“Parenting is easy”…said no one ever. Parenting is both the most challenging and rewarding job you’ll ever have. There’s a huge learning curve when you step into parenthood for the first time, but those lessons help us stretch and grow. One of those learning curves centers around how to feed your little one. This is always a hot topic in any parents’ group or pediatrician office, and certainly as a dietitian, I wanted to get this right! I found that when I was learning about how to best feed my children and get through the everyday challenges of family meal times, I actually learned a lot about my own health, nutrition, and relationship with food.
Lesson #1: Listen to your appetite.
Ellyn Satter, a Registered Dietitian and renowned author and expert in infant and toddler feeding believes that we are all born knowing exactly how much to eat. She encourages parents to respect a child’s appetite for how much or how little they would like to eat. And if the child doesn’t want to eat, don’t force it. Think about babies and toddlers’ appetites – they are well known for some days wanting to eat like a king; other days, they eat hardly anything at all. Children are also well known for only eating half of a delicious ice cream cone and putting it down when they are full! Only adults will tend to finish the whole thing even if already full, because other cues and factors start to interfere. Satter explains that if we feed children regular, balanced meals and snacks, and let them pay attention to their hunger and fullness cues, they will eat the right amount for their needs. We can apply this same concept to ourselves to prevent undereating or overeating, i.e. mindful eating. Applying this concept to my children reminded me to tune more into my own appetite and eat mindfully according to my own hunger and fullness cues. With regular practice, it becomes easier to eat more mindfully according to your appetite, which means less overeating overtime.
Lesson #2: Stick to a schedule…
As a parent, you quickly learn to never leave home without snacks, because no one wants to deal with a “hangry” child. Also, it’s important to make sure to feed your child on fairly set schedule so that snacks don’t interfere with meals. As adults we know these principles, but we don’t always put ourselves first and implement them in our own lives. I try to remind myself of this when rushing out the door without food packed or when I’m tempted to eat a late lunch or snack that might interfere with my dinner appetite. Thus, while I’m helping my children stick to a healthful meal and snack schedule, I’m reminded to help myself do the same.
Lesson #3: …But also be flexible.
Parenthood is full of surprises and challenges that throw us off track and force us to be flexible. Sometimes you can’t get the groceries unloaded or the meals prepped, so it’s important to learn to cope with just doing your best and not being overly hard on yourself. Healthy eating is flexible. Avoid “all or none” thinking with nutrition. Just because you have a less-than-healthful food or meal doesn’t mean your efforts are ruined for the day or the week. My mantra is “Every little bit counts” to keep me focused on the positive things I can do to make the best of the situation, rather than throwing in the towel.
Lesson #4: Focus on your food
Most parents agree that meal time is often chaotic and rushed. You’re often eating way too quickly, and you don’t get much of a chance to focus on your food. When you don’t have time to focus on your meals, you are more likely to mindlessly eat, and you may feel as if you didn’t even eat at all! This is not as satisfying to our appetite and could invoke more snacking later. Rushed meals also can spur up digestion issues like excess gas, bloating or reflux. In the years I’ve had of rushed and mindless eating with parenthood, it has heightened my awareness of just how important focusing on my food is to my health. Even during rushed meals, I try to slow down and focus at least a little bit more now on the food and get more satisfaction out of the meal.
Lesson #5: Healthy doesn’t have to be home-made
Most people have the perception that home-made food is healthier and pre-prepared or processed foods are less healthy. However, with a busy family and work life, there is little time to fit in food prep. Something must give. I’ve learned that there is nothing wrong with using some shortcuts and pre-prepared or more processed foods to save time. All foods can fit into a healthy diet with moderation. Luckily many food manufacturers have greatly improved the nutrition and quality of ingredients of processed foods. I try to prep what I can but also read nutrition and ingredients labels, or use tools like the OptUP app to find better-for-you options of processed foods.
Lesson #6: Try, try again
You may have heard that it can take up to 10 or 20 or more times of trying a new food before a child learns to like it. I have learned that I must keep reminding myself of this fact when I’m dealing with my own picky child. I keep offering the food and don’t get stressed if she doesn’t eat it, time after time again. I offer it regularly, with a non-pressuring manner, and with different flavors and preparations to keep exposing it. This experience has also reminded me that it’s important to keep trying a food that you have an aversion to, especially fruits and vegetables, because I’ve found that my own tastes have evolved with time, just as my child’s have.
We do so much for our children. It’s hard to focus on ourselves as parents. When I reflect on all the things I have learned in parenting, I can see that many of those same lessons can apply to improve myself as well. Hopefully, we can learn to take more time for ourselves and use some of these learnings to better our own health and nutrition. When we are healthier, our kids are healthier too.
Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.