1. Eat. With your kids. Three times a day. Meals are important. We are all so rushed these days. It does take time and energy to cultivate an atmosphere of community, ritual and respect at the dinner table, but it is so important. Many recent studies have shown what mothers have been saying all along: that families who sit down to eat together are often healthier and happier in all ways. It really is true that the family who eats together stays together.
2. Be Thankful. When sitting down to a meal, try to inject a little bit of ceremonial gratitude—just a little bit—or tailor your blessing to suit the energy of your family. If your family is non-religious, just making a practice of taking a moment at the beginning of the meal to thank whoever did the cooking is a great habit to get into. For families who are more interested in ritual and spirituality, create your own little blessing tradition. We *are* so lucky, aren’t we?
3. Respect your children’s food preferences, without projecting your perceptions or opinions. Very frequently, I hear parents saying to their kids as the little one reaches for something—an olive, or a piece of cheese, for example, “Oh, you don’t like olives!!!” Avoid telling your kids what they like, and what they don’t like. I actively encourage my children to try all kinds of foods: the unusual and the pungent included. Many people are surprised by my children’s openness to a variety of foods, and I think this has a lot to do with my decision not to tell them what they do or don’t like. I rarely ever hear from my kids “I don’t like that”, but when I do, my response is, “Well, you might feel differently today—why don’t you give it a try?” Usually, they do.
4. Assume that your children can, and will, eat the same foods as the rest of the family. I can’t count how many times I have been told by well-meaning parents that “children have a different palate” or that kids’ tastebuds are radically different then adults—making it nearly impossible for them to choke down broccoli, whereas when it comes to crackers and candy, they do just fine. While I do think my own kids are special—of course!—I don’t think they’re any different than other children when it comes to the foods they are *capable* of eating. And I can honestly tell you that all four of my children have loved broccoli, kale, chard, etc. and eaten them all with abandon. My kids love vegetables, because vegetables are what they are presented with. I have never made separate meals for my kids. They eat what we eat. Creating special “kid meals” sends a mixed message to children, setting up an expectation that they should be catered to, as well as indicating to them that they are less sophisticated or developed than the rest of the family. Neither of these need be true!
5. Give your children the respect and autonomy to decide when they are full. I make a point of *never* insisting that my kids finish what is on their plates. In fact, I don’t EVER comment on how much or how little they eat. Our culture is rife with disordered eating. I want my children to grow up with the freedom to listen to their bodies. As parents, it is our responsibility to create a container and a structure for our children’s experiences, but to allow self-determination and exploration within that container. I make sure that I give my children small portions, and if they want more, they are welcome to take more. They may feel like eating more or less depending on the day, their physical growth, their energy level. If they don’t feel like eating what’s on their plate, no problem, no issue, no comment. I simply pop the leftovers in a stainless steel container, to eat later on. If we as parents obsess over our children’s eating habits, our kids will learn to obsess over their eating habits. Simple.
6. Sit down to eat. Even for snacks, wherever you are. If you’re out and about, find a bench, or bring along a picnic blanket. Show your children that eating is a serious matter, and that we love our bodies enough to grant ourselves the dignity of taking time to savour and appreciate our foods. Avoid eating while doing anything else. Don’t text, don’t read, don’t watch tv while you eat. Food is love. The only accompaniment to a meal should be conversation.
7. Food is a right, and its own reward. Never use food, or sweets as a reward or a punishment. This is a sure-fire way to create pathology and anxiety around food and eating.
8. Consciously create your family’s food culture. At our house, it goes without saying that the only foods in our cupboards and fridge are vegetables, fruits, naturally-raised meats and fish. No juice, no sweets, no sugar, no processed foods. Period. Other families are different, and that’s ok. Your home is the place where “normal” is established. I used to get really hung up on the fact that out there in the world, people eat very differently from us. It stressed me out a lot that out and about, my kids would be presented with foods that I “don’t approve of”! i have relaxed a LOT. And I have learned that my kids (aged 1 and 3) deserve a lot more credit. I do avoid junk foods as much as possible—if someone asks if they can give my kids candy, I definitely say “no thank you”, but if we are guests at someone else’s home, we accept the food that is presented to us, with gratitude. Later, we have a conversation that usually goes like this: “Hey Mum, we had such and such at so-and-so’s house.” And my reply is, “Yes. So-and-so does things very differently that we do, don’t they?!”. Don’t get hung up! Your home is the place where the example is set: if the food culture in your home is STRONG, then it is possible to respect the food choices of others, without getting influenced or upset. Even at a young age, my children understand that we eat the way we do because the foods we choose make us strong, healthy, smart, and resistant to illness. Through our example, our kids are proud of the way we eat.
9. Make peace with food yourself. Children are deeply perceptive, and they easily pick up and internalize the feelings of guilt, shame, uneasiness, weariness that their parents exude when it comes to food. They will also quickly pick up a sense of joy, pride, ease, and happiness around food, if this is how their parents live. Kids are also highly susceptible to corporate advertising. So be mindful about the kind of messages your children are receiving—from you, and from the world out there.