How to Think about Kids and Food

About once per week I receive an email from a parent about a problem feeding his or her child. The concerns vary from picky eating to arguments at mealtime to overeating to diet advice. Sometimes the child is at risk for an eating disorder, but more often this is a normal family struggle about food.
My instinct was to ignore the emails and pass the worried parent on to the child's pediatrician, a child feeding specialist or perhaps her own therapist. I came to realize there was a reason I was receiving these calls for help. The parent was looking for both reassurance that the child was relatively normal and guidance to handle the current issue. These emails highlighted a gap in resources available to parents. There is plenty of advice about what to feed your kids, but parents always want to know if they are doing the right thing. I know I cannot answer that question but I could discuss what seemed to be the missing link. How to think about your kids and food?
There are a few common themes. First, parents don't know where to turn for a coherent strategy for feeding their children. Second, parents are terrifed of passing their own imperfect or even disordered eating onto their children. Third, families are very isolated from community--both relatives and friends--and choose to ignore old world advice in a new world of dietary challenges.
The marketing of foods to children and the transformation of our food supply have changed the landscape of parenting about food drastically. Useful, accurate information is hard to find. The best educational materials are often just skillful marketing tools, misguided public health statements or nutritionism (turning eating into a chess game of nutrients and minerals). By creating an array of foods made to appeal to our deepest desires, the food industry undermines our faith in our ability to regulate food. We all struggle to find a healthful, balanced diet and are plagued by the constant temptation to stray. How then can a parent become an expert in feeding his or her own child? Where does a well-intentioned parent even start?
Parenting is marked by moments of self-doubt and even despair followed by an important, usually self-evident revelation. In this instance, that moment begins when a parent realizes she already knows how to feed her child. If a parent can accept this premise, the outside influences are not as confusing. Any advice from society appears to be tainted by ulterior motives. Any professional suggestion needs to be balanced with a parent's understanding of her child. People have survived with eating advice passed down through families and tradition for centuries. Why, all of a sudden, would we all be clueless about how to feed our kids? In fact, the real worry is who will protect them? Although the movement to regulate the food industry is gaining steam, it is unlikely to have broad impact for many years. So parents are left to fend for their children on their own.
Let me be clear about one thing: parents know how to feed their children. The real issue is how can a parent harness that instinct. In recent years, the national mantra is that parents are to blame for their childrens' eating habits. But it is clear that the individual parent is powerless in the face of massive societal forces. Shielding children from advertising, television and junk foods is impossible. Teaching children about their own bodies remains very effective. The key is simple. When the child is hungry, she will eat. When she is not hungry, she won't. However, applying this concept is much harder. First, a parent has to trust the child's instincts implicitly. Second, the parent has to learn how the child experiences and acts when she is hungry or not hungry. Third, the parent needs to translate the child's experiences into words and to teach her to know when she is hungry or not hungry. Last, the parent has to learn to avoid his or her own vulnerabilities about food and not pass them on to her children.
Even though this application seems straightforward, nothing is ever easy in parenting. Industry and government still dictate how we all think about food. No movement has yet had much impact on our culture of food. However, a parent can focus on other components of eating--ones that have been drowned out by the myriad confusing messages--to help the child navigate this confusion.
This has turned into a topic too big for one post so look for the next several to address these topics more fully.

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