Eating your fill
Dietitian Aoife Hearne on the importance of letting your children decide when enough food is enough
THIS past week has been a bit of a blur. Zoë’s sleep seems to be my main focus all of the time — the nap process is the worst. It goes something like this: Rock her asleep in my arms on the rocking chair. Ever so slowly moving from rocking chair to lying in bed with dummy remaining firmly in place. And just when the time is right moving my arm swiftly from under her head in a move any magician would be proud of. Then comes the ninja-like acrobatics out of the bed, desperately praying I’ve been smooth enough not to wake sleeping beauty.
At this point, I’m exhausted but rather than sleep, I reach for coffee and enjoy the silence. Tell me I’m not alone with these crazy antics!
Followed by sleep, the next focus is, unsurprisingly, food. Of course, Zoë is easy right now. She’s still feeding on demand and what she needs never takes more than 10 seconds to prepare, is always at the right temperature, and she seems to love it. That’s more than I can say about my other two. It turns out that my two little ‘darlings’ missed the memo that I’m a dietitian and are meant to follow my lead in this whole eating business. In fact, Alva’s first full sentence was “I don’t like this dinner mammy!”
After slaving away cooking a dinner in between the nap acrobatics and entertaining these two active little people, this little miss all of two years old decided it wasn’t to her taste. So yes, I’m just like any other parent out there fit to pull my hair out with the constant changes in food preferences. One of these days I’m going to burst with all the deep breaths I need to take to keep calm. Despite this, I feel passionate that creating mindful eaters is more important than creating 100% healthy eaters, so I grin and bear the newfound independence.
I’d say my husband is fed up of hearing me ask the kids, “Is your tummy full?” It is probably the most common question I ask these days as Dylan and Alva try to jump down playing with tractors and Lego, anything but eat their dinner. That, along with reminding them that there would be no more snacks before bedtime, seems to be the script that goes with our dinner time.
I do this because teaching them to self-regulate their own food — eating for hunger — is an important part of parenting. It’s not easy and there are many times I want to say “finish your dinner and you’ll get something nice”, just to get dinner finished. But I resist the temptation and trust that persistence, rather than perfection, with these things is key to success.
In many households, meals are a really stressful time. Remember, following Elyn Satter’s division of responsibility approach is a good place to start. In addition, I think a few ground rules can defuse the battle, maybe even make it an enjoyable time, but always a great opportunity to develop healthy habits for children and all the family. I would really encourage you to reclaim mealtimes as a time to connect with family members and keep it as a technology-free time from the start. Even if your small child does not seem interested in food, distracting them with TV or phones in order for them to eat is starting down a path that leads to mindless, rather than mindful, eating.
Having family rules can help keep
everyone on the straight and narrow. Here are a few I use in our home:
■ In this family we try new foods — we don’t have to like them, but we have to try them;
■ Everyone must eat at least two bites of a new food;
■ We all must eat two bites of all vegetables;
■ We believe in healthy drinks, so water and milk are the only options
Many of us have grown up in a time where we had to finish everything on the plate and thus many, if not all, of the adults in my office who are there to lose weight don’t understand what full feels like.
I urge you not to sign your child up to the clean-plate club and think about how the language we use around food can impact on a child’s relationship with food. Aim to use positive rather than negative messaging when it comes to eating, like some of these examples:
■ We eat until we are comfortably full — not stuffed or until our plates are cleaned;
■ We eat to nourish our bodies — not because children in other countries are starving;
■ We try new foods to help us learn to like new flavours — not because you will go straight to bed if you don’t
As you probably realise, this is a topic that I could talk about forever. Helping our children to develop into mindful eaters is a really important part of parenting to me and something I am committed to. That being said, it isn’t easy. There are days I am worn out by it. And then there are days when I get a glimpse into the rewards that this approach to eating can reap and I breathe a sigh of relief.
FULL UP: Aim to use positive rather than negative language around eating, and never insist on a clean-plate policy.