Food is Not a Four-Letter Word

photo credit: szaszlajos

If you’re a parent, you worry. So has every other parent in history, back to the days when little Og went out on his first mammoth hunt and his folks hoped he wouldn’t hurt himself with his own spear. As twenty-first century parents, we may worry even more than previous generations, thanks to the media and its dedicated to make sure we know just how many things we should be worrying about.

One of our big concerns, these days, is our children’s weight. Fat is bad! But so are eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia! According to hundreds of news stories, books and websites, feeding your kids is a minefield of potential Bad Parenting Decisions, and if meals and snacks are not fraught with anxiety, they ought to be.

Bah humbug, I say. Relax. Here are a few suggestions for helping your kids eat well, so they grow up in strong, healthy bodies, avoid the potential damage caused by disordered eating, and feel comfortable in their own skins.

Watch your language.

Yes, technically food IS a four-letter word. But it’s just food. It’s not a moral issue; foods cannot be inherently ‘bad’ or ‘good,’ and your value as a human being has nothing to do with what you eat. Food is nutrition, and pleasure. It is necessary for survival, and what you choose to eat influences your health. That’s all.

Whether or not you’re not happy with your own weight, be careful about criticizing yourself or others. Being thin is not the key to happiness. Being fat does not make you, or anyone else, a bad person. Remarks that suggest otherwise may encourage self-esteem issues or even eating disorders. Your kids are already getting the body-policing messages from magazines, advertising, movies, TV and their peers; home should be a place where they don’t feel judged on the basis of appearance. If you have your own issues with food, do your best not to pass them along to the next generation.

Be cautious about using food to comfort or reward—a hug, some praise, or a half an hour of ‘just-you-and-me time’ can mean far more than cookies. Not that there’s anything wrong with cookies. At the same time, forbidding particular foods, especially sweets, makes them more attractive, as well as making a child feel deprived and/or punished. A chocolate sundae should be loaded with hot fudge and whipped cream, not emotional resonance.

It’s a balancing act.

We talked with our kids, from an early age, about eating a “balanced diet.” We’ve had long dinner-table discussions about how your body needs different types of foods: protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. I’ve always had a sweet tooth, and my kids are the same, but I’ve made it clear that we can’t just live on dark chocolate and ice cream, much as we might like it. Why? Not because these foods are ‘bad’ for us, but because our bodies need things that chocolate and ice cream just don’t have. A good reason always gets a better response than “because I said so,” and it’s worth the effort to teach them about healthy eating from an early age.

My motto is “everything in moderation, including moderation.” We all know that a steady diet of potato chips, soda and fast food isn’t good for you. But every so often, as a treat? Go for it. My kids have fond memories the steamy-hot summer day when I brought home sandwiches for lunch. Ice cream sandwiches. That was not only delicious, but something special.

Minimize the drama

Given how persistently stubborn kids can be, don’t bother pushing them to eat things they don’t like. Making every meal into a power struggle is setting yourself up for years of arguments. Go for the negotiated compromise instead of a pitched battle, and try to find something you can both live with.

For a while, my son thought vegetables were an evil plot to make him miserable. We insisted that he eat at least some small amount of vegetable and/or fruit with dinner, but we worked on finding ones that he was willing to eat. Broccoli? No way, no how. Sliced tomatoes and cucumbers were acceptable, however (not to mention easy to prepare), and I found a recipe for carrots that he loved.

A friend of mine instituted the following policy: If you don’t like what we’re eating, you can make yourself a peanut butter sandwich and have that with a piece of fruit. She wasn’t about to cook a separate meal, so she made the kids take responsibility for their choices, and gave them another, reasonably healthy option. They also had to at least try what was on the table before going to the PB&J fallback.

I’m a big believer in the “one bite” rule: you have to taste something before you can say you don’t like it. It’s not a commitment, just an introduction. My son was very surprised to find out that the weird pink fish tasted pretty good, and salmon is now one of his favorite foods. Don’t introduce a lot of new foods at once, but let them try a wide variety of flavors to see what appeals.

Picky eaters won’t actually die of malnutrition. Really.
My daughter’s best friend, at 13, is still on what I call “the Beige Diet.” It consists of a limited range of foods in shades ranging from white to light brown to dark brown. Grilled cheese sandwiches, buttered noodles, and chocolate are staples of her diet. This girl is tall, lean, energetic, and terrifyingly confident. An aspiring actress, she dances everything from tap to Balkan folk dance, and sings show tunes from dozens of Broadway musicals at the drop of a hat.

As a toddler, my son went through a “Beige Diet” phase of his own. Now he’s a teenager who eats anything and everything, and plenty of it. So don’t worry too much about your picky eater. Give them a daily multivitamin—you can get them conveniently disguised as gummy bears—and unless your doctor tells you there’s a problem, there isn’t.

Thin doesn’t always mean healthy. Fat doesn’t mean you can’t be fit.

If your child is physically active and eats a reasonably balanced diet, they’re probably just fine. If there’s a family history of diabetes, dangerously high cholesterol or eating disorders, you’ll want to keep watch for warning signs, but not every chubby kid grows up to be an fat adult. Some do, of course, because bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and variations in weight are about more than food. Medical science is just starting to unravel the ways that factors like metabolism, genetics and endocrinology influence a person’s size. Body shame and yo-yo dieting, on the other hand, can create a lifetime of food-related issues that compromise both emotional and physical health.

It’s just food. Enjoy it, teach your kids to enjoy it, and take a walk with them after dinner.

Bon appetit!

In addition to being a mom to two teenagers, a happily married wife, and a good cook, Sandra Larkin is a personal coach. She works with individuals to define success in a personally meaningful way, and then create a plan to achieve that success. Find out more about her coaching practice at Success with Sandra Larkin and at her blog, Forward Momentum!

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About Sandra Larkin