Post 1 in the ‘My Family Food Journey’ Series
Why I don’t make my children eat everything on their plate
In my Introduction to this food series of blogs posted last Saturday, I mentioned that over the years I have come across a few methods/ techniques/ mindsets (call them what you will) that I thought could be helpful in sharing with others seeing how much they have helped us. They aren’t the orthodox food rules our grandparents raised our parents with, but I’m no anarchist, just a pragmatic, logical, sensible kind of a gal. So, bear with me, and if this makes sense to you too then wahey. If not, I hope you enjoy the read nonetheless. We all know that there is no one-size-fits-all. Find your flow; I’m so glad to have found mine, and one of the big changes toward this groove was in this particular area. So sit back, relax and sip on your coffee as I unpack our personal experience of this area.
“Eat everything on your plate”
“If you don’t eat all your food there’s no ice cream/ anything else to eat”
You aren’t leaving the table until all your food has gone”
“Well done for eating all your food”
Sound familiar? They are to me! In many capacities and scenarios. Having had these things said to me, having said these things to my kids myself, having heard others saying them to my kids, and having overheard others saying it to their kids. These are commonly accepted, recognised and used rules still today. Rules I do genuinely understand, and respect that others may see the value in. Rules I know that are not always clear cut as to why they are in place either, but as a parent with certain concerns or in addressing those, may find value in instilling. I do understand.
I was unaware though of their existence in myself … until my daughter was eating food prepared by myself, and they unearthed in me. Like a dormant seed which after years of stasis, out of nowhere gets watered and suddenly sprouts… there they were! Very apparent, aggressively apparent in fact, in how they manifested out of me.
Much like many a parent who, in addressing their kids, say something we had never before said but suddenly in that moment instantly recognise… we sound like our parents! In my case it is usually shortly followed by a sigh as I realise how much they did for me without me appreciating it (none of us could at the time, as a child), or even realising, and understanding what they went through. I don’t know about you but didn’t your mothers and fathers day cards to you folks dramatically change in sincerity once you were a parent?! I know mine did, because I got it. I hope my kids too will have this epiphany. That one day they will get why I yelled, lost it, said what I did, did what I did, why we looked like the “meanies” (as my daughter refers to us from time to time), why we say ‘no’ etc. I remember how I felt about my folks from time to time about rules, correction & discipline. We know realistically that they won’t get it, possibly ever, but definitely not until, like us, they too have their own little ones.
These phrases which appear uninvited, not planned, nor a well thought through strategy of tackling whatever behaviour our kids are displaying that we are in that moment trying to address. Just an off the cuff, throw away response, and then we stop and wonder “where that came from”. Stuff that we hadn’t heard or had said to us in like 20-30 years suddenly leaps out of our mouth even without our wanting it to, taking us aback at it’s existence in us. Sometimes they work and we are grateful for the knee jerk response we spout, recycling the useful ones, but sometimes we don’t feel they have a place in our home, for our child, or for how we are parenting. These above-mentioned quotes were some of the ones I deemed unuseful for my circumstances. But I know that many people don’t really think about it. I hope this blog may just cause some people to do that- think about these ones if you haven’t already.
At my whits end, as many parents are at feeding time, I noticed myself huffing, barking and pushing these reactionary/ preprogrammed orders on my kids. It was usually this straw (the food prep, feeding-time-at-the-zoo drama straw) breaking the camel’s (my) back each day. Not only did I not understand why there was quite so much frustration behind it for me (and my not liking how it made me turn into the Hulk), but increasingly the actual message I heard myself passing on to her just didn’t make any sense! I didn’t feel these phrases sent the message I wanted my kids to learn, adopt or even take on board. Something was shifting in me and I welcomed it with open arms. Not only because I seemed incapable of remaining cool and calm doing things the way I had been, but because the message was empty, redundant and actually…unhelpful in my eyes (as I began to question and decipher it more), so why continue it.
Ultimately the answer on this for us came though asking myself questions there seemed no redeeming answers for:
Why should she eat everything on her plate? Maybe she isn’t that “hungry” today. If she isn’t needing food right now (whether through choice (namely will and protest) at what was being fed to her, or by sincere physical lack of requirement to said food) why would she HAVE to eat it- either way? She wasn’t lacking in weight or have any food issues. So….
Surely food is only necessary (let alone insisted upon) when it’s resource levels are low and needing topping up. We wouldn’t keep filling up our car with fuel when the tank is already sufficiently full, and to those muttering under their breaths that our children aren’t cars and shouldn’t be compared as such, I beg to differ on this particular analogy relating to energy input and output – is really simple.
Furthermore I began to understand that if I were to insist that she eat when she didn’t want or didn’t need to, that I was potentially going to tamper with her internal, physical digestive mechanism (at the risk of sounding a bit precious, but stay with me here…), which let’s our bodies know when to eat and equally important, when to stop eating, and to allow ourselves to listen and respond to that message accordingly. Just do a bit of research on the digestive system to see what I’m getting at. We know when we are hungry because our body lets us know, or we see the effects of needing to eat and recognise them. I get shaky and quite aggressive (‘hangry’ to coin a phrase) when I’m hungry. When we are full our bodies also let us know, however this latter mechanism is one somewhat abused, ignored and neglected. I strongly believe that this ignoring has exacerbated and contributed to wider issues too. Issues like comfort eating, guilt after eating, poor food choices, feeling out of control etc.
So if she is not hungry and I’m making her eat that just does’t make sense to me. Their bodies already (granted when working “normally, healthily”) let them know when it’s needed. Whats is becoming apparent though and was the case for me and my little family, was that I needed to teach/ encourage my kids to LISTEN to their bodies. I recognised in myself and in the wider culture around us, that we have not only ignored our body’s messages (both internal and external) relating to food, but forcibly over ridden them for so long that many people aren’t even able to recognise those signals anymore, let alone listen to them. We have unwittingly ignored the ‘you are full, time to stop’ messages so much so that now we struggle to stop even when we do notice those signals. Our will power also affected in the wider implications of not trusting and listening to our bodies. I could see it plain as day both in others but also because I recognised it in myself too. It all started to make sense. It was a light bulb moment.
Now let me clarify that I’m not saying that if you make your kids eat all the food on their plate that you are going to mess them up/ damage them. I’m just telling you why I don’t do that…anymore. Simply, for me, it just doesn’t make sense and I saw the logical value of finding a different, better message. I didn’t want my kids to struggle so much with themselves and with food and food habits as I had struggled. I wanted to give them a better starting point, one which is logical and simple. Here are some of the thing’s I’ve started to say instead:
“If you are hungry/ needing to eat, then eat…here is your food”
“If you aren’t hungry then don’t eat, your food will be here for you when you are ready”
“When you are full stop eating/ take a break. You can eat the rest later if you still want to”
“Listen to your body”
“Look after your body”
“Make good choices for your body.
Hardly scandalous is it?
We still have snacks ‘just because’ and my kids are welcome to help themselves to fruit and veg. We enjoy a varied and nutritious diet mostly and from time to time enjoy not-so-healthy food. It’s all in balance. We enjoy chocolate, regularly, but I’m mindful of quantities. I’ve been training my kids to make healthy choices for themselves:
– I ask them to think about how much sugar they have had in order to decide whether or not to have that slush puppy or kinder egg now or whether to wait until tomorrow to enjoy it. They have started to make these choices unprompted, owning it for themselves. They respect and look after their bodies.
– They also know a little about food science, namely vitamins, mineral, fibre, the need for a varied diet in order to get a cross section of many different minerals and vitamins (and how they link with the body) needed by the body and that healthy food is needed not just to fuel the body (energy) but nourish it and keep it working as it should. They know that taste is nice, but sometimes the stuff that is good for us is not always our favourite flavour.
– I remind them to eat a bit slower so they can manage their quantities. I never thought I’d have to train a kid not to eat fast but my son does (and always has)… insanely fast! The value in reminding him to eat slower when I notice him inhaling his food is: he can chew it better (better for digestion), and it enables his body to receive the message to ‘stop’ before it’s too late and he has already eaten so much his tummy hurts, which was a regular occurrence.
– When I see them saying they are full but want to continue to enjoy the food for the flavour and enjoyment factor (always a tough one on temptation factor to over eat), I speak into it and encourage them to have a break, and to finish it off a little later when their body ready.
These messages have really helped, and the results are showing me we are on the right track. The proof is in the pudding (I love a well placed pun, forgive me).
I didn’t know how to do this stuff- especially evident when I left home and went to uni becoming the only one responsible for my food choices. That isn’t a comment on my parents or saying they failed me (they had their hands full with me and food, let me tell you- more on that another time), simply that I didn’t know how to do this stuff, but knew the value and importance of it, so wanted to better equip my kids. I reinforce positive messages to them now. What is also invaluable about all this, is that their experience with food/ meal times is much happier and positive than it was before I figured all this out. Stress at mealtimes can definitely impact how we relate and feel about food.
Don’t get me wrong, we all know how clever our little munchkins can be, and we know that sometimes to get out of doing something they don’t want to that they will say something which makes sense to them which will hopefully get them out of it. We know all-too-well when our kids are giving us those lines. So what do we do when that happens, I hear you say? What if my child is needing to eat and is saying they aren’t hungry to avoid eating it? Or what if they are just plain straight out telling us they are hungry but they don’t want to eat ‘that’? Well again, you need to find your own answers to those questions, I can only tell you what I do in those circumstances. Here are the things which comes out of my mouth in those instances. They have come out so often (and I have remained consistent with them) that their protest subsides much quicker. They still try it on, but they know where they (and I) stand on this:
“I’m sorry it’s not the taste you like or the food you would have chosen, but that’s what I have done for today. It’s only one meal. Tomorrow you may prefer what I prepare”
“I understand! It’s totally up to you, either you can eat it because you are hungry or you can stay hungry because you choose not to eat that. Your choice. I’m happy with whatever you choose.”
“No probs. I will leave it here for you in case you change your mind. But the option to eat it won’t be there after 6pm because we will be getting ready for bed”.
From time to time I like to remind the kids that I’m not feeding them eyeballs, worms, roadkill or vomit (because sometimes they behave as though that is what is presented to them).
If they go on and on around in circles repeating themselves I get to a point where I say:
“I have heard you and I understand. I’m bored of talking about this. Eat or don’t but DO NOT talk about it anymore please. If you do continue to nag me then there will be a consequence.”
That way there isn’t a consequence or negative stress regarding food, it’s about them nagging.
Having explained a little about my ethos on food, let’s go back to the comments I mentioned at the start, and respond to each individually:
“Eat everything on your plate.”
(Why? Perhaps they don’t want/ need to. When they are ready they will let you know.)
“If you don’t eat all your food there’s no ice cream/ anything else to eat.”
(Why would I want someone/ anyone to consume a plate of food with the motivation being… to get more food? Particularly when they are presumably (for me to have said that in the first place) indicating that they don’t want to eat at the moment? I understand that sometimes we want kids to eat their veg and using bribery to get them to eat healthier stuff is totally understandable by dangling the carrot of a sweet treat, but I feel this confuses and convolutes our relationship with food, and suggest there may be a better, simpler way to achieve that.)
“You aren’t leaving the table until all your food has gone.”
(Again, I feel motivation to eat should be need based mostly, not as a means to eating more or getting freedom to leave the table.)
“Well done for eating all your food.”
(I particularly find this one an issue, and yet equally still catch myself saying this, and then quickly correct it. Why make eating a certain amount of food (whether because they needed to or were instructed to) a performance based activity? It’s as absurd as saying ‘well done breathing’.)
I hope this blog hasn’t left anyone feeling judged or bad. There is so much scaremongering out there about messing up our kids and I suggest that as long as you love your kids, feed them and meet their needs then you are doing an awesome job.
I feel passionately about this though and wanted to share my journey with others who may find it helpful. If you haven’t found it helpful, disregard and get on with your day confident in your choices as a good parent. If you have found it useful though I’m pleased this wasn’t written in vein.
Written by: Nicole Allen (Coffee Cups and Cuddles)
The next blog on this series will be out next Saturday: 25th Aug 2018