I love food and I love caring for my body with the best food that I can provide. Until I had children, I thought that I had no real issues around food. It wasn’t a big deal for me. Having children changed all that. Not straight away, of course, but over a couple of years I gradually felt myself descending into a nightmare of anxiety and conflict that I had never experienced before.
Like many parents, I wanted to make sure that my children ate a healthy diet. I had clear beliefs about what was healthy for children and what was not. I believed deeply that it was my responsibility to provide healthy food and restrict access to unhealthy food. I read books about nutrition and tried all sorts of new recipes. I read about all the foods that should be avoided and the list just kept getting longer and longer. I was keenly aware of the dangers of additives, preservatives, sugar, processed fats and highly refined foods. I talked to my friends about food and keenly watched what they were feeding their children. The more I worried about my children’s diet the more stressed I became. It grew as an issue for me as my children grew.
Apparently some parents feed their children with minimal stress and conflict. That was not my experience. Perhaps it would have been different if we lived on a farm or an island and my children weren’t exposed to the vast offerings of a modern supermarket. But it wasn’t like that for us. We live in suburbia. When my first child was very little it was not difficult to limit the foods that he was exposed to. If certain foods were not given to him then he did not miss them. As he got older his environment expanded. He noticed the food that people around him ate. He came to the supermarket and the local shops with me. He went to preschool, visited friend’s houses and went to birthday parties. He gradually discovered what was available out there. He also developed his own desire to explore, experiment with new foods and to work out what he liked.
What I didn’t realize at the time was how excited and determined children can be about exploring the world of food or how strongly they can be attracted to sugar and processed food. As my child grew into his own tastes and desires I experienced a dramatic surge of stress and conflict in my life. The most stressful issue for me was how much sugar he wanted, although I also worried about other “unhealthy” foods too. My anxieties built up even more momentum when I had two children to feed. Trips to the supermarket were very tense. My children asked for me to buy them lollies, ice-creams and chips. This wasn’t mild interest on their part. They were passionate about their exploration of food and their desire to eat all sorts of foods that I didn’t want them to eat.
I know what you are thinking. I know what I was supposed to do. I should have just said “NO”, right? Well, I did that and it didn’t work out so well. One particular afternoon will be etched into my memory forever. It was the classic scenario at the supermarket checkout. In retrospect, I think the tension had been building long before we got there. And this was before they had invented the “lollie-free” checkouts they have now. I dutifully followed my beliefs about parental responsibility and healthy diet. I did what I thought I should do and I said “No” to the packet of lollies that my child wanted at the checkout. The resulting meltdown was intense. I can’t begin to describe how intense. I didn’t relent. I didn’t say anything. I just clamped down hard on my own intense feelings and got us out of the shop without the lollies. I got halfway home before it hit me. It was like a tidal wave of emotion. I was completely overcome by waves of anger and embarrassment. I felt utterly humiliated by the public spectacle I had been part of. I cried so much that I had trouble driving the car. I had done my best and yet it felt dreadful. It was not supposed to be this hard or this painful. To make matters worse, I blamed my child. I was furious and I believed in that moment that it was all his fault. This was a true nightmare.
I assure you, this was not my only experience with saying “No.” I kept up the battle for a few years. I tried all sorts of different tactics. Food became the focus of a quietly seething war. There were outbursts of conflict but these were like the tip of the iceberg. The simmering tension in my relationship with my children was subtle but ever-present. I was filled with anxiety about what my children ate and wanted to eat more of. I new that I needed to heal this. It took me a long time to really come to peace with it.
Finding a radical solution to my radical problem
I started to question my thoughts by reading parenting books, websites and online forums that suggested different approaches to feeding children. I knew I needed a radical solution. I had a pretty radical problem. I found some amazing resources that helped me find a new way of being around the issue of what my children ate. I questioned all my thinking and beliefs about feeding my children. I realized that what I wanted more than anything else was peace and harmony in my relationship with my children. I also wanted freedom from my own anxiety and self-criticism. I eventually found a new way of being.
This is the solution I came to: I no longer control what my children eat.
Yes! I mean it. I no longer control what my children eat. It sounds simple, but it felt very radical at the time. We had to ease into it gradually. Now, if they want packets of lollies at the supermarket I say “Yes.” If they want McDonalds for dinner I say “Yes”. If they want ice cream for breakfast I serve it out for them with a smile and a blessing.
This does not mean that I do not provide them with a healthy diet. In fact, I still give this quite a lot of attention. Creative ideas about how to support their health have flowed into the space left by my old beliefs and anxieties. I share what I know about nutrition with my children without a controlling agenda. They are much more willing to listen. I get ideas about new foods for them to try and new ways of preparing their food that bring nutritional benefits. We have tried various supplements and sugar alternatives. I find and offer additive-free versions of foods that they like. We continue to experiment and explore.
My children are learning how to care for their own health. They learn from observing and listening to me and other adults. They are also learning about their own bodies from direct physical experience. They have experienced the effects of their own choices, whether this be an upset stomach, constipation or tooth decay. I have supported them when they needed trips to the dentist or a health practitioner. I have sat with them when they had tooth ache. We have visited the dentist without me lecturing or blaming them. These are powerful learning opportunities.
They are learning how to self-regulate with food. They no longer crave foods that were once restricted. They have no need to hide or stockpile. They trust that they can have what they want. At times they have made their own decisions about avoiding or limiting certain foods that have really surprised me. They have demonstrated self-control that many adults would envy. At other times they eat whole bags of lollies and enjoy them to the full.
When it comes to sugary, processed and additive-rich foods I have adopted this guideline for myself; “Don’t offer, don’t refuse.” When my children say that they are hungry I offer the “healthy” options first. When they come with me to the shops or the supermarket they get to choose what they want. We read labels together. When we have a budget to stick to the purchases are open for collective negotiation. There are no struggles or arguments and it is usually an enjoyable experience for all of us. My beliefs about what food is healthy and what is unhealthy have become a lot more flexible. I choose to focus on the wonderful nourishment my children receive every day rather than on a fear of harm.
We are on a journey together and it is pretty delicious. Bringing peace to the issue of food has been such a wonderful gift for our family.
Offering foods rich in Vitamin YUM.
My children have recently discovered a new vitamin! They want food that is rich in Vitamin Yum. These are some of the foods that we have found to be particularly rich in this special nutrient.