“Mummy, is this healthy?”
This is the question that I am currently getting asked at every meal time. The first time my nearly 5-year-old daughter asked me, I didn’t think much of it. But then she started to ask me all the time.
When previously, I had been responding with “yes, it’s super healthy” or “hmm, not really but that’s ok”, I thought about what message I was telling her. Upon deeper reflection, what I was really telling my daughter was that there were ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. That is not the message I want her to take away. I know that I’m probably not alone in this, but by teaching our kids that food has a hierarchy (good, bad, junk, whole, clean, the list goes on…), we are actually showing them to be fearful of certain foods.
So I reframed my answer: when she asks me if something is healthy, I respond: “if you eat too much of one food every single day, then it’s not healthy for you, but if you only eat a little every now and then it’s ok.” If you eat cake all day every day, you probably won’t feel flash-hot. Likewise, if you eat broccoli all day every day, you’ll probably not be feeling too great either.
This little interaction got me to thinking: what is my child learning from me about dieting? She has observed me standing on the scales and getting upset - not quite understanding the reason for it. And let’s be honest ladies, that number really affects our mood, and our children can sense that. They also pick up on our cues and attitudes towards food. The other day I witnessed another daycare mum trying to physically rip her child off the complimentary muffins. No judgement - I have been there (always at birthday parties) but in that instance, I was shocked to see the aggressiveness towards a tiny little muffin, that in the scheme of things, wouldn’t make a dent in this child’s overall nutrition.
You see, when we look at nutrition, we shouldn’t be concentrating solely on one day but rather the balance over a period of time - a week, a month, a year. If you think of your diet over time, you’ll probably be a little more forgiving on yourself and realise that actually, you’re doing a pretty good job balancing it all out. It’s the same with our kids. They are born with the innate ability to regulate their food intake. Think about a baby - it lets you know when it’s hungry (crying, lots of crying) and it will also let you know when they’re no longer interested (mouth clamp, turning head away). Scientists report that this ability lasts until about 2 years of age, when they start adopting behaviours learnt from their environment.
So now, when my child wants to eat something or doesn’t want to eat something, I let it be. I don’t make a fuss out of it. Naturally, at home, we offer up a variety of carbs, fats and proteins at every mealtime - giving our kids a variety of foods and the choice to eat what they want, and how much they want of it. If my kids don’t eat their greens at dinner, I let it be: I know that they are making up for it at other mealtimes. When we start forcing kids to eat their greens, or even bargain with them, we begin to create a not-so-pleasant mealtime environment for them (and also increase the likelihood that they will become fussy eaters).
Remember, all food has value - yes, even cake! Food fills many needs: nutritional, emotional and social. Ever heard that saying “the kitchen is the heart of the home?” Many memories start here, it’s warm, it’s inviting, food helps connect us to people, build relationships, help to heal us. Instead of demonising food groups, we should be teaching our kids to trust their bodies and their internal cues, educating them on gentle nutrition.