Children eat what the family eats.
As a family, we follow a meal and snack schedule.
No snacking in between meals.
All food is created equal.
Everyone gets a bit of everything on their plate.
My husband and I are generally healthy people when you compare us with the overall population. We rarely eat fast food, we always buy organic/grass-fed/pasture raised/etc, we cook most of our meals at home and we know that vegetables are good you—so we’re ok, right? Well, sort of…
I’ve always struggled with weight and inevitably, self-confidence and skewed self-image. I’m 5’2” and gaining as little as 5 lbs makes me feel so bloated on this short frame. If you look at my BMI, I’m technically considered overweight which is bonkers; and that has never felt good considering I am well aware that I could stand to lose a few lbs. Now that I’m a mom and especially a mom to girls, I don’t want them to struggle with the same body issues as I have. For me it’s a top priority that I teach them to make healthy food choices while still enjoying a wide variety of foods, while also staying active and to love themselves no matter what their measurements are.
In the beginning of our food re-birth, I had to take a hard look at our family’s food habits and it was glaring that we ate more processed foods that I had ever imagined and we were very dependent on starchy carbs. We only ate 2-3 varieties of vegetables on rotation, that we were all sick of. We hardly prepared salads but luckily, we did eat a good share of fruit! Like I said before, we didn’t have the worst eating habits but it just wasn’t the way I wanted our family to keep eating. I wanted to offer our family a healthy, yet sustainable meal structure. I’m happy to say that we now eat mostly vegetables, fruits, clean animal proteins and whole grain carbs—in that order. Our food gauge is that we eat foods that look as close as they did when they were found in nature. This means that if we eat corn, its fresh corn—we try to stay away from tortilla chips or if we eat chicken, its not shaped like a dinosaur. We do this to avoid eating all the weird (man-made) ingredients and preservatives, that we can’t pronounce and have no idea what they do to our bodies once they’re inside. We also want to feel connected to our food and teach our daughters about where food comes from and what it’s supposed to look like. This is a choice that’s important to us but we’re not fanatics about it either. We “cheat” and eat outside of these parameters whenever we want to, because we believe it does more harm than good to have a lifetime ban on any specific food.
Now you’re probably wondering how we got our daughters on-board and are asking yourself if we encountered push-back—the answers to the latter is ABSOLUTELY YES! Our oldest, Lily, was heavily reliant on all forms of crackers, cookies, pasta, rice and fruit after she weaned from breastmilk/formula. Anything outside of these food groups, she refused to try and didn’t even want to see on her plate. I struggled because I wanted her belly to be full and most especially full enough to allow her to sleep through the night! So, I found myself only making the foods I knew she would eat—which meant we all ate the same way because I refused to make separate meals for anyone in our family.
All this led me to establish our Family Food Rules (FFR). It seems silly to have food rules in a family, but like any aspect of parenting, nutrition is something you must teach your children—such as walking, talking, controlling their emotions, or potty training– these are all essential life skills. It seemed odd to me that my child was going to decide what a well rounded diet looked like. These rules have encouraged our daughters to be open minded about new foods; while understanding that we shouldn’t rely exclusively on certain foods. We haven’t stopped eating ice cream or pizza, we just eat it less frequently or try to prepare a healthier alternative.
Here are our 4 food rules and why we feel they’re important:
- Children eat what the family eats. This one is pretty self-explanatory and it’s been in effect in our home since Day 1, but so many families prepare alternate meals for their children in hopes to get their children to eat. I’ve honestly been tempted so many times to just give them a grilled cheese so they don’t go to bed hungry, but what message am I sending? I’m basically agreeing that the food I provided them isn’t good, or that they know more about good nutrition than I do. In those moments when I struggled, I would imagine a mama lioness hunting for days and catching a gazelle for her cubs. Do you think they would refuse to eat it and request an antelope instead? Perhaps, but they would eventually die or eat the dang gazelle anyway. I don’t think mammals are wired to starve themselves to death, we are instinctively wired to do whatever we need to do to survive. It’s definitely a silly analogy but it continues to be my mantra and it puts feeding my children into perspective.
- As a family we follow a meal/snack schedule AND there is no snacking between meals. Kids that snack all day long aren’t hungry, conversely, kids that are hungry, eat. The purpose of this rule is that if you let your children build up an appetite, they will be more inclined to eat whatever you put in front of them. With our first daughter, I felt that it was wrong to deny her food when she was “hungry”– I say hungry in quotes because there is no room for pickiness in hunger. However, Lily would only want chips or crackers when she was “hungry”. Even some well-meaning parents would offer my daughter food (with or without my permission), making it very hard to uphold this rule in public. Here are some of things I would say to Lily while she was losing her mind over me denying snacks:
“Lily you might be hungry because you didn’t eat your omelet this morning, next time please make sure to eat until your belly is full”
“I’m glad you’re hungry because we are going to have a delicious meal after we get home from the playground”
“Lily, Timmy is having their snack now but you had yours before we left the house. You cannot have Timmy’s snack because you already had yours”
I agree that to someone who’s never tried this, it could seem hard to do (or even cruel) but you’re teaching your child about self- control. My schedule allows for my children to eat every 2-3 hours, so let’s be real- will they really starve for not eating for 2 hours? Of course not. They will just be ravenous during their next meal and eventually learn to fill their bellies so they don’t get hangry. In these moments when your children are truly hungry, they will be so much more inclined to try new foods. However, the key to this rule is to stay firm throughout the tantrums and whining because if you give in, your kids will understand your threshold and reach or exceed it next time, if it means they’ll get their way. I promise you that eventually the whining will stop, or at the very least reduce significantly once they realize you’re not budging. My daughters will hardly ever ask for snack these days.
Our Food Schedule-
9:30am Small Snack
4:00pm Large Afternoon Snack
- All food is created equal (no emotional eating, no food bribe/punishment, and no glorifying food). I grew up making all sorts of positive and negative associations with food and didn’t realize how it sabotaged my ability to eat well. My parents would promise us ice-cream or McDonalds if we were “good” or had it taken away if we were “bad”– both are forms of food bribery or punishment and they attach emotions to food. It was also a common practice for our parents to offer us a bag of chips at the checkout line or while running errands – this type of emotional eating was used to calm our boredom. It’s probably the reason why most of us can eat an extra large bucket of popcorn by ourselves which watching a movie! We often don’t even realize that when we talk differently about certain foods, we are glorifying certain foods and therefore all other foods rank less desirable to our children. For example, when we get them excited about eating their vegetables by saying they will have a cookie for desert, we are not only saying that those veggies are a stepping stone to better things, but we are putting the cookie on a pedestal. This is teaching them that they should want the cookie more than the vegetable in the first place—no wonder vegetables don’t get any love!
- Everyone gets a little bit of everything on their plate. The second part to this is that if they want seconds of any portion of their meal, they have to have tried everything on their plate first. This is not a bribe, it’s simply expecting that they try food before they decide they don’t want it or like it. You’re not asking them to eat every last bit of broccoli, you’re just asking they try it before stuffing themselves with chicken. Once they’ve tried everything on their plate, they can eat much as they want (depending on supply obvi) of their favorite thing. Here are a few things I repeat to our girls religiously, to reiterate this rule:
- “You don’t have to like it, you just have to try it”. I read this in the book “French Kids Everything” by Karen Billon and loved it! I didn’t expect my children to like everything on the first try, but some things they did and some they didn’t.
- “Mom & Dad decide what goes on your plate, you decide what you put in your mouth”. Plain and simple, kids don’t get to pick their food—we all know they would eat ice cream, pizza and boxed mac n cheese all in the same meal. I try very hard to make them a well balanced plate of food- a vegetable/fruit, a starch and a protein and they decide what part of it to consume. Like I said before, sometimes we do have pizza and ice-cream!
That was it, these are our food rules!
If all or some of these rules resonate with you and you’re wondering how on earth can you apply your our version at home, here’s a few steps you can follow:
- Mom and Dad take a few hours to discuss and write down the rules that best work for your family.
- Rules 1-3 can be applied to solid-eating children of any age (I found it most effective to gradually transition 12+). For younger children try to cook their veggies and fruit a little longer to make sure they’re soft enough for them to chew and swallow.
- Keep in mind food rules # 4 & #5 can only be applied to children that are old enough to talk and understand what you are saying. For us this was around 20 months of age.
- Create a food schedule as I discussed in Rule #2. The schedule works best if all members of your family follow the same schedule. Families that eat together, stay together- right?
- Your children should eat every 2-3 hours (depending on age of course, younger children need to eat more often than older children)
- The day before you would like to roll this out, talk to your children about the new rules. Keep it simple and try to highlight all the great things they can look forward to:
- Eating new foods
- Predictable schedules
- Spending more time as a family
- Once the rules are in effect, do not be a softy! Your kids will push back as hard as they need to and I guarantee it will either yield little to not results. If you don’t feel confident about your rules, think about more and roll it our when you’re ready to be firm. Otherwise you will all be miserable for a period of time, for no reason.
- Your kids might be hungry (or rather hangry) for a day or two but I promise you, they will adapt and be unharmed.
- Given this unpleasant side-effect, you might to consider starting a day that you’ll be emotionally ready to be empathetic but firm.