This is something that’s in progress, but here are few techniques I’ve implemented so far:
11) Choose whole foods and avoid “edible food-like substances” for the most part.
22) Coopt negative food language and make it positive.
33) Talk about healthy choices but no food policing!
44) Accept hospitality, even if it means eating food that goes against my usual healthy choices.
Choose whole foods and avoid “edible food-like substances” most of the time.
Feeding a (very) tiny,growing person helped ground my food choices and reevaluate what I was routinely putting in my body. Diet foods? Artificial sweeteners? If those were potentially poisonous and harmful for a child, were they really doing me much good? I knew that what I ate and my attitude while eating it would speak louder than any verbally stated rules or proclamations about health. So, I resolved to eat things that I’d be happy to feed my daughter. This meant that I migrated to more “whole foods,” though I definitely still use refined grains for her when she wants them: they’re calorie dense and easy to digest…really an awesome food for little ones who need to put on weight.
Coopt negative food language and make it positive.
Now, this next choice is something I’m testing on my own. I don’t know if it’s the best idea, but here’s what it is and why I’ve chosen it.
As an English major, I’m familiar with the power of language to shape our opinions and actions. A quick example: when you’re struggling through a workout or difficult task, and someone you trust says, “You can do it!” and you do? Yep, that’s at tiny fraction of the power of language.
There is so much negative, body-bashing, weird language surrounding food and our food choices. I’ve chosen to coopt some of those words and give them positive associations in our house.
Examples: We get excited about calories because calories are energy for our bodies and we love having lots of energy. We praise fat because it helps our brains develop. We get excited about protein because it helps our muscles grow. We make sure that our meal has carbs and veggies for vitamins, nutrients, and extra energy. My hope is that by creating positive connections with these words, I’ll help my daughters stave off the onslaught of judgmental, body-bashing, self-abusive terms that so many people use with them.
Talk about healthy choices but no food policing!
How do I handle “unhealthy” food? There aren’t many foods that I label as unhealthy because I don’t want to encourage that kind of detailed thinking about food in my preschooler. Also, since she’s in that “everything is black and white” phase of thinking, I don’t want her to negatively judge people who choose foods that I’ve labeled as unhealthy. So, we talk about foods that are “fun” to eat but don’t have lots of nutrition. So, we have them sometimes but not often. This includes soda. We never buy soda and I never give my daughters soda, but when we’re at a party, there’s always soda and someone inevitably offers them a sip.
Accept hospitality, even if it means eating food that goes against my usual healthy choices.
I want my daughters to eventually grasp that food has nuance. It’s not just fuel: it’s associated with emotion, celebration, tradition, culture….a whole range of beautifully complex applications. If they want to taste soda that someone offers at a party, they should feel comfortable doing so. Obviously, Panda (1) is too young for that, but Pixie (4) will usually ask me if she can have a taste but I always respond with a positive, “Sure! Go ahead!” The same goes for foods that are loaded with high fructose corn syrup and/or artificial colors. Again, these always appear at parties and family gatherings. I don’t want my daughters to learn to reject something that someone is offering in the spirit of hospitality and I don’t want to encourage orthorexia (believing that only “pure” foods are edible). So, if they *want* to taste it and it’s offered, I encourage them to try it.
The flip side of this is that I don’t want my daughters to feel pressured to eat just because someone wants them to. So, if they decide not to eat something, healthy or not, I have a couple of responses. If it’s an unhealthy choice, I respect their decision and they don’t have to taste it. If it’s refusing to try a healthy new dish or food simply because it’s new, they need to have at least one bite before making their decision (and I’ll offer it several more times in the coming months).
I try to never use the word “bad” in relation to food or food choices. When Pixie asked me why our sitter drinks soda “all the time” and if she’ll get sick because she drinks it so often, my response was that some people choose to drink lots of soda. We know it’s not good for their bodies, but we still love them, don’t we? And that’s it. Since Pixie is so young and tends to think about things deeply, I’m careful not to burden her with too much detail at this age. Also, the last thing I want her adopting is an obnoxious, “food police” mentality.
What about when Pixie tastes a not-so-healthy food at someone’s house and falls in love with it? This happened at her grandma’s house several months ago. Cheez-Its have an ingredient that is closely associated with/can contain MSG. I try to be vigilant about keeping MSG and its many, many derivatives out of our daily consumption. However, Pixie absolutely adores Cheez-Its and doesn’t enjoy any of their organic counterparts. So, I’ve simply told her that Cheez Its are something that only Grandma buys for her. Mommy doesn’t buy them, but Grandma does, and we can enjoy them at Grandma’s house.
For me, having this flexibility to say, “Sure, go ahead and enjoy that MSG containing snack while we’re at Grandma’s house,” was a long time in coming. However, it’s a decision I’ve made to avoid being disordered (aka, crazy!) about food and to try to model a balanced & nuanced approach for my daughters. This also means that I’ve let go of caring about judgments other parents may make about me if they see my daughter toting around her Cheez Its packet.
Another example is McDonald’s. I personally detest them, their food, and the farming practices that they encourage to obtain massive amounts of animal products at a low price. However, my parents occasionally get McDonald’s breakfast platters as a “treat” when we visit on the weekends. I’ve learned to shrug off my judgments and accept their hospitality. However, for my own sanity, I keep a bottle of pure maple syrup in their kitchen to substitute for the high fructose corn syrup/food coloring/artificial flavor containing syrup packets that come with those breakfasts. There’s only so far I can flex at this point. :-)
So there you have it: my (in process) two cents on overcoming a disordered, flawed relationship with food while parenting and feeding two precious little beings. Blessings to you!
Miriam blogs at BabyBellies.org, a place filled with holistic tips to nourish and nurture your preemie (or any little one who needs some extra TLC). She is a stay at home mom, a fitness enthusiast, an avid reader, and a Pinterest junkie.