"Did you wipe? Did you wash your hands?" I feel like a broken record repeating the same commands over and over again to train my children to be decent human beings. And they cannot seem to master these two simple steps, yet I am to teach them how to eat?! It is hard enough to get myself to eat what I need. Now I have to train these little humans? As a dietitian, I feel an extra strong burden to train my children well in the area of food. I want them to enjoy food, develop strong healthy habits and have a well developed palate to enjoy foods of all tastes and textures. It is not an easy task, but I love that I get at least 4 chances at working on it a day: breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner. Clearly this is not something a person learns in one lesson. I also see my boys repeating our behaviors. For example, my husband and I drink water with dinner, which makes it easy for my boys to know they too drink water with their dinner. It is not even a discussion or negotiation as to what we drink because it is always the same for everyone. When family comes to visit or we go out and they see other people drinking other beverages, you better believe they request/demand something else, but when 99% of their lives they know water is what we drink, it becomes their habit and their behavior. It is learned, and I hope one day, appreciated.
One behavior that I cannot tolerate in my house is demonizing food. All things in moderation, variety is key. Too much of anything is not good. In my house, sugar is a carbohydrate not a four letter word. There is something seductive about things we cannot or should not have just as part of human nature. What I have seen after working with many people to improve their nutrition, is that when food is demonized it develops into starve/binge cycles which have no end and no health benefit. What I want my boys to know is that it doesn't matter what you do for 30 days, it matters what you do day in and day out for the next 80 years.
In the same way, I do not allow them to say they do not like something. We take no thank you bites of all the food on our plate and sometimes "the timing is not right" and they do not want to eat it today, but they will try it again later. This leaves the door open for taste bud development and maturing their palate and also a fantastic life skill to be able to try food that is not familiar and develop relationships across cultures. I love the book by Amy Pleimling called "Don't Yuck My Yum." It starts a great conversation with young children about different foods and developing the social skills to eat with others.
The other day my five year old asked what a calorie was. He has been learning to read and saw a label and the word calorie. I asked him how he knew how to read it and he said Grandma was looking at the calories. In his total innocence, my son has bold letters staring at him on every box or can of food declaring the Calories. I was totally caught off guard by the question and yet completely intrigued by his total naivety to it. I have found in nutrition counseling that highlighting negatives only brings problems into focus, but when I focus on the positives, the negatives become smaller. I wanted to highlight the benefits of calories, why we need those in our bodies and I knew I had approximately 20 seconds of his attention. I explained that calories are a measure of energy and we eat food to get energy. That was enough for his 5 year old self that day, but every day since he is asking about the food labels (because of his interest in reading) and I am finding ways to highlight the benefits of the foods he is eating. I want him to understand that we eat for purpose. We eat to have energy, stay healthy and become strong. Food is our tool which can be used for great things. This week we started discussing protein and we talked about how protein is our building blocks - like legos. We talked about how some proteins (actually amino acids but they are 5 and 3) our body cannot make which is why we must eat them. Then I pointed out how it is such a bummer when they are missing a key lego piece and cannot build what they wanted. If they do not eat they protein, it is like their bodies do not have the lego pieces it needs to get strong and be healthy. These conversations are simple, but I am finding it takes away the need to repeat 5,000 times that no, they cannot have candy as an after school snack and it gives them something positive to focus on and motivate them.
Do we eat perfectly? Absolutely not. Do my children struggle with basic decent human behavior at the dinner table? Of course. I find myself reminding them to sit in their chair and not throw their food more often than I would like, but we do sit at the dinner table as a family every night of the week without any screens or distractions. We try to engage our little guys in conversation and I hope to create a safe, loving place they know they land at every night with our full attention (no phones for distraction), a consistent food pattern on their plate which they can eat or not but will at least try. Ellyn Satter is excellent in her guidance - where the parents decide what, when, and where foods are offered and the child decides whether and how much to eat. I know all families cannot do dinner together. Find a time that you can eat together, maybe you need to do breakfast as a family or weekends are your family meal times, whatever it is, strive for consistency and make it special.
Just like potty training requires the constant broken record reminder, training little ones to eat is a process that takes many many tries and I hope that one day, my sons will enjoy great health, strength and relationships because of the habits we are teaching them. In the mean time, I am having fun trying to reclaim the dinner table and train my children to enjoy food and eat for health.