Last week we talked about the here and now of feeding your family - those real life, real times factors that determine what goes on the table tonight or in the lunch boxes tomorrow. These factors are easy to identify - the long work day, the million after school activities, our grumpy mood, low tolerance for food being rejected at the table, these are all things that contribute to what we decide to put on the table for dinner/lunch/breakfast. I like to refer to this as our “capacity” for feeding our family.
Today I want to dig down to the next level. There are so many more factors that contribute to how we choose to feed our family and they’re not always easy to identify, but they certainly play a role. The reason I want to dig down a little and share these with you, is that if you are feeling stuck in a rut and you would like to improve or just change how you feed your family, then it can be worth examining what’s shaping the choices that you make. Sometimes just knowing this is enough to help you re-shape things and try a different path.
As parents we all bring a “learned history” of food and eating to our role as caregivers. It’s probably no surprise that a lot of what we experienced as kids, plays a major role in how we now feed our own kids. Below I’m going to outline some of the feeding patterns you might have experienced, and how these potentially shape how you now feed your family.
1. The Chaotic Food Environment - Feast or Famine
Over the last several decades as we’ve seen two parent working families become the norm, the busyness of family life has increased exponentially. With this we’ve seen food become something that needs to be more ‘convenient” (cue the rise of the microwave frozen dinners of the 80s and 90s). Lack of a regular “food or meal plan”, lack of regular grocery shopping and a heavy reliance on convenience and/or take away meals shapes this approach to eating. It also possibly means that the house was either full of food, or there was hardly anything to eat. If you grew up in this type of environment you may feel that cooking is something overly complicated and you may be programmed to think that it’s beyond your skill set. This type of food environment may also have lead you to a somewhat complicated relationship with food - you may have felt you needed to overeat when food was present (because you didn’t know when it would be available again), and suffer through periods of being hungry when food was scarce. As an adult this may have led you to become out of tune with your appetite and always feeling the need to eat.
2. The Clean your Plate Mentality
Many of us grew up in families that had the nightly mantra that your plate must be empty before you left the table. Many dietitians think this approach is a throw back to the post war era when food was scarce, and so waste needed to be minimised.
This approach can inadvertently raise children who find it hard to be in tune with their natural appetite. Being taught to always finish your meal regardless of how hungry or full you are, has been shown to contribute to contribute to problems regulating your weight later in life.
Children are wonderful at listening to their appetite - we want to help them preserve this, by allowing them to choose how much they want to eat.
3. No Dessert Unless You Eat all of Your Meal
This is closely aligned with #2 above, but the motivation here is less about food waste and more about cajoling kids into eating a balanced diet. The problem with this approach is that it 1) doesn’t allow children to regulate their appetite and 2) it teaches kids that “heathy” food is so unenjoyable that you need to be bribed to eat it. Studies have also shown that this approach does very little to expand a child’s acceptance of foods over the longer term. Rather than bribing your child to eat, I’d recommend a gentler child centred approach called the “division of responsibility”. First developed by Ellyn Satter, the idea is that your job as the parent or care giver is simply to provide a healthy balanced diet. Your job is done once the food has been served. Your child is responsible for whether they want to eat from what is provided, and how much. As for dessert, read on about restrictive feeding practices below, but I believe all food should be enjoyed as part of a healthy balanced diet. Serving dessert several nights a week is perfectly fine and don’t exclude your child from it because they didn’t eat their dinner.
4. Restrictive Feeding Practices
I want to recognise that the intention here is all good. I’ve never met a parent that didn’t want their child to have a healthy diet, but there is a lot of confusion about what a healthy diet is, and how to achieve it. Many parents feel they are doing the right thing by restricting foods they consider “unhealthy” - this might be sugar, lollies, chocolate, cake, you name it! The problem with this approach is that all kids eventually learn that these foods exist . When they are never allowed access to them, it places these foods on a pedestal, which can lead children to crave them all the time and want them at every turn. They can even become quite obsessed with them. It’s better to create at environment where kids might get excited about getting a chocolate bar or a piece of cake, but they can eat it until they’ve had enough and then feel satisfied, rather than obsessed with that food. This process is called habituation and you can read more about it here.
5. Food Preferences/Dislikes
I think this category applies to everyone. I am yet to meet a person that likes absolutely every food under the sun. It’s natural and normal for us all to have food dislikes. As a care giver its easy to fall into the trap of assuming your children won’t like a food because you don’t and/or never exposing them to that food. Case in point - I really dislike lamb and as such I rarely cook it. Imagine my surprise when I cooked lamb lollipops one night and the kids declared it the best meal ever! I need to work harder to cook lamb more often.
6. Food Culture
Every generation seems to have its “buzz” diet - low fat of the 90s, high protein of the naughties and if I had to describe the current food culture I’d say there’s a huge over focus on sugar. It’s worth taking a minute to consider how these cultures impact on your own food beliefs. They’re not necessarily wrong, but are they leading you to over complicate your approach to feeding either yourself or your family?
Putting it Altogether
The first step in wanting to change your approach to either feeding yourself or how you feed your family, is recognising what’s shaping it. Start by asking yourself how do you want to feel when you eat a meal with, or serve food to, your family? Do you want to feel like you’ve done your best ( I can say with certainty that you have), do you want it to be a happy and calm event? Is it triggering for you if your children don’t eat or at least try everything? Do you need to drop the guilt that you’re not doing a good enough job?
Here’s a few things that might help you. If you need to simplify your approach to how you feed your family and ditch some of the Mum guilt, it’s worth introducing the concept of the division of responsibility. Remember that your job is done once you’ve served the food - so put your energy and focus into planning, shopping and prepping the meals, and stop worrying about what is or isn’t eaten at the table.
I think I have recommended meal planning to nearly every family I have worked with as a dietitian. It can feel overwhelming to start and like just another job to do, but the rewards are worth it.
Knowing ahead of time what you’ll be cooking, that you have the ingredients on hand and that it’s achievable in the timeframe you have, introduces a sense of calm to the family dinner routine. You can also plan a combination of meals you know your kids will eat and meals that might be less successful (but at least you will enjoy eating them) to help you feel better about what your kids are eating, but prevent it being the same old thing every night.
Like all change, it’s best done in baby steps. If you’re new to meal planning start by just planning out 2-3 dinners at a time. Always factor in a night off or an easy dinner too, so that it feels more achievable. There’s nothing wrong with a dinner of frozen pizzas and a side of salad or a fruit plate! If cooking has always felt like it’s out of your skill set, put aside some time to learn some simple recipes and start building up a repertoire of recipes you feel confident with.
Above all, if feeding your family is stressing you out, then get help. An appointment with an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can really help ease your mind and trouble shoot the things that are preventing you from feeling successful.