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My daughter does not make vegetables. Crush, grate, hide, disguise – you name it; we either tried it or fried it (that doesn’t work either). Instead, she turns her nose up at anything green (except candy and gummy bears) and pleads for sugar instead. Her diet is far from balanced, but she is happy and healthy. And she’s four, so I thought her restlessness was normal and I forgot about it.

Until the day she demanded a diet cola for breakfast. I laughed and said no – no one has diet cola for breakfast – then realized I had a can in my hand. Because, while I may make healthy meals a priority for her, as a busy mom on the go, I often forgo good food in favor of soft drinks, or turn to sugary snacks to help me become a parent.

But the diet coke debacle made me realize that I had been so busy watching what she ate that I hadn’t noticed she was watching me right away. And what she saw was not pretty. If I didn’t do something drastic, I knew I would be passing on a legacy of dysfunctional eating habits no matter how many vegetables I stuffed into his spaghetti sauce.

Don’t just talk

Calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods are a major contributing factor to global obesity and a major challenge for parents of young children, according to a University of Oregon study published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing .

Research has explored the dynamics of parents’ food preferences and how they are passed on to their children, and found that a parent’s consumption of sugar, fat and salt influences a child’s preference for these products. .

In addition, many studies have found links between parental eating habits and eating disorders in children or adolescents, as well as parental eating practices (such as controlling/restricting certain foods, and bribing or eating). comfort with certain foods) and obesity or eating disorders in adulthood.

Dr. Sarah Rasmi, Founder of Thrive Wellbeing Center

Eating habits are learned,” admits psychologist and director of the Thrive Wellbeing Center in Dubai, Dr Sarah Rasmi. “We pass them on to our children by modeling and not by DNA.”

Which means all the healthy choices I gave my daughter won’t make a difference if she sees me eating a burger and fries instead. “Children learn by imitation and movement before the age of seven,” confirms the founder of the Chiron Clinic, Dr. Lanalle Dunn. “The best parent is always the one who embodies their own values”.

Source: Parental Dietary Practices in Overweight and Obese Parents: A Systematic Review

Source: Parental Dietary Practices in Overweight and Obese Parents: A Systematic Review
Image credit: Unsplash

Separating food from emotion

Embodying values ​​is one thing, but there are days when I really feel like I need chocolate, whether it’s to celebrate a good day or forget a bad one. According to Amy Vogelaar, co-founder of Love Parenting UAE and toddler calmness consultant, attributing emotions to food may have its roots in childhood. “For many of us growing up, food was love,” she says. “Food is a very difficult issue for families – we have a primary desire to feed our children – but we need to find other ways to express our love.”

Amy Vogelaar, parenting educator and co-founder of Love Parenting UAE

Vogelaar advises to separate feelings from food entirely and simply think of it as the fuel that allows us to function. “Food can be given with love, but it is not love in itself,” she continues. “We need to be aware of praise and punishment around food and avoid making value judgments. We don’t want to make broccoli the chore and donuts the price – it’s just food.

Do not reward with edible treats

Dr. Rasmi agrees and tells me, “My first suggestion is to avoid rewarding children – or cheering them up – with food. Treating food as food, as opposed to something good or bad, is the first line of defense against emotional eating.

I think of all the times I tried to soothe a toddler with candy and how food was a reward for doing well when I was growing up. And I swear to try to peel the labels off the food I offer – not literally – and find different ways to express my love, hoping it will make my daughter more open to new things and easier to nurture. than me.

Source: Parental Dietary Practices in Overweight and Obese Parents: A Systematic Review

Source: Parental Dietary Practices in Overweight and Obese Parents: A Systematic Review
Image credit: Unsplash

Eat family meals

Fortunately, when it comes to overhauling your approach to food, the whole family has a role to play. The benefits of having family meals together are well documented (research suggests they lead to better relationships, better grades), but experts now believe they also lead to better food choices. A 2000 study found that children who ate regular meals with their family ate more fruits and vegetables, while a 2003 study found that children who ate more often with their parents were more open to trying to new things.

“Family meals are essential for children,” says Vogelaar. “It can be difficult, but it’s worth finding the time to sit down together. This is an opportunity to interest children in the origin of food and, as they grow up, to take an interest in its preparation. It should also be a chance to release the pressure and spend some time together.

Change the dynamic

But what if your family dinner table is less of a place to catch up and more of a place to argue? I’ve lost count of how many times tea time has ended in tears of frustration (me) or anger (her) as we argue over what she will or will not eat.

“Food can be a battleground for the parent who usually takes care of meals,” sympathizes Dr Rasmi. “Sometimes it can be helpful to have the other parent take the lead during meals. Many families I work with find that their children are more likely to eat (or eat a wider variety of foods) when the parent who doesn’t usually feed them takes over. It can also be a nice break for the parent who usually leads – sometimes that breathing space is what they need to change mealtime dynamics.

Limit the number of food choices

“I find that a lot of parents are giving kids too many food choices these days,” says Dr. Dunn. “Then they feel bad because their kids aren’t happier with healthier food options.”

I think about the lists of dishes I make daily in front of my daughter and how I jump to make a second option if the first one doesn’t appeal to me. “I don’t encourage parents to be a short-lived cook,” laughs Vogelaar. “Sometimes you might want to offer an alternative like bread, but if that’s all they eat at that meal, it’s not the end of the world. Toddlers and young children need to eat less than we think and they should have frequent snacks and opportunities to eat throughout the day. If you make sure to offer healthy, nutritious food at these times, you know they’ll have another opportunity to eat in a few hours. So if they refuse their meal, it’s a lot less stressful.

Source: Parental Dietary Practices in Overweight and Obese Parents: A Systematic Review

Source: Parental Dietary Practices in Overweight and Obese Parents: A Systematic Review
Image credit: Unsplash

Don’t stress about the little things

Stress is a word that comes up repeatedly around kids and food, and more than anything else, it might be the thing with the most lasting negative impact. “We know that anxiety in parents can contribute to anxiety in children,” said director of the eating disorders unit and Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, Janet Treasure, speaking of the genetic links to anorexia.

Every expert I spoke to also talked about the importance of removing stress from any food-related situation. “Take a week off from the battle,” pleads Vogelaar. “Tell you I won’t bribe, trick, force for a week. Almost universally I hear even on the first day, after the pressure subsided, the child ate more and was happy to be there.

The parents’ responsibility is to decide what they are going to offer, at what time they are going to offer it and where. Everything else depends on the child

– Amy Vogelaar, co-founder of Love Parenting UAE

“I suggest to the parents I work with to remember that even if the parent has a job, so does the child and neither should worry about what the other person is doing. The parents’ responsibility is to decide what they are going to offer, at what time they are going to offer it and where.

“Everything else is up to the child. They decide how much they want or if they want to eat at all. If they don’t like everything on offer, it’s not the parents’ responsibility We know our own children – as long as they are busy, energetic, bright-eyed little people, we can be sure they are eating properly.

When it’s normal… and when it’s not

While it’s important not to worry too much about your child’s diet, there are exceptions, adds Vogelaar: “If your child isn’t gaining weight, you may have experienced medical or teeth and it’s worth checking in. Some children have sensory issues with the texture of certain foods or have had an episode of vomiting or choking which means they might need some extra help, but that’s a very small minority.

“I think we have to remember that a difficult stage is completely normal. Part of a child’s job is to start having opinions and exercising them. Parents who are genuinely concerned about their child’s diet should continue to offer the food, have it on the table, and show their child that they appreciate it themselves, but let the child decide. There is no evidence that forcing a child to eat anything ended well. Take the pressure off – some people will never like sweet potatoes and that’s okay.

Suddenly I feel so much better. The idea of ​​helping my daughter become healthier by controlling her diet less rather than more seems so much more manageable than fighting for every fishy finger. In fact, I almost feel like partying. But not with chocolate.