One of the most important roles we have as parents is to nourish our children. What we feed our children matters and there is no doubt that every morsel of food they eat will determine how they function and develop now and into the future - physically, behaviorally, mentally, and emotionally. As Dr. Christiane Northrup writes in Mother-Daughter Wisdom, “childhood food experiences will set the tone for your daughter’s [and son’s] relationship to food and health for a lifetime.”
I believe connecting our children to food happens at the moment of conception. The first experience of nourishment comes through the placenta. The food we eat while pregnant is intended to protect, support growth and development and ensure a healthy start to our baby’s lives. The moment our children are born until they wean, we breast or bottle feed. The cradling, the connection, the sucking, the sweet songs we sing, the loving words we speak, the tenderness and the unconditional love all set the tone for the how children receive food. In this state of nourishing our babies, food means love.
When we begin to feed our babies whole food, we choose the best, the safest, the purest of foods. We are cautious about what and when we introduce food because we know that what we feed our babies in the first year of life sets the stage for how they feel about food, and it is one of the key ingredients in determining their health into the future.
The messages and beliefs we have about food get infused into our children. Just as our kids often mirror how we do life, they also mirror how we do food. My daughter is now 12, but when she was 5 years old, I remember as she was eating a grapefruit she said, “grapefruits are so sweet this season.” I had made water infused with lemon, lime, strawberries and mint and she said, “pretty! Can I have some?” She is now the best water infuser and makes the most colorful summer drinks with fresh berries and herbs from our garden. She had an omelet with zucchini and tomatoes and topped with pea shoots and she said, “look how colorful my plate is!” She often asks to go shopping at the Farmer’s market and health food stores and although she loves ice cream and cookies, she often asks for fresh squeezed orange juice, roasted chickpeas, natural turkey jerky or seaweed for treats when we are out.
My son who is now 9 has been watching my husband and I cook since he was 6 months old. We used to sit him in a baby chair on the counter. He is always eager to help in the kitchen. He loves to crack the eggs, scramble eggs and stir whatever is cooking in the pots. He seasons and tosses our potatoes and he is a pro at helping me make a perfect cup of green tea. Both of my kids love to bake, help measure and pour ingredients. Just standing on a chair or sitting on the counter while we cook has become a great place for learning, teaching and connecting with great conversation. It makes me so happy that my children share the same love of food as my husband and I do.
As our children get older, it is not only what we feed them that is so important, but it is also the messages we share about food that we need to consider. Every parent needs to be aware of what he/she is bringing to the table. Being conscious of our own relationship with food and body is so important. If you have an unhealthy relationship with food and body, then your children hear and see that. Be very careful of the kind of messages you share with your daughter or son about body weight, how much she is eating or not eating and if a food is “bad,” “fattening” or high in calories or carbs. Bringing healthy messages about food is a key ingredient. Teach your children that food is about creating health, energy and joy as opposed to making it about weight. If they do eat undesirable foods which is bound to happen, ask them how it made them feel vs telling them it was so bad for them.
Here are some important questions to consider:
· What do you say about food around your kids?
· If you are a picky eater, are your kids picky too?
· If you never try new foods and tastes, do your kids?
· If you are disconnected to food, how do your kids feel about it?
· If you sneak junk food, do your kids mirror that?
· Do you restrict what you eat? Do you restrict what your kids eat?
· If you worry about calories and fat grams, have you ever heard your child speak that way about food?
· Do you prevent your kids from cooking or shopping with you to avoid messes and inconveniences?
Connecting with our kids and teaching them about healthy food, colorful food, food that makes them feel great is so important at every age and stage. Talking to them about the foods that give them energy for school, dance, sports, gaming and all the things they love to do will help them to make conscious choices. Encouraging them when they try new foods and teaching them to listen to their bodies so that understand how food makes them feel offers them wisdom that they can use for a lifetime. Asking them what they feel like eating vs. assuming what they would want to eat is also an important distinction. Letting them choose foods in the grocery store that look appealing to them, teaching them where food comes from, and how to appreciate good food is vital. Encourage your children to listen to their body wisdom and eat when they are hungry, not when you tell them they need to. When they say they are hungry, ask them what their body feels like having as opposed to listing many different options.
Connecting around the kitchen table or counter and celebrating the joy and pleasure of preparing food and eating together is a beautiful practice. Bringing the right mood and energy to the table is also important. If there is yelling, stress and anger it affects the taste, experience, and ability to digest the food. As Christiane Northrup states, “what you put on the table, how you serve it, and how it’s enjoyed continue to program the gastrointestinal system as surely as infant feeding did earlier on.”
Many food sensitivities can often arise due to a stressful eating environment. If a child is upset, frightened or angry while eating, that stress response will shut the gut down and make it very difficult to digest food. Food aversions can occur due to a memory a child had of eating something when there was fighting or a stressful situation. It is not the food they dislike; it is the memory associated with that food that makes it unenjoyable. Ensuring your child is in a relaxed state while eating is incredibly important.
Family meals are wonderful opportunities to share love and open the door for important conversations. Being grateful for what we are eating and who we are sitting with set the tone for a well-digested and highly nourishing meal. Providing quality whole foods that exude color and energy will leave indelible memories. These are all great ways to help create a healthy connection to food.
Finally, ask yourself these questions daily to help ensure you are doing your best to nourish your children:
· Did I provide my children with healthy food today?
· Did I serve it with love and care?
· Did I pack them a healthy snack or lunch free of packages and artificial ingredients?
· Did I create a home cooked meal and sit with my family while they were eating?
· Did I teach them about the importance of choosing foods that will make them healthy, feel their best and give them energy to do what they love?
· Did I create a sacred eating environment?
· Did I ask them how they enjoyed their meal and how it made them feel?
· Did I take time to nourish my children?
· Did I focus on their accomplishments and successes vs how they looked, dressed, or body size?
· Did I do something to help encourage healthy body image?
· Did I nourish myself well today so I can be a patient, energetic and healthy parent?
· What can I do differently tomorrow?
The messages we teach our kids about food are as important as any other life lesson. May we guide them and inspire them to be food lovers and to care about what they put into their bodies. Let’s teach them to celebrate food, respect food and love food.
Yours in health & vitality,