Five words I dread to hear from any woman: “I am on a diet”.
What they really mean to say is, “I am currently restricting my food intake so drastically that I am basically starving myself so I can squeeze into an impossible dress and make my old high school classmates jealous at our reunion next week. But once that night is over you may as well deep fry a herd of Buffalo because I will be so hungry I will eat anything not nailed to the floor”.
Now I have heard this phrase (the diet one, not the subtext), come out of a friend of mines mouth more than once. But what hit me like a tonne of bricks was when I heard the very same words, “I am on a diet” come out of the mouth of her 6-year-old daughter.
Cue my jaw hitting the floor.
I doubt my friend’s daughter completely understood what she was saying; the gravity of it, but it highlighted a very important point to me. Our relationship with our food will profoundly affect the relationship our children will have with food.
Having a 3-year-old daughter myself, and numerous food intolerances, sensitivities and issues, but being a foodie from way back, I want my daughter to have a real lasting and fulfilling relationship with her food.
So I sat back and reflected on the lessons I myself have been teaching my daughter about food.
10 lessons I am teaching my daughter about food.
1. No food is “good” or “bad".
I try and avoid using words like good and bad when describing foods. No foods are out of bounds; rather we talk about real food versus manufactured or fake foods. So a banana is real food, a pre-packaged cake is fake food. I talk about how when we make cake at home we use real food like eggs and butter, but we can’t see how someone made the cake in a store, it in fact was made in a factory by robots (she’s 3) and do you think robots make good cake? Of course not, they don’t have mouths.
2. Listen to your body.
My daughter has inherited my sensitive gut, so she knows that “gluten makes my tummy sore”, “cows milk makes my tummy sore” and she can relay this information to adults. It’s not like she has never had bread or cake or ice cream, but when she does she reacts to it. We then allow her to understand that it is her bodies way of telling her that type of food isn’t really her friend.
3. No forcing.
Teaching her to listen to her body also means allowing her to decide what she wants to eat and when she is hungry. This doesn’t mean I become a short order cook, it just means that she is offered a (carefully pre-determined) choice at dinnertime. Peas or broccoli? Carrots or pumpkin? We also have a rule that if it is on your plate, you try it. You don’t have to eat it all, or like it, just try it. This method has worked fairly well with getting her to eat new foods like sauerkraut. When she tells us she is full, we allow her to stop eating, even if there is food left on her plate. This allows her to trust what her body is telling her.
4. Food is not a reward.
This one is tricky, because I still find myself saying things like “two more mouths and you can have a choccy”. But using food as a reward sets up the idea that food will make you feel good and better and worthy and paves the way for emotional eating habits in the future.
But she is still a toddler and needs a little encouragement sometimes (hey, I never said I was super mum). Now I am trying things like “how about an extra 2 minutes in the bath if you try this sweet potato?”
5. When we are out, it’s better not best.
We still live in the real world and have a social life, sort of - can a kids birthday party be classified as a real party? These places can be mine fields and more often than not, I allow my toddler to go nuts. That is, after I have fed her a substantial nutritiously dense meal before we leave the house. The funny thing is, my daughter has never seen the brightly coloured lollies and popcorn that is usually on offer, and the highly artificial colours do not trigger the word “food” in her mind, she probably thinks it craft supplies, so she never reaches for it. Normally, she ends up eating the cheese and ham from the sandwiches, because she rarely has them and she actually recognizes it as food. These are probably not the best choices I think, as I try to convince her carrot sticks and oranges are the best things there, but they are the lesser of the evils. I resign myself to the fact that she will require an extra dose of probiotic when we go home and continue concentrating on blocking out the sight of children squeezing balloons. Seriously, that freaks me out.
6. Get involved.
I know it takes about a gazillion times longer to have a toddler help you with anything. But you’re making memories here people. I let my daughter pick out the carrots and beans when we go shopping. Which type of apples would you like? Do you know why the potatoes are dirty? Getting her involved and interested is the first step in connecting her with her food. We live in an amazing world of technology so any question she asks (how does an onion grow?) we can Google. It’s amazing how much I have learnt about food answering the seemingly endless “Why?” and “How?” questions of my toddler.
I also have her help preparing dinner. Spiralising the zucchini, tearing the basil, massacring the mushrooms. I find she is proud of her work, and will eat much more, if she’s been involved in all the stages of picking it, preparing it and cooking it.
7. Food is a pleasure and an event.
Food has always been a massive part of my life. All my happiest memories involve food and I want it to be the same for my daughter. I try and make at least one meal a day special. We sit together, we chat, and we have nice music and tableware. For my toddler, I let her pick which bowl or plate she uses. I try and make her food look interesting and fun - I’m not talking food art here (no roses carved from tomatoes), but just care taken in plating up. We don’t eat on the run, not in cars or in front of the TV (other than special pizza and movie nights, but again, an event), eating is something to be enjoyed and care to be taken over. I love the ritual of dinner and I hope to teach my daughter to love that ritual too.
8. We start the way we want to finish.
I never wanted to cook more than one meal. So my toddler eats what we do. Sure I leave out the chilli or add a bit more salt to mine, and she’s not a fan of salad as a meal, but in general, she eats what we eat. No kid’s meals, just meals.
9. Snacking is ok.
In line with listening to your body, I totally believe that snacking is not a bad thing. The problem arises when the snacks become salty and sweet and full of crap. It takes a bit of preparation, but I try to have healthy snacks with us wherever we go. My toddler loves nothing more than sitting down to her snack box to break up a long playground session. The rules for snacks and meals are the same, real food. Usually I have cut up fruit and vegetables, chickpeas, boiled eggs, dried fruits, and homemade dips and rice crackers. I find having a bento box (one with lots of compartments) helps keep your creativity flowing (seriously just fill the compartments up with what ever you have on hand).
10. No jargon.
I try not to label how we eat. What I mean to say is, we’re not paleo, or vegan or non-soy-based-lacto-ovo-gluten-sensitive. We just eat real food. (Well we Eat like a Cosmopolitan Hippy, hence the title of my cookbook). I try not to attach jargon to food, like the word “diet” because as time goes on, terms like this take on negative connotations or the meaning changes all together. We eat real food. Food that grew in the ground, or came from an animal. Food we can recognize as food. Not packaged food-like substances, but real food. And if we cannot understand the words or numbers on a box, then that’s not real food.
Working as a health professional, I see so many people so confused when it comes to food. Scared to make any decision, lest it be the wrong one. Low fat vs gluten free. Soy vs almond vs cow. With so many ideas out there on what is “good for us” it’s easy to want to break up with food all together. But the trick to any good and lasting relationship is knowing and understanding your partner. A good and lasting relationship with food starts when we are young. It is an incredible gift to teach our children not to be afraid of food and to love and understand real food. By doing so we are giving them the tools to build a successful relationship with food for the future.