After my last post about the way we talk about food, one of my commenters said this:
“I’d love to hear about your approach to talking to kids about food! I’ve got lots of baggage when it comes to food, but our doctor said really early on “kids are born knowing how much to eat – see if you can manage not to break that” and I think we’ve done a pretty reasonable job…I think…”
Ask and you shall receive, dear reader!
How do I talk to my kids about food? What about when they seem to be gorging themselves on sweets? What if they’re eating way more than humanly possible? What if they’re starting to look pudgy around the middle?
Food is fuel for our bodies. If we’re hungry, our bodies need fuel. If we eat and are still hungry, we either need to eat more or to eat something different (i.e., our bodies are crying out for nutrients we’re not giving them.) So if a kid has eaten a lot of crackers and complains that they’re still hungry, I might say, “Maybe your body is asking for nutrients that crackers don’t have. Try some other kind of food that gives you some fat or protein, and see if that helps.”
I try to convey that it’s fine to eat something for pure enjoyment. If a kid is scarfing down their ice cream in a rush, I remind them to sit down and really enjoy it instead of rushing through and not really tasting it. Mr. December, who is constantly finding the teachable moments, has taught the kids the economic principle of Diminishing Marginal Utility—in other words, the first bite is the absolute tastiest and best; after a few helpings, the taste barely even registers. Makes total sense to really slow down and enjoy those first few bites, doesn’t it?
I try to talk about how food makes our bodies feel: “Ugh, I feel kind of icky. That happens when I eat a lot of ____.” I make it clear that I’m speaking only for myself, but I’m modelling an awareness of how the foods we eat affect how we feel (which is a very individual experience, so they need to learn to be aware.) One of my kids has slowly learned to pace themselves because of many experiences where too much dessert made them feel vaguely ill. That child doesn’t eat themself sick anymore, because of how it makes their body feel… not because of what we think about eating that volume of food.
We’re coming into the teenage years now. If you’ve never seen a teenager eat, you’re missing something spectacular. The “hollow leg” theory is the only one that makes sense, because nobody’s stomach is big enough to hold the amount of food that a teenager consumes. This is a real challenge for those of us steeped in diet culture: it can’t possibly be okay for the teen to eat that much, can it?
Well, if the teen has a decent sense of their own body’s needs, it absolutely can. It’s hard for me to trust my kid’s understanding of her own satiety level, because I’ve been taught for so many years not to trust my own; but if I want my kids to be free of the food issues that I have, I have to bite my tongue.
As for the “what if they’re getting pudgy?”… my policy is to NEVER comment on anybody’s body. Period. It does more harm than good. We prioritize active play for the kids (we have swings and a huge “running-around” space in the attic,) we ensure that they get appropriate medical and dental care, we see that they get enough sleep, and we make sure that they’re getting plenty of time with their friends—all of which are much more relevant to their health than the shape and size of their bodies are.