ASK THE EXPERT: Healthy Eating for Kids
The second session in our Kid’s Wellbeing Essentials Package is ‘Healthy Food Choices Hypnotherapy for Kids’. To discuss this topic a little more I sat down with parenting coach, Dominique Olivier.
Me: Dominique, there is SO much information out there for parents who are wanting their kids to make healthy eating choices, but so much of it is contradictory. I know I have struggled at times to walk a line between trying to control what my kids eat based on the latest information, and sort of giving up and letting them have free reign. And everything in between, depending on the age and the child. It’s been hit and miss, to be honest! My oldest kids, who are now 18 and 21, eat pretty well, but my youngest, who is 8, is very picky and tends to want to eat anything made with sugar or white flour, but resists all the things I think are good for him. Do you have some advice?
Dominique: well, firstly I think that it’s important to remember that kids have very different PHYSICAL experiences of eating than adults do. Infants have around 30,000 taste buds spread all around their mouths, adults have a third of this number. So eating is an intense experience for them and they really do taste a LOT more than we do. There’s a reason why baby food tends to be bland…it’s overwhelming! In addition to having so many more taste buds than us, children also have a definite preference towards sweet foods over bitter foods. The theory is that in nature, bitter fruits are often poisonous, while sweet ones rarely are, so this is actually an adaptive survival mechanism that would have kept children safe when they were out in nature and searching for food.
So to a certain extent, I think it helps parents to remember this, and to remember that your child may not just be being ‘picky’ when they don’t want to eat their vegetables. Their taste buds are designed to reject the slightly bitter flavors in order to keep them alive. As their body grows their taste buds will change, and it is MUCH better for their long term eating health if they don’t already associate the taste of things like vegetables with the feeling of pressure by the time they actually enjoy the taste.
Me: yes, that is really true…I definitely noticed my older kids becoming more and more open to a variety of flavors as they got older. In fact, we used to often suggest they try something they hadn’t liked when they were a little younger, by saying ‘just check and see if your taste buds have changed yet!’ They were often open to trying a previously rejected food in this kind of experimental energy, and I think it planted the idea in them that they might eventually end up liking all sorts of things.
Dominique: Exactly! Children are often much more open to broadening their choices if they don’t feel pressure, but rather curiosity, and if they know they won’t get locked into having to eat the food if they don’t like it.
In fact, the healthiest relationship I think you can help your child have with food is one in which they learn to trust their own experience, and to listen to their own bodily cues about when they’re hungry or full.
Me: Yes, I can see that that is true…if we want them to be adults who eat well and who don’t over or under eat, it makes sense that helping them listen to their own bodies about that would be a very helpful thing. My husband is a chef, and it’s very hard for him to not prompt our son into eating ‘just a bit more’, or taking another bite when he’s full. Am I right in thinking that it’s not a great idea to be doing that?
Dominique: Absolutely. If your son is listening to his own body and deciding that he’s full, being asked to override that feeling with pressure to eat more creates a pretty unhealthy eating pattern over time. A lot of us were raised to finish everything on our plates, and you can imagine how that causes problems down the line when we might struggle with our weight because we’ve consistently ignored our body’s cues to stop eating. One of the most important relationships to try to maintain for your kids is their awareness of the information they’re getting from their body. We WANT them to know and to listen when they have a bad feeling about someone, for example. We don’t want to have taught them that they should ignore what their own body is telling them, ever!
Me: So how do we help them maintain their awareness of when they’re hungry or full, not put pressure on them to eat things they might not like the taste of (even if we think they would be good for them), but still help them eat a good, healthy diet?
Dominique: That’s the million dollar question. I have researched many different theories and ‘methods’ over the years, but the one that consistently makes the most sense to me, and seems to work really well for families, is called The Division of Responsibility, a term coined by feeding expert Ellyn Satter. The idea is very simple: parents are responsible for WHAT foods they offer their kids, and WHEN they offer those foods. The kids are responsible for WHICH foods they choose to eat, and HOW MUCH they eat of them.
It doesn’t mean that kids have unlimited access to cookies and junk food…what it means is that parents offer a variety of healthy options at mealtimes, and kids decide which of those foods they want. And they can stop eating when they feel done. Of course, there should be some treats available from time to time too, but in general, if parents are creating meals in this way, and kids really begin to feel and believe that they won’t be pressured into eating something they don’t want, the kids really do begin to relax and enjoy eating. And will often try new foods and gradually broaden their palates over time.
You can see how this method allows for parents to retain control over what kinds of foods their kids eat, but it allows kids the essential role of listening to their own bodies. It’s a win win!
Me: That’s amazing! I love that idea, and I can see how it would also cut down on so much of the arguments and struggles at mealtimes. Thank you…I’m going to try that out this week, as long as I can get my husband on board!
Dominque: Yes, you might have to suggest it as an experiment at first, as so many of us are sort of indoctrinated to think that children would make really terrible choices for themselves if we let them (probably because that’s how we were taught to think about ourselves as kids). The truth is that kids naturally want to feel good, and their bodies are designed to communicate well with them, and if we give that feedback loop a chance without inserting our own fears and need to feel in control, they can grow into adults who consistently make really good choices about what they eat. And isn’t that the long term goal, after all?
Me: Absolutely! And it’s one of the reasons that we include the Healthy Food Choices hypnotherapy session in our kid’s essentials package. Do you think that the method you’ve described would work well with that session?
Dominique: Everything we can do to help kids listen to the information they’re getting from their own bodies is a good thing. If kids have spent some years already feeling pressured to eat things they really don’t want to, or have become overly attached to sugar as a quick energy fix, then helping them to ‘reset’ their relationship with food and eating can be very powerful. I would definitely recommend this session as a gentle addition to the Division of Responsibility method we’ve talked about today.
Me: Thank you so much for your thoughts and help with this today. I’m excited to get started with my 8 year old and see what changes we can make and how much better meal times can be in our house!