeling food as “good” or “bad” is the perfect example of the power of language. By labeling cookies as “bad” and carrots are “good” we may unintentionally become the instigator of an internal food fight.
First, they are going to want to eat cookies. It’s inevitable. We always want what we perceive we can’t have. Second, are cookies really bad and wrong? The best way to look at food is not as “good” or “bad” as food does not and is incapable of offering us any sense of morality. The best way to look at food is through the lens of “all foods fit in variety, balance, and moderation.”
Now I’m not saying all food is created equal. I would never claim that a cookie is equivalent to a carrot. They are different and provide different nutrients to the body, but they can both fit. If you refuse to believe this, you will have a hard time ending the food battle with your child – and yourself for that matter. If you can, however, get behind the idea of variety, balance, and moderation, then you are on your way to winning not just the battle, but the war against disordered eating.
Think about it this way: When there are things, people, or experiences in our lives that are unattainable and off limits, there is always preoccupation around that which is forbidden. Food is no different. Your child might actually really not care for macaroni and cheese and actually truly enjoy baked fish. However, if macaroni and cheese is demonized and fish made abundantly present, the battle for macaroni and cheese is on. If there is neutral conversation about both foods, then chances are good your child will eat and enjoy them both at some point. It just takes time for children to get used to new foods. And they’ll be willing to consider these new foods when the pressure is off.
Check any version of “good food” / “bad food” language at the door. When you hear this language from others in earshot of your children – speak up. Family members, friends, PE teachers, coaches, and health care professionals all mean well, but they may not be aware of the child feeding literature that supports a pressure-free eating zone. Cancel out the noise and clarify confusing messages by saying something like, “In our family we believe all food fits. We need food that makes our bodies strong, and we also need play food, because food is meant to be fun.”
Model this behavior by serving a snack of cherry tomatoes and cheesy crackers together on the same plate. No pressure. No eat this, and then you can have that. Just lay that plate down and don’t say a word. You’ll be amazed at what will happen. If this is new for your child, the tomatoes will likely go untouched at first, but don’t say a word and give it time. Watch and be amazed as little hands start reaching for both.
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Kristen is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in eating disorders, oncology, and pediatrics. In private practice and in life, Kristen desires to incorporate the truth of God's Word into her life and the lives of her clients, knowing that it is the Truth that sets all of us free! She and her husband Keith love being part of their local church community and seeking God's will in all areas.