Step Ahead Teacher with children

Eating isn’t ours to control – How one parent replaced fear with trust

Worrying is a by-product of parenting, and our children’s eating habits are a common focus of concern. Are our kids eating enough? And are they eating the right things?

Problems occur when our highly aware young children sense our concerns, because they can be compelled to test and exploit them. Kids always seem to know when they have us over a barrel (or, in this case, a bowl), and the uncomfortable yet tantalizing feeling of power they wield over “the giants” can distract and even unnerve them.

In other words, when our children resist our eating agendas, it isn’t a sign that they’re ungrateful, cruel or manipulative. Rather, it is a reflection of their innate need to test both our leadership and their power. And that means that if we let our anxiety around food consume us (sorry, couldn’t resist), we might actually create the problems we wish to avoid: a child with habits and emotions that interfere with healthy eating. We do this when we believe it our job to get kids to eat and perhaps resort to:

  • Coaxing, bribing, rewarding (“Just one more bite… Yum, this is delicious!”)
  • Relinquishing behaviour boundaries at mealtimes (letting kids stand while they eat, throw or play with food or drinks, or ping-pong back and forth from the table)
  • Feeding distracted children (by following them around to give them bites, or using TV or other screens to “get them to eat”)

I recently enjoyed a phone consultation with a lovely mother with concerns about her toddler’s eating. I urged her to consider releasing her agenda by simply being clear about mealtime behavior – basic manners — and letting her child do the rest. She kindly allowed me to share her process:

Hi Janet,

It’s been a week and I wanted to let you know that meal times have been going so much better after talking with you. Sarah happily sits for the entire meal, and meals are shorter (they used to just drag on and on) and much more enjoyable now.

I really can’t believe how quickly it became a non-issue. Seeing us now, I’d never guess that meals used to be such a drama with so many acrobatics and performances going on. Neither of us, least of all Sarah, had to struggle much with the transition. It’s as if that first lunch (minutes after talking with you) — when I explained that standing up would tell me she was all done — took all the wind from the sails. A few meals in she did cry a bit when I followed through and put up her plate (even though she changed her mind), but I think she was just solidifying the new way of doing things for herself.

And she never went hungry! In fact, I almost (and I can’t think of the right word here) “look forward” to her letting me know she is done because I am interested and wanting to know what her body is telling her. So when the cue comes, my attitude is, “Great! We’ll listen to it! Thank you for telling me!” I don’t say all that, but I don’t worry that maybe she got it wrong.

Thanks so much!

~ Julia

Dear Janet,

Hi! It’s been a month or so since we talked about meals with my 21 month old Sarah, and things are still going great. It’s almost humorous to think how I was doing all that (following her around with plate and spoon, feeding dolls, holding food up for her to lap out of my hand like a dog, spotting her so she could stand to eat on her high chair tray etc.). She now she eats just as well (and more, really) without my shenanigans.

I wanted to let you know about an unexpected bonus from our consult; night weaning. You’d mentioned you wondered why food was such an area of control for me, and I’ve been doing some soul searching. I’m pretty sure it has to do with me still feeling horrible after finding out that she was labeled as IUGR when she was born. I was heartbroken by the thought of my baby having needed nourishment from me and me not giving it to her, and so I couldn’t convince myself that she was okay without a feeding or two overnight because I wasn’t trusting myself or my judgement, worrying I’d deprive her again.

I know there are very few 11-month-olds who aren’t able to go all night without a feeding, let alone a 21-month-old. Seeing that the worry came from me and not from her gave me the confidence in both of us that she would be just fine not nursing until morning; in fact, even better for the uninterrupted sleep.

And just like with meal times, she has amazed me. Last night was the second night, and she didn’t struggle at all. When she woke, I told her it was still time to sleep, not time to nurse yet, offered her a sip of water, and she went right back to sleep. The first night there was a mourning period of about half an hour, but it wasn’t the cries of a starving, abandoned child who was being deprived. She chanted, “No, no, no” a few times. Not like, “Mom, I NEEED this,” but more like she was complaining while processing it.  I know this was because I was able to be confident for her.

So I just wanted to thank you so much!

~ Julia

Here are some of the mealtime basics I shared with Julia:

  1. Be clear with your child about your behaviour expectations. Let her know ahead of time that you will expect her to sit while she eats and not leave the table until she is done. Eating the food options you’ve offered is totally her choice. She is welcome to have just a bite or two or nothing at all, as she wishes.
  2. Sit with your child and give her your undivided attention. Make your child’s mealtimes a time of connection and intimacy (and this ideally includes breast or bottle feedings).
  3. Remind her that if she gets up from the table or plays with food, it will demonstrate to you that she is finished eating and you will put her food away. And follow through.
  4. Be calm, matter-of-fact and totally non-judgmental while consistently following through with establishing these behaviour boundaries. Our clarity and honesty are gifts to our children.
  5. Acknowledge her feelings and desires. “You want to come back to the table and eat more after you showed me you were done. I see how that upsets you! It will be time to eat again later.”
  6. Trust your child do the rest. She’s capable of focusing on her meal and autonomously eating all she needs. Believe in her.

Thank you, Julia, for allowing me to share your story!