As parents, we want to do our best to ensure our kids are “filled up”, both emotionally with lots of hugs and responsive care, and also physically with a balanced diet of healthy foods. It is easy to have good intentions, but the reality of actually getting those needs filled can be more complicated than we bargained for, especially when it’s so easy for children and adults to prefer ice cream to broccoli.
Teaching Healthy Eating Habits
After some trial and error, we’re figured out an approach to eating healthy meals at home with our 4 year old, Beatrice. As a baby and young toddler, Bea was quite willing to eat a wide variety of foods, including spicy curries, a wide variety of vegetables and pretty much whatever we happened to have on our own plates. We gave her bits and pieces of our own food, she ate what she wanted and left the rest. Easy. Our biggest challenge was teaching her to keep the food on the table instead of throwing it on the floor and watching it go SPLAT.
Just after her first birthday, Beatrice started having particular ideas about what she wanted to eat. Now, this is nothing new. Toddlers are not exactly renowned for their willingness to clear their plates of vegetables and unfamiliar foods. Around this time Bea also started having some sweet desserts and she realized that ice cream was WAY tastier than broccoli. Amazingly, she would be signing “All Done” when the plate in front of her had veggies left on it, but then she would still have room for dessert.
Learning How to Manage Sugar
And so, like many other parents, we had to figure out a healthy balance between allowing our child to eat what she wanted and to listen to her body’s signals for satiety and hunger, while still making sure she actually consumed some fiber, vitamins and protien. We didn’t want to totally ban sweet desserts, partly because we wanted to eat them ourselves, but also because we knew we couldn’t control her exposure to sugar in other parts of her life. There were going to be birthday parties and visits from grandma, so how do we teach her to find a balance on her own?
Our local nutritionist, speaking at a toddler health drop-in we were attending, said that the parent’s job is to choose, prepare and serve healthy foods at designated meal times. The child’s job is to decide whether or not to eat that food, and if so, how much to eat of each food. This seemed reasonable and respectful, but the question remained: What about dessert?
Eventually, we settled on our current approach: when dinner is finished, then dessert is served. We do our best to serve healthy food, Beatrice does her best to eat her portion, then we enjoy dessert together. I don’t want to get into counting bites of food or making dessert a power tool. Sometimes she doesn’t eat her dinner at all and passes up dessert too. That’s fine. Missing out on dessert is not a punishment, just the natural order of things.
We’ve had our share of challenges along the way. It is surprisingly easy to slip into using food in power struggles and to attempt to motivate certain behaviours. But overall, we try to be relaxed about food, and when dinner is finished, then we have dessert.