It makes me sad to hear of parents adhering to strict food guidelines for family meals. By strict food guidelines I mean: gluten-free or grain-free (without a medical reason), only low-fat foods, no dessert items, severe limits on “junk foods”, etc. While I strongly desire kids to have their nutritional needs met, I am a firm believer that all foods can fit! And when it comes to raising children to have a positive relationship with food, strict food avoidance and labeling foods as “good” and “bad” can be detrimental. (This is excluding instances of food allergies where food avoidance is required for the child’s safety.)
Teaching our children how to eat isn’t as straightforward as instructing them on what to eat. If that were the case, MyPlate would have solved the problem a long time ago. There is so much more to food and eating than simply the what component of the meal. Consider what message we are sending children if they are never allowed to eat a certain type of food at home. The unspoken message is that those foods “are bad.” So then what is a child to feel if they like some of those foods and wish to eat them?… The child will end up feeling guilty or ashamed for eating or wanting to eat the foods they like. Small messages like these seem harmless but can easily snowball into larger issues.
For example, most of the negative eating behaviors (such as consistent overeating, secretive eating, emotional eating, even the extremes of eating disorders) have emotions at their root. During childhood, a negative emotion can be tied to a certain food, eating a certain way, eating a certain amount, one’s appearance can be linked to foods or amounts of foods, feelings of hunger or fullness can impact food choices or eating patterns – the list of scenarios is endless. There are so many negative associations that can be made with food. These negative associations are not developed overnight but are slowly accrued over years and can persist into adulthood. This is why parents should aim to support positive food experiences as much as possible during childhood.
“So we should let them eat junk food?!” – In short, yes! If “junk foods” are a normal part of the home environment, kids will learn to eat them along with a variety of other foods. They need to see the skill of balancing types of foods as they are growing up so they can master it themselves as adults. This could mean choosing one snack a week to offer cookies and milk, or serving chips with a sandwich sometimes. Keep in mind, if you are providing cookies for a snack or chips with a sandwich, the child gets to eat as much as they want. There should not be serving limits on foods. The child is in charge of how much they choose to eat – no matter what the food. This is not to say that every meal and snack is a free-for-all. You are still in charge of what the meal contains. You are still providing the structure of sit-down meals and snacks; you are just choosing to let them contain a “junk food” every once in a while. Your child’s nutrition will not suffer – I promise!
“And what about my new diet trend?” – I would also be very cautious about implementing any adult diet limitations for a child. For example, if a parent has high blood pressure and is following a low-sodium diet, I would not offer only low-sodium foods. You might consider serving a variety of foods at meals with differing sodium contents. That way everyone can choose to eat more or less of the foods of their choosing. I chose a low-sodium diet as my example but this concept could work for any other diet trend. Parent restrictions should not automatically become child restrictions.
“So, now what?!” – Do the best you can with what you have! It is never too late to make a change. And if you need help, email me! It’s what I’m here for.