On the first morning of a recent vacation in Europe I found myself at a breakfast table surrounded by good friends and family. While everyone was enjoying their food and conversation I suddenly saw my 21 month old daughter pointing at a Nutella jar placed in the center of the table. Being concerned with healthy nutrition, items like this are usually absent from our breakfast table and so far we had not introduced her to sweets. Why offer if they don’t ask for it, right?
But now, seeing other kids enjoying their fresh warm bread with plenty of butter and Nutella my daughter naturally wanted a piece of it. At first I tried to offer her healthy items that were placed around the jar, pretending she was pointing at those. But whatever I handed her she calmly kept her aim shaking her head at everything I offered. Finally she grabbed her neighbor’s butter knife, covered in Nutella, and started licking it. At this point I felt not only conflicted but also a bit silly so Ella was introduced to Nutella.
Visiting with family practically every day from thereon Ella was introduced to all kinds of cakes, pastries, and ice-cream, which aunts, uncles, and grandparents offered to her plentiful. I sat back, watched it all, and felt like all my efforts to raise a healthy child were spoiled.
In the following days I remembered Ellyn Satter’s words, pediatric dietician, psychotherapist, and author of “Child of Mine”, recommending that sweets should actually be included in a child’s diet plan. She emphasizes that children have an innate ability to self-regulate their food intake and therefore need to be able to eat what they want and how much they want in order to further develop this ability. Interfering by controlling the amounts they eat or denying certain foods disturbs this natural process and can easily lead to a maladjusted relationship to food and even psychological problems later in life. When sweets become forbidden foods children have a tendency to over-consume once they get hold of them.
It is important to trust your child’s ability to become competent in all areas of eating, even in those where you might be lacking. In her book, Ellyn Satter speaks about the division of responsibility in feeding where the parent is responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding and the child is responsible for the how much, and whether of eating. This is an important concept as it gives the child the autonomy and responsibility for learning how to self-regulate and to develop healthy relationships to food.
You can’t force your child to eat nor should you deprive your child of food. You will only create bad patterns and an unhealthy association to eating. Your responsibility is to choose foods and to create a nurturing environment in which your child can continue to explore and develop its innate ability to self-regulate. ‘Good nutrition is optimizing, providing, and celebrating; it is not restricting, controlling, and avoiding.’
This, of course, does not mean to feed your child sweets whenever they want. You are the parent and it is your job to choose foods wisely. Children will essentially respect this and learn from it as they are looking for guidance on their constant quest to comprehend, grow, and to be successful in life.
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