January 2008

“Oh Good, More For Me!”

is what I say when my kids don’t want to eat what I have painstakingly made. (Violins being played, actually, I am not a very good cook!) But I hear over and over from families who love to eat well, one of the parents is a fabulous cook, and their kids will only eat 5 things, of course none of them being whatever the parents love to eat.

It can be demoralizing. Frustrating. Insane making. But is it a problem? Parents ask me all the time, how can they get their kids to eat that food? What tricks can they play? There must be something!

i keep asking: What is the Problem? “Well, the kids only eat the same five things.” Are they healthy and thriving and on their growth curve? I ask. Are they getting a range of the food groups roughly, or are they at risk for scurvy? Usually those questions are yes, and no. But parents still pull their hair out.

On further questioning, the worry that their kids will never enjoy food like they do and will miss out on a pleasurable part of life, comes out. That they will eat this way forever.

I say: Not likely, and not likely. Most kids who are picky eaters grow out it by age 13 when biology kicks in, (growth spurts) and their senses fully develop. (Remember, eating involves the three senses: touch, taste and smell!) However, it is sad and a loss to not be able to enjoy the food together.

So here is my tip: Continue to enjoy the beautiful food you make with your partner, wife, husband, and model your enjoyment with your kids. Continue to eat together. Take the stress out of the mealtimes, by all of you, relaxing and enjoying the food. Be dogmatic about mealtimes being about connecting and hanging out together, not necessarily about eating. Enjoy those golden moments. Now that can fill you up. Who knows? One of them might be the next Alice Waters.

“But I’m Hungry!”

they insist at times.  Perhaps more times than not.  In a whiny, petulant voice.  Not one that is easy to argue with; right?  After all, here you are, telling them that they should know their bodies.  Aha, if this were truly simple and easy, we would not struggle with weight issues so much as a culture, right?!

So this is where they get you.  But, I need to add, that kids often confuse boredom with hunger.  (And sadness, frustration, anxiety, you name it, it is easy to do.)  Simple boredom though, is a very common one.  Think of it; don’t you want to eat when you are bored at times?  I know that the minute I get on a car trip, all I want to do is eat.  And I see no problem throwing food to the back seat when the kids are whining:  ”Are we there yet?”  to keep them occupied if necessary.  Remember, nothing is 100% of the time, everything is ‘for the most part.’ 

So, if you can respond to your kids’ complaints that they are hungry when you know they can’t possible be because they have chowed down two slices of pizza, ice cream and cake, you can ask them if they are bored.  Better yet, teach them HOW TO BE BORED.   I am a big believer in letting your kids be bored.  How to sit with themselves. Within minutes, most younger children, (not toddlers and pre-schoolers, because they can usually find something within themselves to seize on and play with,) but rather the kids from age 5 onward who get used to having things fed to them via school, t.v., computer.  They start to disconnect from their inner creativity and that disconnect can often result in a disconnect with their bodies.  Tips:

1)  Let them be bored.  Don’t think it is your job to entertain them.  Respond with a “Cool, you are bored, sit for a bit. You’ll figure it out.”  Give them the feeling that you have confidence in their ability to FIGURE THIS OUT FOR THEMSELVES

2)  Think whether they are just needing to connect with you for a few minutes.  If you can read this, or think it might be the case, often it is simply their hunger for connection which fills them up.  That can help them de-celerate and sit by themselves for a longer time with their boredom.  If you can grab just a few minutes and sit together if you don’t have time to hang together that is fine.  Tell them that you will get to do something together soon.  That will help them wait.  Just like they can wait longer to eat, if they know the food is there to be had later. 

3)  Separate out true hunger from boredom.  If they whine that they are hungry, teach them that they might be bored and it is their head tricking them because they think if their mouth is stimulated. 

Something important to know:  Neurotransmitters in the brain truly respond to restricting or overeating.  It yields a comforting, soothing response in the brain.  Problem is, the short term effect of soothing goes away and the neurotransmitters are adaptive.  The brain adapts to this behavior, (overeating or restricting) and the effect doesn’t stick.   But, your kid has found a short term solution that works and then the behavior patterns set in that create their own problems.  Usually weight gain in either case.  Or a belief that you need to be on a diet and when kids start diets young, and for people who chronically diet, they create more problems and gain more weight ultimately.

 So, the next time your kid whines that they are hungry, or bored, let them ‘sit with it’.  It won’t kill them.  The food is always there later, and they can figure out the rest.  

“I Have an Easier Time Talking with my Kids about Sex than Food”

said one mom to me during our first consultation, after she had heard from her 7 year old’s pediatrician, that he was ‘obese’.  Her oldest son who was 10, had her husband’s body type; long and lean, and her second son had her body type.  ”I swore I would never do to my kids what my mother did to me; she put me on a diet when I was so young, and she was always telling what, when and how to eat.  But I am so worried about Devon and I know that he is starting to get teased at school.  I have no idea what to do!” 

This mom typifies so many parents whose food legacy includes a parent who was overly involved and critical of their own food.  As a result, they have been what I call:  ’under-involved’.  Paralyzed by fear that they will create an eating disorder, they don’t have any tools to help their kids who might have a body type or food style that lends itself to eating more than their body can metabolize.   Although this is a sensitive subject, and while you don’t want to get too overly involved or critical here, sometimes kids whose body doesn’t register fullness as quickly as their lanky, non-’foodie’ sibs, can end up eating more portions than they need.  

I try to stay away from depriving kids of their favorite foods, but rather try to educate them on how to take better care of their bodies. Here are some tips: 

1)  Tell your kids that they are the EXPERT on their body, they are the only ones who truly know how they feel from the inside, but they also have a job to do.  

 2) Their job is to be the best BODY DETECTIVE possible, to take good care of their bodies. Let them know that some bodies’ signals from the belly that tells the brain it is ‘DONE’, FULL, can be a whisper, it is softer than others, and takes longer to talk to hear.  

3) Teach them to WAIT, the half hour while you keep the food on the table so they see it is there.  If they are still hungry after that time, they can eat.  They need to eat FOOD, FOOD, not dessert to fill up if they are truly hungry, so have them eat another portion of the chicken, or veggies, fruit, and then have the dessert.  The dessert keeps their tongue and head happy, but not their body to kick the soccer ball, play nintendo, whatever your kids is most passionate about. 

4)  Again, remind them that ‘eating healthy’ is not just about what you eat, it is eating HOW MUCH your body can use.  If they see that they can still have their favorite foods, reminding them of their job to take good care and feed their body the other food groups it needs, they are less likely to struggle.  More likely to take this on as their responsibility and to experience it as critical. Have a matter of fact attitude. Don’t overlay your own anxiety or legacy of criticism.

Some kids need more involvement and connection and structuring than others.  Hang out during that half hour with your kid, let them feel like they are in control.  Don’t expect change right away, but within a few weeks, it is more likely that after the half hour, they will not insist that they are hungry.

 Lastly, teach your kids that some foods, like dessert, chips, salty things, don’t flip the ‘OFF SWITCH’.  It is only WAITING that flips it.  Then they can truly check in with their body and see what it wants.   Don’t be scared of the F-Word. This is not about changing their body type, If you adopt a ‘matter of fact attitude about their needing some ways to shift their ‘eating style’, you will teach them some tools and tricks for their lifetime that they can be in charge of.

“What Are You Bringing to the Table When You Serve Dinner?”

Now you know of course, I am not talking about the food here.  As I launch into the next few posts which will be focused on giving your kids effective eating habits for life, I am going to get you to focus on yourself.  No, I don’t mean that you might have secretly eaten the bag of potato chips when the kids went to bed, and you think:  ”How can they possibly have good eating habits when I am so abysmal myself and struggle with weight?”, or “I can eat all the candy I want, but my 8 year old daughter is chubby and I can’t stand it and I am so worried I am going to give her an eating disorder.” 

When I say “What are you Bringing to the Table?” I mean, what is your own history and legacy as a kid growing up in your family?  Were you a picky eater but became a member of the Clean Plate Club, because your mom would have been heartbroken if you hadn’t eaten everything up?  Were your parents health food freaks and never let a morsel of sugar or junk food in the house?  Were you put on a diet as a 10 year old and did your parents always have an eye on what you ate?   

These kinds of questions are what you need to ask yourself.  Because they inform your own style of parenting.  We all parent in ways that are a combination of modeling, (doing what you know because that was done to you), a complete reaction against, or informed by reading, learning and trying to find what works.  Then to add to the mix, is the other parent, (if your kids have another parent in the picture, even if living separately,) and what their influences are.   

It is worth thinking about.  Because even if you have figured out what works for you, it may work for one kid, and not another. Or it may work when they are still fairly compliant, (if you actually have one of these kids), but won’t when they try to get more control over their lives, and may use food as a fighting tool. If you can’t separate out the issues, you may get sucked into it, as you might be too scared to ‘create a problem’ with food.

To help our kids stay on track with their bodies, take responsibility for feeding themselves well and creating effective eating habits they can use for life, we start here.  More to come. 

“How much mental energy do we spend thinking of food?”

Let’s take a survey; how much energy, mental and emotional would you say, you spend, on average, thinking about food/calories/ your body per day? It was brought to my attention today and reminded me of the fact, that I am sure, as women, if we could harness the amount of energy we spend thinking of those things, and put it elsewhere, we would have by now cured cancer.

On the other hand, we women are so good at multi-tasking, that we could of course, plan the kids’ summer schedules, sign them up for soccer, (count calories), add that last item to the grocery list, remember the most crucial aspects of our jobs, and pick up the dry cleaning, (count calories.) I call it the ‘wallpaper of the mind’. That ticker tape that is always circulating, thinking of what, how much, little, how well or badly you have eaten that day.I know I always talk about being conscious of your body, and the irony is that in these parenting workshops that I do, or talks that I give, (I am preparing for one next week,) I try to help parents KEEP their kids connected to their bodies, and try to help them not get in the way.

The irony is that kids for the most part, self regulate, meaning that they eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Like everything though, not all kids do this. The trick as a parent, is to understand enough about your kid, their temperament, their eating styles and habits, AND, (this is not a small task), be aware enough of your own food attitudes to know when or if you are creating more of a problem, or not seeing a problem because you don’t want to deal with it. As one mom once said to me: “I have an easier time talking about sex with my kids than food, because my mother was so overly involved and critical about my food, I swore I would never say a word to my kids!”

So, it gets complicated, right? Good thing we are such good multi-taskers! But I will assure you that, one of the best things you can do to give your kids good eating habits, is to be as conscious about yourself and your interactions with them around food as possible. THEN, you can figure out what they might need from you. Tough part is, just like they might all want different meals, they often need different parenting, depending on their own temperament. Now how do you juggle that, will be something that I will be happy to talk about in the next few posts, as it is truly, the trick of parenting, and one of the keys to helping your kids to eat healthy.

Now that is something to focus our mental energy on.

“You Are What You Eat? No, You Eat What You Are!”

Okay, so before you think I have totally gone off the deep end now, I will explain myself. I am big, big, big, into the idea, scratch that, no absolute conviction that to eat well for your life, you need to really know yourself.  No, I am not talking deep, soulful existential, what kind of philosopher are you into kind of knowing yourself, we can get a bit more basic here.  I am talking, know yourself like:  Do you know when you are hungry or full?  Tired or Sick?  Do you know what you FEEL like eating most times?  (Mushy, comfort food vs. crunchy salad?  A heavy steak with fries for the salty taste vs. a lighter, fish and veggies meal?)  Are you aware of  the subtle gradations and shifts from starving to stuffed, or tired to sick from exhaustion?  Okay, so we don’t have to get all navel gazing here, but I promise you that if you start to pay more attention to these feelings in your body, you will be able to eat more consciously, one of the cornerstones of eating well and staying at a weight that works right for  your body.  

So the other morning I am catching Joy Bauer on the Today Show.   I love her, she is one of the most sensible nutritionists going. (Okay, I admit it, I am totally biased, she did fact check my chapter on nutrition for my book.) She was talking with Meredith Viera about diet tips for the New Year,  if you are craving that sweet something to ‘close off’ the meal, (which of course happens for many) and she was giving suggestions, Mini Snickers, little chocolates, etc.  Basically things that are about 30 calories.  However, what got brought up was how for some people, this could just trigger them to eat those foods non stop, and Joy talked about how of course, you need to KNOW YOURSELF, and how this would affect you.  

Like for me, I know that if I were to think of just having one of those 30 calorie Dove chocolates, and that that was all I could have, then I would be wanting about 15 more.  That the only way I in fact don’t eat 15 is when I eradicate that thought that I might need to only eat one or two. 

The only thing that has worked for me, is to in fact, always have as much of the foods I like on hand.  In fact, if you saw my purse you would laugh at the bits and pieces of candy and chocolate, that I have, just in case, GOD FORBID, I ever feel hungry.  I spent so many years as a dancer, on or off a diet, that when I left the dance world, I had to figure out how to eat normally.  Luckily, I didn’t have to worry any more that I would lose my job over a few pounds; (whoever heard of firing their shrink for gaining weight?) so I got to ‘play around’ with eating the foods I always wanted to eat when I was not ‘dieting’.  I certainly knew what I ended up doing if I told myself I had to stay away from a particular food, (I would want it more, and ultimately eat more of it than I even really wanted because of course I couldn’t have it ever ever again, or certainly the next day!) 

In the process, I figured out what worked for me, what I FELT like eating. When I FELT like stopping because I felt DONE, AND SATED, and knowing that the food was still there, helped me to do this.  Most importantly, it helped me stay CONSCIOUS.  That helped me stay connected, to my body and the information I was getting from it.

The irony of eating this way for years now, (and doing pushups of course,) is that I am smaller than when I was a dancer.  But more importantly, I enjoy eating and I know what works for me.  This of course doesn’t work for everyone, and might work after a while of eating in a more structured way, and starting to be more conscious gradually, over time.  Dipping into the diet world, from time to time if you need to.  But, you gotta know what sets you up and how you end up behaving.  If it doesn’t work, figure out why, not because you are failing, but why that doesn’t work for you.  Try something else.  Be flexible.  Sometimes overeating is imperative and if you don’t let yourself do it, you set yourself up.  Or if you do do it, you set yourself up.  

So figure it out ‘from the inside’.  Don’t let those experts tell you how to eat.  I bet you know better.  Even if you aren’t doing it.  You still know and have all the information.  Maybe you can figure out how “you eat what you are.”  Happy thinking!   

“Back to packing Lunches”

Okay, it is official. The blah, winter doldrums have set in for me I think, and it is barely past New Year’s Day. All I can think about is how cold it is and how much longer it is going to be cold. The routines are back in place, and that of course, involves, mealtimes. Preparing food. Figuring out what to feed my family. Anyone out there here with me? I have to confess, that one of my least favorite parts of parenting is feeding my children. Ironic, given what I do, right? But there it is. I do wish they could feed themselves.

But I also notice that when I have the time to really spend preparing a well balanced, nutritious meal, that I feel fabulous. Sort of like SuperMom. I get it why moms obsess over what, when and how much their kids eat, it can make you feel so ‘complete’. (Visions of the 50′s housewife with the beautiful apron, and calm demeanor accompany the idyllic picture.)

Of course the reality is more challenging for working moms, or even stay at home moms when you want to have a hassle free mealtime. One kid is a vegetarian, one is a ‘meat-a-tarian. One is an athlete and growing an inch a minute, the other is trying to lose weight gained over the holidays. What is a Mom to do?! Makes me want to throw in the towel before I even start. But, given that this seems to be a simple fact of parenting life, I will offer up some tips to how I deal with the dilemma of the constant feeding and caring of children who demand different options:

1) Get them involved as much as possible. One week out of the month, they make the grocery list, they come with me or my husband to shop for the food and they help put it away. It inspires all of us. I notice that just buying food that they choose gets us all excited about at least one or two meals. Each of them gets to choose a meal a week.

2) Pick one benign meal that the family can eat, and for the picky eaters, let them choose one meal that they can prepare for themselves. (For the older kids, it can be something they prepare without too much hassle, for the younger ones, have it be something they can get for themselves in the fridge.) The simple act of them getting and doing it for themselves, if you can stay out of it, helps them to take some responsibility and appreciate feeding themselves. Also frees you from getting pissed off when they hate what you have prepared. Obviously, the choice cannot just be a dessert but it is not unreasonable to have something like fruit salad. The rule is that it has to have some redeemable nutritional value.

3) Make room for ‘silly suppers’. Popcorn, cereal, waffles for dinner. Reverse the usual order. If it is a cold winter night and you all crave some comfort food, go for it.

And as always, in parenting, pick your battles. Find the rules around safety and health that are vital, important, stick to them, and be reasonable. Challenge your kids to do some of the work. And then of course, there is always ‘take-out’. Happy Eating.