As caregivers, we want the best for our children. To have them grow up healthy and happy is the primary goal. At times, this can be a stressful endeavor with plenty of external pressure from other parents, society, and even the media. Everyone seems to have an opinion on best parenting practices, especially regarding nutrition. Most caregivers also battle some type of nutrition fight; picky eating, stressful mealtimes, or anything in between- food is tricky. The good news is that it doesn't have to be. By implementing gentle nutrition practices for yourself and your kids, you have the power to change mealtimes radically. You also have the power to help your kids develop healthy eating habits and reduce your stress by removing the pressure from food altogether.
What is Gentle Nutrition
Gentle nutrition is a simplified version of Intuitive Eating, an evidenced-based, weight-neutral, non-diet approach to eating that follows ten principles. These ten principles help you create more body awareness and a healthier, sustainable relationship with food by simply taking the pressure off eating. It also teaches you to trust and honor your hunger cues. In other words, you eat what you want when you're hungry, stop when you're full, and allow some flexibility for less structured mealtimes. Less structured mealtimes might look like parties, fun nights out, or even that occasional cookie after a long day. With gentle nutrition, there are no more "good" and "bad" foods or body judgments. Just you, thoroughly enjoying your relationship with food.
If gentle nutrition sounds like a unicorn, remember that you used to be a pro! As a baby, you knew exactly when you were hungry and full; you even knew how to vocalize these needs to your caregivers. All babies do this. Around the age of four, things start to change. Children increasingly learn to interpret the external cues around them. These cues can include how caregivers talk about food and body image, school, media, and much more. As these influences pour in, the natural, gentle nutrition relationship starts to slip away.
What's most worrisome about a child losing their relationship with gentle nutrition is that it can lead to disordered eating or even a full-fledged eating disorder. This is the exact opposite of the happy, healthy life children deserve.
Thankfully, starting the journey back to gentle nutrition is never too late or difficult.
The 1-2-3 Gentle Nutrition Guide
The best thing about gentle nutrition is how uncomplicated and straightforward it makes eating, especially when dealing with children. If you're worried about your child's relationship with food, tired of mealtimes turning into warzones, and done with the pressure, perhaps it's time to give the 1-2-3 Gentle Nutrition Guide a try! This Guide is a condensed, simplified, child-friendly version of the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating.
Practice Acceptance: You can guarantee that no matter what's on the menu, your child will eat less or more than what you planned. Instead of resisting or pressuring, practice acceptance. You can do this by sticking to your role as a caregiver. This role includes the following: serve plenty of healthy options, plan and stick to a regular meal and snack schedule, and allow your child to pick out what they want and leave what they don't. Your child's role is to learn what amounts and types of foods are suitable for their body. This is called self-regulation. If caregivers resist, push, or pressure, the child risks losing their ability to self-regulate. By accepting these roles, you can let go of any other expectations for yourself or your child
Turn Mealtime Into Bonding Time: Mealtime can often feel like a warzone, full of tears, rage, negotiations, and even pleading. As caregivers, we just try to do our job and ensure our kids eat! But this stress can leak into your child's relationship with food, even into adulthood. It's time for a cease-fire so everyone can focus on what mealtime is supposed to be about: bonding! It's the perfect place to discuss the best parts of days, the woes of the week, or even wacky stories. Focus less on the food and more on the people at the table. It isn't always easy, but the healthy food relationship you're helping your child build is worth it.
Stick to Mealtime Boundaries: Whatever meal and snacktimes you have on your food schedule are when food is available. We all need a little wiggle room, but ultimately you want your child to learn how to fuel themselves throughout the day properly and be appropriately hungry for larger meals, like dinner. If your child expresses hunger outside of regular meals and snack times, express empathy and kindly remind them of the next planned meal or snack. If they express hunger often, consider reworking your schedule or reevaluating the food options during meals and snack times.
We want the best for our children, including a healthy relationship with food. You can help your child achieve this relationship by practicing the 1-2-3 Gentle Nutrition Guide and modeling your own healthy habits, which include no body judgment and being flexible with your eating.
We will never be able to eliminate the stress and external pressures that come with caregiving. We're always wondering if we're doing enough, saying the right things, and instilling the correct values. Caregiving can feel like a constant uphill battle, but nutrition doesn't have to be. By implementing gentle nutrition, you have the power to completely reshape your family's relationship with food, even your own.
If you or your child(ren) are struggling with food or body image, please do not hesitate to reach out to the National Eating Disorders Association by visiting www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline. You are never alone, and help is only a click away!