I recently started an intuitive eating journey. I follow a frame of thought called “Health at Every Size” or HAES for short. In this perspective, everyone has access to health, food is not demonized, and body awareness and acceptance are developed. Here are some of the freedoms I’ve found from removing dieting from my life and healing my relationship with food: lowered guilt, no more fear of carbs… calories… or sugar, gratitude for access to food, less thinking about food every day, fewer instances of overeating, feeling satisfied with what I’m eating, and meeting my needs without guilt, shame or fear. I knew that this journey of mine would impact my family deeply, so I’ve been working hard to figure it out and find solutions. I wanted to share what intuitive eating with kids is like. It’s been an adjustment but I feel like overall our family is on a better footing when it comes to raising children who have healthy relationships with food and eating.
My issues with food were really reflecting on my kids. At one point, the boys would wake up early in the morning just so they could come down and raid the pantry without me fussing at them all day. It became problematic that I had such a restrictive mindset around food and it was making them feel food insecure.
My kids were eating everything in sight all the time because they were worried that I wasn’t going to let them eat when they were actually hungry.
Enter new awareness about diet culture. I realized that by yelling and fussing at my kids all the time about the amount of food they were eating, I was impacting their own food relationships. Yes, I still feel a little mom guilt about it but I’m working on it.
While I have been learning and growing in my own relationship with food. Here are a few things we have changed as a family:
1. Snack boundaries
We do still maintain some boundaries around food. For example, when the boys were waking up early to eat all the forbidden things, they were actually consuming food that was planned out for meals. As a family of five living on one income, we needed to be careful with our resources. But still, I was having to replan or repurchase things regularly. Plus, it was frustrating to start making tacos in the evening and discover that there was no more tortillas and shredded cheese left.
We now have 2 “anytime you’re hungry” snack buckets. One is in the fridge and one is on the counter. The rules are: “you may feed yourself from these anytime you’re hungry, just clean up after yourself!”. I try to keep these two bins well stocked. There’s almost always yogurt, cheese, clementines, bananas, pretzels, fruit leather, pickles, and apples on hand. Since implementing these “anytime” baskets, the boys haven’t been eating from the pantry or eating meal staples. They enjoy the foods available and they’re not behaving anymore as if the food is going to run out.
2. Mealtime moods
I have banned all food stress from our meals. As someone recovering from disordered eating and healing my relationship with food, any unnecessary stress added during mealtimes impacts me. We use dinnertime to give our boys the opportunity to listen to their bodies, discover what they like and don’t like (and express that kindly!), and try new things in an environment without pressure or frustration. I have been working on not taking it personally when my guys don’t like what I’ve made but instead, I make sure there are options available that I know they will eat within the meal. I try to build in wins for them!
We divide responsibilities. My responsibility is to provide them with enough food to nourish themselves. Their responsibility is to choose how much they need and what they’d like to eat. This mealtime mood goal has really changed the vibe of dinnertime at our house. Dinner is joyful, a time to connect, and not a time to discipline or feel angry. We have also implemented telling stories at dinner. Our oldest son has autism and it has become a time for us to practice active listen to each other, and also connecting while sharing stories about our day. The kids seem to enjoy it.
3. Family style eating
I try to offer 3-5 options at meals (sometimes main, 1-2 sides, fruit, and bread), and they can choose if they only want one or if they want some of everything. When I was an undergraduate student, I had the privilege of taking play therapy from one of the world-renown modern play therapists. He does this amazing lecture called “kids and cookies”. Basically, the gist of his teaching is to give children choices that are appropriate for their age. Even something as simple as “would you like one Oreo or two Oreos?” gives a child the opportunity to develop a sense of autonomy over themselves. At dinner, we place pots and bowls with family-sized portions in the middle of the table. We take turns (with some help) choosing how much we think we’ll need. Seconds are available as long as everyone has had a chance to serve themselves and there is enough left, and getting more food is not socially unacceptable in our home. Family style meals also take much of the responsibility off of us, as parents to solely serve, cut, get drinks, etc the meal, and transfers some of that opportunity on the kids.
At this point in time (my children are 6, 5, and 4), I am the one who plans the meals and makes them. But as the boys get older and develop some interest in preparing, we’ll let them each take a night a couple of times a month to plan and prepare the meal for the family.
Following this dinner structure has given us peaceful mealtimes. No one is policing anyone else over how much they’re eating. Everyone is responsible for themselves and gets to choose how much of the meal they’ll eat. I’ve noticed some of my boys’ pickiness flares going away as well. They feel safe at dinnertime, no one is pressuring them to eat or not eat. I do make sure to have fruit available just in case one of the boys isn’t feeling the meal and that gives them the opportunity to have something nutritious that they’ll always be happy eating.
- We don’t force them to try anything.
- We ask them to listen to and respect what their bodies need.
- We don’t “healthy shame” or “sugar ban” them.
- We don’t stress about the volume of food they’re eating.
- We ask them to serve themselves and give space for them to make age-appropriate choices.
Dinnertime is no longer a battle.
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