I believe we can learn a lot from observing children and their eating patterns. It’s really quite fascinating when they are purely eating intuitively. I wanted to share a bit of what I have observed and learned over the years.
Years before I had my daughter, I was aware of how children are born normal, intuitive eaters. I had spent some time with a mother who was overly concerned about what her children were eating. I believe the concern stemmed from a fear that her children would be sickly or unhealthy if they ate certain foods. One day, these children were in my care. Her son often asked for food, almost like he was fixated on it. There was a fresh batch of peanut butter cookies in the cookie jar and he knew it. After our lunch, he was alluding to the fact that there were cookies in the jar. I smiled down to him and asked, “Would you like a cookie?” His face lit up and he said, “Yes!” I brought the jar down to his level and let him pick a cookie. I encouraged him to pick the biggest cookie he could find. And then I asked him to pick out a cookie for me, too. He was beaming. We ate that cookies together at the table and savored every delectable bite. And for the first time, I observed him not fixated on food for the remainder of the time I was with him. That scene has played back in my mind so many times over the years. It proved to me that if we are more relaxed about food, that they are more relaxed about food as well.
Years later, this mother realized that she was being controlling about food and asked for my help. At that time I was battling diet thoughts and overeating, but I knew enough about normal eating to give her some wisdom on the subject. I encouraged her to allow her children to guide their eating more. She was so afraid they would only eat candy and sweets at first. I shared with her that it might be that way for a short season as they learn to navigate their food choices, but that after awhile their palate would balance out. I encouraged her to offer a wide variety of choices over time, including the “play food”. I was so proud of her that she took me up on this challenge. And now, to this day, her children have well-rounded appetites and enjoy a variety of foods. They are free to enjoy all foods. And their mother no longer tries to dictate what they can and cannot eat. They are healthy, active, and vibrant children and young adults.
Recently, a mother shared with me that her 10 year old daughter had been watching an episode of The Biggest Loser. Her daughter came to her and with concern, told her mother that she wanted to go on a diet. The mother’s heart felt broken for her daughter. When she told me about this, I encouraged her that we have to be so careful what we allow our children to see and hear when it comes to dieting, eating, and how we talk about and view our body. Children are sponges, and they are soaking up these things. Even as adults, we can be influenced by such things. My heart is saddened to know that we, as a society, have come to the point that young children are concerned about their weight in an unhealthy way. There is so much emphasis put on our outward image, from small children to adults.
As adults, parents, and guardians, I believe we have some responsibility in how we influence children when it comes to eating and body image. I believe children are born knowing when they are hungry and when they have had enough food. It’s simple, biological knowledge that they don’t even really focus on. It’s innate. Intuitive. Natural. But somewhere along the line, children are told to eat more, that they ate too much, that they are too thin, or that they are too big for their age.
I have to admit it’s been fun to watch my daughter as an intuitive eater. I have learned so much from her about what it means to be a normal eater. I’m thankful for the wisdom God has given me about being a normal, Thin Within eater. I’ve read enough books and observed about this subject to see what discourages a child or adult from being a normal eater, and I take that knowledge and do my best to apply it to my daughter.
I do my best to offer my daughter a variety of food. I try my best not to pressure her to eat more than she needs. If she says she’s “all done”, I trust her judgment. I never say, “Eat more peas and then you can have a cookie.” I don’t encourage her to try everything on her plate. I offer her a plate with 3-4 food items, and I let her pick and choose what she wants to eat. Sometimes she eats all the food, sometimes she eats only a few bites. Sometimes she out eats me! She loves fruit, but sometimes she will eat other foods before eating the fruit. Sometimes she eats all of the fruit before eating other things on her plate. I just observe and I don’t make any critical comments about what or how she’s eating. Often, she will ask for more fruit even before eating other foods on her plate. I will put a little bit more fruit on her plate and say, “All done after this, then you can eat what’s on your plate.” She understands that I will not be giving her more fruit and that if she’s still hungry, she can eat the remaining food on her plate. Sometimes I will plan ahead with giving her only half of the fruit I planned to give her, and then when she asks for more, I give her the other half.
I also know that over a week’s time that she will eat a wide variety of foods. I don’t have to concentrate on if she’s getting enough fruits or vegetables verse starches. This isn’t a science experiment–this is her being a natural-born eater. I want to be as hands-off as I can be. I’ve watched her try certain foods and then try to wash that distastefulness down with milk if she doesn’t like a particular food. And then I will watch her eat that same food again a few weeks later and eat it all up. I’ve heard it can take up to 12 times before a child will actually like a certain food. Of course, there are foods I knew she doesn’t care for, but I still offer a little bit of them when we have them for a meal. I don’t encourage her to eat them. I offer and let her decide.
Allowing your children to do what I’ve mentioned above may sound scary and out-of-control. It may make you feel uncomfortable allowing your children to be in charge of their palate. I truly believe the more hands-off you can be, the better.
What if your child is already feeling restricted in their eating? I believe you can help turn it around and guide them back to being a normal eater. You can use the same Thin Within principles for children as you can for adults. It may be harder for you, as the parent or guardian to let this go. Maybe you have fears that they will be overweight or eat in an out-of-control manner if you allow them to eat the foods they enjoy. I want to encourage you to prayerfully consider what’s at stake and ask the Lord for wisdom. He will help you! Also, if you are being an example to them of what it means to be a normal eater, that will help SO much! I believe it starts with the parent.
I read a story once about a mother who was controlling her child’s food consumption. The mother took her child to a nutritional counselor. The counselor asked the mother what her child’s favorite food was. It was M&M’s. The counselor encouraged the mother to buy bags of M&M’s and to fill a pillowcase with the M&M’s. Her child was to have complete control over these M&M’s. The mother was hesitant, but she did as the counselor suggested. At first, the child slept, bathed, and did everything with this pillowcase of M&M’s by it’s side. The mother was not allowed to say anything about when the child ate the candies. After a few days the child was no longer carrying around the pillowcase. The child realized that it could have those M&M’s whenever there was a desire. The novelty wore off. This same sort of thing happens to me when I have a certain kind of food around for a long time: I get tired of it being around, but I know I can have it at any time. It no longer has a hold on me because I know it’s always going to be there and if I run out, I can buy or make more. The conclusion to the M&M story: as the mother relaxed about food and allowed her child to actually eat what he/she enjoyed without criticism or control, the child also relaxed and over time, lost the extra weight and was no longer fixated on food.
Your child, just like an adult, may choose more play food at first when you surrender controlling their food intake. I know I did this. After awhile my body craved other foods and not so many play foods. I don’t even focus on what kind of foods I eat. When I’m hungry, I ask myself what I want to eat. You can do the same with children without emphasizing about a particular food being “good”, “bad”, “healthy” or “junk”. I personally don’t believe in in ‘junk’ food now that I’m more of a normal eater and following the principles of Thin Within. I believe we should treat all foods as the same, especially when starting out on this journey of becoming a Thin Within eater. The true emphasis should be on legalizing ALL foods and acknowledging those signs of hunger and fullness.
A child who hasn’t had much of a say in what they eat, will need to build up the trust that no one will dictate or criticize what they eat. This may take some time, but I truly believe that over time they will be in tune with their hunger levels once again and food won’t be such a fixation. And again, having an adult being an example of a normal eater makes a huge impact.
Pray about what you are allowing your child to see and hear. Is it “healthy” for you to watch shows like The Biggest Loser together with your family? How about those magazines or books? How do you talk about your body? How do you talk about your child’s body?
There’s so much more to say about this topic, but I will share this for now. Some great resources about children and eating: Intutive Eating (3rd Edition) by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and Raising Fit Kids in a Fat World by Judy Halliday.
How about you?
What can you do to encourage your child to be a normal eater? Do you desire to be that example in their life? Are you willing to let go of that control and let God guide? What can you learn from your little ‘Thin Within’ eater?
Written by: Christina