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SALT LAKE CITY — Simply put, feeding children is hard.
Planning family meals takes a lot of work and creativity, especially when it comes to allergies, pickiness and tantrums at the table. Don’t forget the pressure parents feel to feed their kids healthy, balanced — even cute — meals that need to be free of all chemicals, additives and artificial anything. Please understand that this may be impossible.
Yes, providing a child’s growing body with the best nutrition a grocery budget will allow is incredibly important. But when it comes to raising children in a modern food world, guiding them to learn how to nourish their bodies while feeling relaxed around “forbidden” foods can get complicated.
Forbidden foods are foods that are deemed unhealthy in our society. While everyone seems to have different definitions of this term, these foods are highly rewarding. They are typically high-fat, high-sugar foods like cookies, candy, other desserts and chips. When these foods are restricted they can become evening more rewarding, which may cause the eating experience to feel out of control.
While science doesn’t support this theory, this is the reason why many people believe rewarding foods are addictive. Restriction can often make an individual feel addicted to forbidden food.
Restriction comes in many forms. Many parents aren’t aware of the ways they might be practicing restriction. Getting rid of all forbidden food in the house or establishing strict rules around food are some obvious examples. Some more subtle examples may be saving treats for only special occassions or limiting baking to "healthier" or "protein-packed" versions of dessert recipes.
According to Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and family therapist, restricted children eat more high-calorie snack foods than children who are allowed regular access to forbidden foods. Additionally, a restricted child will likely eat more of these foods when given the chance and may feel bad about it, causing them to hide wrappers from their parents.
When it comes to feeding kids, the best thing any parent can do is to try to relax. Then, as a family, work together to establish how feeding kids at home feels the most comfortable. Strict rules are not recommended but you can aim for flexible guidelines.
Here are some helpful family feeding guidelines:
1. Regular access to food at established meal times
This doesn't mean unlimited access to forbidden foods, as children who continuously snack on these foods will never be hungry for a more nourishing meal. Instead, implement a regular pattern of eating. This means that breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided at regular times. Consistent snacks can be planned in between. These meals do not have to be exact each day but can be dependable. If a child loves to snack, you can remind them of the meal times by saying, “We aren’t eating right now, lunch will be ready in 30 minutes.” This can be a challenge for younger children with older siblings but remember, progress, not perfection, is what counts.
2. Turn forbidden foods into play foods
Incorporate forbidden foods that the family loves into regular meals and as snacks. Yes, some children may fill up on these foods first and may not touch the other food. That's fine, they will get nourishing food eventually. They will learn how to nourish their own body and come to know what feels good to them. If a parent is constantly interfering in their child’s autonomy, then they won’t discover how food impacts their body. Ask children what they would like to have at home, invite them to pack their lunch, allow them to choose the team snack, bake as a family and go out for ice cream on a regular weekday night.
These types of food should be added to children's diets intentionally and as often as you like. If a child has been restricted too long, they may start off eating more of these foods than feels comfortable. Try to trust the process. As the excitement of having these foods around more frequently wears off for kids, forbidden foods can become play foods. It's completely normal to desire these foods because they taste good, bring pleasure and ignite joy.
3. Remain neutral around each child and all foods
Some children have more of a sweet tooth than others. This is perfectly normal, as all humans have varied food preferences. Don't praise a child for eating all of their vegetables, cleaning their plate or not wanting a treat that is offered because children may begin to feel that they're good or bad based on their eating habits. Additionally, don't tell a child they can have dessert if they eat their vegetables first.
Aim to help children understand that there aren’t good foods or bad foods. The more we remain neutral around all food, the more children may grow up appreciating a varied diet and having a healthy relationship with food.
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