Healthy Eating, Peaceful Boundaries

Meal time and eating is a huge struggle for many families. Unfortunately, our fear-driven actions around eating often lead us into power struggles. And rather than actually helping our children develop a positive relationship with food and their bodies, we end up obstructing their opportunity to learn about their body’s relationship to food. So, how do we help our children learn healthy habits?

Encourage Healthy Eating

It is important to help our children develop a broad palate of healthy foods by supporting and encouraging their efforts. We do this by offering them various foods, offering them at least 1 vegetable they like and providing 1 other vegetable they may not like, eating and trying different foods ourselves, and allowing them to choose whether or not they eat the food we provide.

“We provide the food, they choose what and how much to eat.”

 

It helps to remember that as adults, we choose what we eat. While I’m not a picky eater (I like most foods and textures), there are some foods I won’t eat for other reasons (they aren’t healthy for my body). So I try to remember that while I’m not a picky eater, some children and adults are. And that’s okay. The truth is, we cannot change a child’s palate through force; we can only encourage them to try things by modeling it ourselves, by inviting them to join in the buying and cooking process, and by respecting their choices without shame, blame, pain, or guilt. 

  • Model healthy & adventurous eating
  • Invite them to help choose and prepare vegetables for dinner
  • Respect their choices
  • Repeat

 

Setting Peaceful Limits

Setting limits can feel difficult in peaceful parenting practices because it was not often modeled for us when we were children. Forging new territory is always a learning process! And being peaceful in mealtimes and with food is no exception. We all have different boundaries for different areas of our lives, including food and meal times. In peaceful parenting it isn’t the differences that matter, but rather the similarities: an atmosphere of respect and understanding, an absence of shame, choices, autonomy, and an opportunity to try again. Many families have limited food budgets and simply cannot offer a multitude of choices and meals to their children, while other families simply don’t have the time or energy to do so. This doesn’t make anyone a non-peaceful parent; it only means they have tighter boundaries than other families (likewise, a parent who makes a meal that’s a bust, then chooses to make another meal is not a permissive parent).

When we engage in power struggles by insisting our children try foods, by making our children “eat or go hungry,” and by using other methods of control, we lose site of our long term goal of teaching them to listen to their bodies, to eat when they’re hungry, and to make healthy choices. For as long as they’re in a power struggle with us they have no opportunity to learn for themselves.

 

Allowing children to experience the natural consequence of feeling hungry does not mean we force them to stay hungry in the name of “teaching them a lesson.” We choose to parent peacefully because we know that punitive parenting doesn’t help children learn life lessons. So instead of saying, “too bad you have to go hungry now” we take the opportunity to talk about fueling our bodies while also modeling the empathy and grace that we ultimately want our children to learn themselves. It’s no different than allowing our child to go out without a jacket on, allowing them to experience the natural consequence of being cold, and taking a jacket along with us so we can offer it to them when they realize that their choice may not have been the best one. They experience both the natural consequence, and learn the lesson of what to do next time, all wrapped up in empathy and grace. You made a mistake, you can try again, and again, and again.

Peaceful Limits In Action

I make chicken, sweet potatoes and broccoli for dinner. I know my daughter loves this meal, but for some reason she doesn’t want to eat it tonight. She’s not hungry or it doesn’t sound appetizing to her. That’s ok. Sometimes the same thing happens to me. I’m not going to cook her another meal because I plan my meals once a week and I don’t have other meals to offer her. Her options are either have leftovers from the previous dinner, or she can have some other options I feel are healthy, depending on what we have. Oftentimes these options are yogurt with fruit and honey, sunbutter sandwich, carrots & hummus, peanut butter & apple, etc. I don’t always have all of these options, and if this is the last meal of the week I might not have any of these options, in which case she and I would work together to find something else (I usually have beans and rice that can be made in about 20 minutes if I’m out of the easy stuff).

 

Worry Makes Things Worse

Children who are very picky eaters can be more stressful for some parents because we are so quick to worry about their food intake. Or they know if their child doesn’t eat their child will have a meltdown from low blood sugar. I totally get this. My daughter can sometimes go days without (what seems to me) much sustenance to her diet. And while I may “worry” on the inside, I choose to bite my tongue because as soon as I try to control her eating she’s going to dig in her heels…instant power struggle with no benefit. And inevitably, a few days pass and she’s back to eating well again. Likewise, sometimes she doesn’t eat and she does meltdown from low blood sugar. Again, I choose to let her have that experience of low blood sugar because she won’t learn about her body’s needs without that experience.

Instead of forcing the food, I stay present during the meltdown. And afterward, when she’s feeling better, we talk about why she may have had that struggle – I don’t shame or blame her (“if you’d eaten you wouldn’t have felt that way”), I simply notice or wonder, “sometimes when I don’t eat I feel upset. I noticed you were upset and wonder what we can do next time to help you feel better when your blood sugar is low.” We also talk a lot about our bodies, fueling our bodies, resting our bodies, etc. during the normal course of our day (NOT when it’s time to eat or snack). 

The Parent’s Responsibilty

Our job as parents is to offer healthy choices and variety, and allow our children to choose what and how much they eat. During this time we also have the opportunity to model empathy and grace by offering them other healthy options when they don’t like dinner. Our long term goal is to empower our children, not control them. When it comes to food, this means trusting their bodies to guide them, one fruit and one vegetable at a time. Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves of the relationship we want our children to have with food and to ask ourselves, “Is this modeling the empathy and grace I want see in my child one day?”

The ability to reflect on our own childhood is a powerful thing. What were mealtimes like in your home? How did you feel as a child during mealtimes? Let us know in the comments!

 

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