This week’s post is written by Aley Forbes. A mum to four children, Aley left a career in finance and co-founded Gotrovo; a company inspired by her kids, to create timeless, magical family moments. Here, she shares her passion and knowledge on the importance of children having a healthy relationship with food; together with valuable tips for parents.
Kids come in all shapes and sizes, just as they come with a whole range of different personalities, strengths, interests and abilities. It can be a difficult thing for us to accept sometimes, but if we are to teach our children to have a healthy relationship with food, then it’s a critical first principle for parents.
We all know that getting the right vitamins and minerals helps children to grow and to develop. A good diet supports their ability to learn. It gives them energy and a positive outlook. However, a healthy relationship with food must also be learned, and it comes down to more than what’s on the plate. It is a series of associations that we are taught to make with food, and these can be just as critical for long term success and wellbeing as what we learn in the classroom. Granted, this is a different sort of learning, but it is a critical, lifelong one.
Parents are constantly presented with the increasing statistics around childhood obesity, and it can be hard to know how best to respond. Children aged 4-5 in the UK can now be assessed in school, not only for sight and hearing, but also for their BMI. Of course, the intent behind this testing is well-founded. But the danger is that it triggers over-scrutiny of otherwise healthily-developing children, and a spiral of negative associations with food.
Trying to control the natural body shape of children (or indeed ourselves), can do more harm than good. Food is a strong, emotional substance that can trigger childhood memories. Who doesn’t remember fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, or an ice-cream from the neighbourhood ice-cream van? But those memories can be positive or negative, and can create unhealthy attachments or aversions to food.
Creating a negative relationship can impact our long-term health and cognitive ability. The brain is an organ, and when any organ is deprived of appropriate nutrients and nourishment, its performance is impacted. According to the support site for eating disorders, Hope, prolonged malnourishment causes the brain to lose matter. (https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/blog/chronic-and-long-term-effects-of-eating-disorders-in-adulthood). And while the white matter returns when weight and nutrition are restored, the grey brain matter does not. So ensuring that our children are prepared to have a healthy relationship with food throughout their lives is critical to their health, emotional well-being, and success outcomes.
One of the biggest issues with creating unhealthy associations in children is that some people have a genetic propensity to extremity – just as others might have a tendency to addictive or obsessive behaviours. But it is impossible to predict WHO has this propensity, and therefore what associations with food we might be building for the future.
It is well known that when parents “diet”, this is picked up by children. There is a strong association between parents and teenagers dieting. Body shape and image can be changed through weight loss up to a point – but if we unintentionally leave our children with the idea that this is how they ‘fix’ themselves, we could damage their associations with food. We need to examine our own attitudes and talk positively about food and our own image. Our focus should be on HEALTH, not shape or appearance. We need to be prepared to think about food as an area of learning, and value this education alongside what goes on in the classroom, or when reading or writing.
But what can we do practically, beyond re-enforcing the belief that a child’s value comes from how they behave and treat others, rather than from their appearance?
Tips to help children develop a healthy relationship with food
1 Don’t use food as a reward or ‘sticking plaster’ – it shouldn’t be seen as something to fill an emotional gap or make a situation “better”. This risks an association with comfort eating.
2 Do not force children to eat everything on their plate. Children are born with a natural ability to know when they are hungry and full, and should be encouraged to listen to their bodies. Forcing them to eat everything on their plates gradually overrides these ‘stop’ signals.
3 Serve small portions and allow them to ask for more if they are still hungry.
4 Establish a meal and snack schedule and stick to it as closely as you can.
5 Don’t overly restrict sweet foods and treats – it could lead to them being seen as ‘forbidden treats’ – but talk about healthy choices, so that children can decide to leave sweet foods alone and feel “in control” around them.
6 Foster an interest in exploring new foods, especially by encouraging children to participate in preparing and cooking them.
7 Don’t encourage children to rush meals, or allow them to skip a meal altogether. Eating slowly allows more time for digestion and for a child to notice when they are full. Moreover, “disordered eating” can have a link to later eating disorders.
8 Eat together as a family if possible, or sit down and take the time to talk and engage with your children. Encouraging conversation, good table behaviours and a positive attitude to mealtimes goes a long way to support a healthy, balanced relationship with food.
9 Maintain a varied diet, but remember that a diet exists over more than one meal. You do not need to cram every food group on a plate at each meal, or you could overwhelm your child and undermine their willingness to try new things.
10 Avoid TV and other electronics at the table. Focus on conversations and personal connections.
Practical Solutions and Help for Fussy Eaters
If you are struggling with a fussy eater, it can be really difficult to achieve a healthy eating regime AND a healthy attitude to food. Forcing children to eat can make food a battleground of resistance and control. Resorting to less healthy, highly processed foods is okay in moderation, but not so great if they form the entire diet. Moreover, it is unlikely to teach children to make healthy choices later in life. So what to do?
There is now a new way to encourage children to have a healthy, happy relationship with food. It’s a fresh idea that has been developed by mums with experience of fussy eating, and in consultation with a nutritional therapist.
Gotrovo Mealtime Treasure Hunt is a dinner set combined with a (non-food based), rewards system. It encourages children to treat mealtimes as a happy adventure, and sees them travelling along a treasure trail on a specially-designed dinner mat as they eat their meal. The plate size and novelty fun-sized cutlery support portion control, and short-cuts in the trail mean that children do not need to eat everything on their plate. They are encouraged simply to show positive, healthy behaviours, for which they will earn a reward card. The two dinner mats are packed full of fun and interest, taking the focus and stress off the food.
The set requires involvement from parents to set appropriate guidelines for the children, but with a nutritional advice sheet and helpful hints and videos from the makers. It can make a fundamental difference to mealtimes and attitudes to food. It’s a great way to store up those positive learning associations for the future. You can check it out at https://www.gotrovotreasurehunt.com/product/dinner-winner-plate-and-game-for-kids, and use the code WonderMTH, offered especially to our readers, to gain a 10% discount on purchase. We’d love to hear what you think.
By Aley Forbes