By Debra Benfield, M.Ed., R.D., LDN, Medical Nutrition Therapist

Yesterday’s blog about dealing with your child’s eating and weight focused on what NOT to do. Today’s topic is much more hopeful! Let me back up a bit and let you know that I have great compassion for all of us here. I hear a desperate, confused, and somewhat lost tone when parents talk about their child’s weight. Our nation is concerned about “childhood obesity” and we hear a great deal about waging a “war” against it. As part of my inquiry into how twisted up we are about this topic, I looked up how much money we spend in our pursuit of thinness. In the US last year, we spent an estimated $46 billion on diet products and self-help books. At any and every moment at least 77% of Americans are “dieting” or trying to lose weight. Most people seem to have heard the news that dieting doesn’t work, but we are still feeling desperate enough about our weight to fall for the promise of the diet. Losing “10 pounds in 10 days” sounds so good just when you are pulling your swimsuits out of storage! I get it.

So what is the difference between “dieting” and ”healthy eating”? Dieting is ultimately about deprivation. It is often rooted in a set of rules where foods are either “good” or “bad”. You may begin to define yourself as “good” and “bad” based on your food choices and eating behavior. You begin to feel as if you ARE “good” or “bad” depending on your eating. This mindset and dialogue within yourself, your social circle, and your family, creates fertile ground for judgment and shame. Step away from dieting, deprivation, and the scales-for yourself and for your kids.

And healthy eating? We know now, more than ever, that creating a joyful and positive relationship with food by having more family meals, and encouraging kids to get involved, supports healthy kids! Invite your kids to help you play around with growing food, shopping for food, and cooking food (especially fruits and vegetables).

Additionally research suggests that taking a mindful approach to eating shows promise for the development of healthy eating habits. In order to do this, you will need to:

Encourage your kids to s-l-o-w down, and take their time when they are eating meals and snacks.You may want to create curiosity about how the food really tastes. Create a “taste your food” game: ask them to join you in pretending that you have just arrived here on earth and are tasting this food for the very first time.How would you describe the taste?

Decrease distraction while eating meals and snacks. Turn off the screens and keep the conversation free of confrontation and negativity if possible. During meals and snacks is just not the time to step up to emotionally uncomfortable topics.

Create a feast for the senses during meals and snacks. Flowers on the table, colorful linens/placemats, listening to music during these important times for connection invite your children to be more awake in the present moment.

Help your kids honor their hunger. Encourage your kids to become aware of the difference between feeling hungry from their tummies (their bodies asking for refueling) vs. just wanting to eat something for other reasons, like being bored or emotionally uncomfortable. Try to stay curious and notice the difference and rather than being judgmental (good vs. bad). Please be especially kind and compassionate when talking about this-with yourself and your kids!

Quit the Clean Plate Club!Help your children notice when their tummies feel satisfied and it is time to stop eating. Encouraging your children to clean their plates disconnects them from their body’s signals of satiety and satisfaction. Reminding them that they may have the food again as soon as they are hungry helps them to stop when they are satisfied rather than when the food is gone. Saving food for another time encourages a sense of security with eating. A sense of deprivation (insecurity) encourages overeating (and sneaking).

Bottom Line:  As a parent, one of your most important jobs is to raise kids who are competent and therefore, comfortable and confident. Ellyn Satter, is our nation’s foremost authority in the area of “raising competent eaters”. Her research lead her to develop the “Division of Responsibility” for parents and children. These much needed guidelines help us successfully navigate the choppy waters of feeding our kids. She recommends avoiding dieting and food restriction but does recommend the following:

The parent is responsible for what, when, and where the child eats and the child is responsible for how much and whether they eat. The parent’s feeding jobs are:
– Choose and prepare the food
– Provide regular meals and snacks
– Make eating times pleasant
– Show children what they have to learn about food and mealtime behavior
– Not let children graze for food or beverages between meal an snack times
– Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them

And the kids do the rest! Empowering our children to eat well creates competent eaters who are more likely to be comfortable and confident in their bodies. This is a much more successful path toward healthy eating and healthy kids. Check out Ellyn Satter’s website if you would like more information.