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Stefanie Tsabar

Mistakes Children Need to Make with Eating


Do you worry about your child’s weight?

Even though I was always a skinny kid, I grew up in a family that for generations has had a painful preoccupation with weight.

I was naturally compliant, so I ate what and how much I was expected to eat. Sometimes, I would eat more or less than I wanted to depending on how my mother reacted.

She was often concerned that I ate too little, but other times, she worried that I was going overboard. One time at a family dinner party, she actually pried chocolate from my fingers because I couldn’t stop eating it.

It was an act of love and concern. However, it was based on a fundamental distrust.

I had learned not to trust myself around food, and when I became a mom, I believed that kids couldn’t be trusted either.

Thank goodness my son’s independent, spitfire nature forced me to reevaluate my beliefs and approach to feeding kids.

I read dozens and dozens of books, blogs, articles and studies to learn if kids actually can be trusted to learn how to eat well since my desire to monitor and restrict what he ate was not working with my son the way it worked with me as a child.

It’s been a few years since I began to institute what I’ve learned, and it wasn’t always smooth sailing, to say the least. Changing our core beliefs and relinquishing control can feel destabilizing and scary.

However, last week, my very articulate son told me, “I want to make sure that I’m really hungry for treat snack because I realized that I get full faster than I want to and that’s not fun. Cookies are just like regular food and you get full. I didn’t know that before.”

Most parents believe that our kids will make healthy choices if they are educated about nutrition. Not only does research disprove this theory in that children who know about nutrition still choose cookies over fruit, but other studies show that kids eat mindfully and make healthy choices when they are given the right tools, support, and permission to make mistakes.

The catch is that parents have to be willing to accept that this is a process and that kids need to feel our compassion when they make mistakes – not our fears about their weight.

With this is mind, here are the 3 mistakes kids need to make to learn how to self-regulate their own eating and make healthy choices.

1. Overeat

Just like my son realized on his own, it doesn’t feel good to overeat. No matter how good something tastes, kids don’t want to feel sick or uncomfortable. One time he said with the biggest smile on his face, “Those chips are so good. I’d keep eating them if I weren’t so full!”

When we show them compassion for how they feel, rather than telling them, “I told you so,” kids figure out more quickly how to listen more closely to their bodies’ signals of hunger and fullness.

2. Under eat

When we create safe boundaries for our kids – such as having a predictable meal/snack schedule – then kids have more room to experiment with listening to their bodies’ cues of hunger and fullness.

It’s important that all kids learn two things about hunger: 1) Feeling hungry between meals is not dangerous; it’s simply an alert system telling us that we need to eat soon. 2) Feeling hungry doesn’t have to be scary since another meal is coming. 

3. Eat sweets when they’re not hungry

Sweets represent fun and excitement to most kids. At a party, they might feel like they aren’t experiencing all the fun unless they taste all the goodies!

If kids have felt restricted, then sweets will have a greater allure. Kids needs to experience from time to time what it’s like to have as many sweets as they want without restriction. Studies show that it helps neutralize desserts so that kids eventually learn to eat them only when they are hungry.

Remember, learning to be a healthy eater requires a lot of trial and error! So, just because your child realized that she ate too much at the party doesn’t mean that she’ll do better the very next time. It could take a few more experiences with a heavy dose of support and understanding before she learns how to stop when her body’s had enough.

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