Expanding Kids’ Autonomy with Food
Christie Caggiani, RDN, LDN, CEDRD
Parenting is all about guiding, providing, teaching with unconditional love. And it’s also about allowing our kids the space to try, explore and figure things out so that they can eventually trust themselves to make supportive choices. Not only these overall developmental themes, they are also completely relevant as kids personalize their own relationship with food, eating and connection with their bodies. When our children are young, we are the gatekeepers of the food: providing, preparing and presenting it in a reliable, and consistent manner 1. And while we may still be paying the grocery bills and answering the age-old question, “What’s for dinner?!” as long as our children are under our roofs , our kids pretty quickly begin to practice more and more independence and autonomy with their food. Imagine, if you were still cutting your 15 year olds steak at the dinner table! That seems ridiculous, yet we want to make certain that we are also giving our kids the space to explore and take charge in other ways with their eating experiences. Particularly as our children explore the middle- and high-school years, there are endless opportunities for us to give them room to make more of their own food decisions.
Give suggestions not solutions
Our hormonal little teddy bears (often disguised as grizzly bears), typically don’t respond well when we try to solve things for them. They may ASK us for the answers, but they really want to be able to make their own decisions, and yet know they need some input from us.
Instead of: “Why don’t you ever eat breakfast in the morning? “
Try: “I notice you’ve been talking a lot about how tired you are, is there anything you think might make getting up less brutal?” . Then, rather than firing off 5 things you know would work, simply ask if he would like some suggestions. Not only does this give you an opening to discuss simple breakfasts that can be ready crazy fast and keep his energy up, it also gives you some space to discuss time management and ways the family can work together to support each other.
Capture teachable moments
We may be acutely aware that certain patterns aren’t working well for our kids. An extremely common pitfall is the post-school slump. Not only do our kids come home worn out from thinking, they’re also really, really hungry. Getting them to connect how the first half of their day plays a role in the second half is a really big deal.
Instead of: “How come you’re raiding the pantry the second you walk in the door?” which is not only shaming, it completely cuts off communication.
Try: “I’m not going to bombard you with questions since you seem like you don’t want to talk right now. Do you need any help putting together a snack?” Then once she has some food in her system, you might explore the timing of lunch and foods she could add to it or to breakfast to keep hunger from building to the tipping point after school. Discussing food or patterns that aren’t quite helpful will NOT go well, if her brain is irritable and famished.
Give options and reinforce you trust them
If you have a child who struggles to make her own decisions, or turns to you for permission, practice turning the question back on her. Remembering that there is no perfect eating choice can really take the pressure off. If she asks, “Mom, can I eat something else?”….
Instead of: And absolute “yes” or “no”
Try: “You’re the best one to know if you’re still hungry, so go ahead and listen to what your body’s asking for. There is absolutely more food, so help yourself.”
Encourage your kids to take an attitude of curiosity. Since we know that calling foods good or bad creates an onslaught of judgment and distorted eating, it’s helpful to teach them to explore what’s working for them or not so much. This can include them choosing a different / new food from the grocery store or getting curious about how long a bowl of cereal satisfies after breakfast, and how that’s different than eating an egg sandwich. Their first-hand experience is priceless and will speak volumes over our well-intended lectures. And this experience is precisely what helps them launch as well-adjusted, balanced and connected young adults.
1. Division of Responsibilities, Ellyn Satter, RD