The Psychology Of Healthy Eating

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The old adage, “We are what we eat,” is true, but we’re also the way that we eat. This distinction is particularly important when teaching kids how to eat balanced meals. The manner in which we present mealtimes to our children is more vital to fostering healthy eating than the quality of the food itself.

However, this post isn’t about the art of food presentation and garnishes (a hilarious thought, considering my ineptness in the kitchen). Instead, I’ve collected some simple suggestions for instilling healthy habits and a positive approach to eating.

Tummy Wisdom

We’re born with the ability to listen to our tummies, and the key to healthy eating is to keep doing that.  Our job as parents is to ensure that this important message doesn’t get obstructed by extraneous issues, like our worries that children aren’t going to eat enough (or at all) without our nudging.

Trust in our children is the key to almost every aspect of parenting, but it’s especially essential at mealtime. Since children take their cues from us, our calm, trusting attitude will keep this channel between our child’s mind and tummy clear.  Present a few healthy options, let go, let your children do the rest, and they will be able to stay in tune with their physical needs for food.

The one thing that the many parents who contact me about food issues have in common –they are acting out of worry rather than trust.

When They’re Done, They’re Done

Remove “clean your plate” from your vocabulary. Don’t coax “just one more bite” or “here comes the airplane!”  Take the safest, most child-centered route by offering small portions and allowing your child to ask for more.

Breasts and Bottles

In the early months we must trust babies to communicate their needs and do our best to tune in and understand. Studies show that it is easier not to overfeed breastfed babies, because they have to suckle to get more milk, and they’ll usually stop as soon as they’re satiated. Bottle feeding requires even more attunement. The safest bet is to pay close attention and not give babies a drop more than they seem to “request.” Never try to overfill babies so that they’ll “last” longer between feedings.

When introducing solids to babies, be mindful of being responsive, never directive. Always let the child lead. She knows her tummy, you don’t. Even pre-verbal children will let us know when they are hungry and when they’ve had enough — if we make it easy for them. Assure children that you want that information.

Let your child out of her highchair as soon as you receive the slightest signal that she is done. (Consider using a small table and chair to give the child more autonomy.)

Toddlers are often known to be picky eaters. Some children remain that way. Even if your child eats next to nothing for a meal or two, trust him. When we panic, problems can begin.

Encourage Attentiveness

For the first few years, at least, insist that children sit while they eat, whether you are at home, a friend’s house, the park, or anywhere else. This is a simple boundary that children as young as 9 or 10 months can understand and accept, as long as you are consistent.   Sitting is good manners, it’s safer than playing with food in your mouth, and it encourages focus on eating.

Don’t show TV and videos to get children to eat. This, again, stems from worrying rather than trusting, and it creates the habit of not paying attention to food and his or her own tummy wisdom.

Be attentive to children whenever they eat, so that they can stay focused, relaxed and refueled by both the food and your connection. This is the best way to enable continued “tummy listening” and will pave the way for togetherness at mealtimes for years to come.

Photo Credits: Getty Images

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