One of the most difficult things about nutrition confusion is when you become a parent and suddenly you are responsible for not only your own choices, but also those of your children. Parents are advised that they know best. Parents are told to decide what their kids should eat, when their kids should eat, and how much they should eat. I've seen lots of articles over the years warning against giving kids too much food freedom.
But how are we supposed to decide what is best for our kids if the experts can't even agree on what's best for us?
I have recently come to a very important conclusion: I am the only expert on my own nutritional needs. I can read about the benefits of all the different diets, but in the end, what matters most is how I feel. What's good for you might not be good for me. There are not many absolutes when it comes to food.
How does this translate into my parenting? My husband and I know our children are experts already. Even at ages two and four, they know what they want and what they need. We trust their abilities to listen to their bodies, and this is how it looks around here:
- They eat when they are hungry. We do not expect them to eat "three meals a day." There is no "you can't eat now because dinner is in 20 minutes." If you are hungry now, eat now.
- They stop eating when they are full. There is no expectation that the kids should eat a certain amount at any time. No "two more bites" or "clear your plate."
- They eat what they want. We don't label foods "good" and "bad." Instead, we offer them a variety of foods we know they enjoy or think they might enjoy, and the kids get to figure out how different foods make them feel.
- They eat where they want.* This usually means sitting on the couch, at the coffee table. But sometimes it means having a picnic on the floor, sometimes in the car, sometimes in the bed, and sometimes at the dining table.
For those of you who think children need to be taught how to eat right, using restrictions and force, you should try observing a child who has complete freedom over her own food choices. Watch her take a bite of a food that she loves, then decide leave most of it on her plate because she really isn't hungry anymore. Watch her hold a popsicle in one hand and a watermelon wedge in the other, and alternate taking bites of each. Watch her get as excited about buying a mango as she does about buying gummy worms. Watch how willing she is to share her food with others.
Listen to her say "That made my stomach hurt last time I ate too much of it, I don't want to do that again." Marvel at the fact that a bag of candy can last for months and be forgotten. Count how many times a "treat" is found with one bite eaten and the rest left behind. This is not to say she always chooses what others would consider "healthy," but many of us could learn something from this child.
*We do respect the rules/wishes of others when we are in someone else's space. For example, if we are at a house where eating is only allowed in the kitchen, we only eat in the kitchen.