“Parenting is easy,” said no one ever. Parenting is both the most challenging and most rewarding job you’ll ever have. There’s a huge learning curve when you step into parenthood, but those lessons help us stretch and grow. One lesson centers on how to feed your little one. This is always a hot topic in any parents’ group or pediatrician’s office. As a dietitian, I wanted to get this right! I found that when I was learning about how to best feed my children and get through the everyday challenges of family meal times, I actually learned a lot about my own health, nutrition and relationship with food.
Lesson #1: Listen to your appetite
Ellyn Satter, a Registered Dietitian, renowned author and expert in infant and toddler feeding, believes that we are all born knowing exactly how much to eat. She encourages parents to respect a child’s appetite. If a child doesn’t want to eat, don’t force him. Babies and toddlers are known for eating like champs one day and wanting hardly anything the next. Children are also able to put down an unfinished ice cream cone when they are full!
As adults, other cues and factors start to interfere. Satter explains that if we feed children regular, balanced meals and snacks, and let them pay attention to their hunger and fullness cues, they will eat the right amount for their needs. Applying this concept to my children helped me to tune into my own appetite and eat mindfully according to my own hunger and fullness cues. Over time, it becomes second nature.
Lesson #2: Stick to a schedule
As a parent, you quickly learn to never leave home without snacks. No one wants a hangry child! Also, it’s important to make sure to feed your child on a fairly consistent schedule so that snacks don’t interfere with meals. As adults, we know these principles but don’t always implement them in our own lives. I try to remind myself of this when rushing out the door without food packed or when I’m tempted to eat a big late lunch or snack that might interfere with my dinner appetite. While I help my children stick to a healthful meal and snack schedule, I’m reminded to help myself do the same.
Lesson #3: But also be flexible
Parenthood is full of surprises and challenges that throw us off track and teach us to be flexible. Sometimes you can’t get the groceries unloaded or the meals prepped, so it’s important to learn to be fine with just doing your best. Healthy eating is flexible. Avoid “all or none” thinking with nutrition. Just because you have a less-than-healthful food or meal doesn’t mean your efforts are ruined forever, or even for the day or the week. My mantra is “every little bit counts.” It keeps me focused on the positive things I can do to make the best of the situation, rather than throwing in the towel.
Lesson #4: Focus on your food
Most parents agree that meal time is often chaotic and rushed. You end up eating too quickly in order to help everyone else and you don’t focus on your actual food. This results in mindless eating, and the feeling like you didn’t even eat at all! This is not satisfying to our appetite and can spur over-snacking later or digestion issues like excess gas, bloating or reflux. In the years I’ve had of rushed and mindless eating, I’ve become aware of just how important focusing on my food is to my health. Even when I’m crunched for time, I try to slow down and focus on the food to get more satisfaction out of the meal.
Lesson #5: Healthy doesn’t have to be homemade
Most people think that homemade food is healthier than packaged, pre-prepared or processed foods. Oftentimes, with a busy family and work life, there’s little time to fit in lots of food prep. And that’s OK. I’ve learned that there is nothing wrong with using shortcuts and pre-prepared or processed foods to save time. All foods can fit into a healthy diet, in moderation. Many food manufacturers have greatly improved the nutrition and quality of ingredients in processed foods. I try to prep what I can, but also read nutrition and ingredients labels – or use tools like the OptUP app – to find better-for-you options of processed foods.
Lesson #6: Try, try again
You may have heard it can take roughly 10 to 20 times of trying a new food before a child learns to like it. I must gently remind myself of this when I’m dealing with my own picky child; I offer the food and don’t stress if she doesn’t eat it. I offer it regularly, in a low-pressure manner and environment, using different flavors and preparations. This experience has reminded me to keep trying foods that I had a preconceived aversion to – especially different fruits and vegetables – because I’ve found that my own tastes can and do evolve with time just as my child’s can.
When I reflect on all the things I’ve learned in parenting, I can see that many of these lessons can apply to improving myself, as well. We can learn through taking care of others how to take better care of our own health and nutrition. And ultimately, when we are healthier, our kids are healthier, too.
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