I spent weeks drafting this post. I experienced my first ‘writer’s block’. I struggled with the angle of this post. Do I bare it all? Will I be a laughing stock? How will this post help fellow parents? Finally, I came to- The truth is light. I put on 2 hats for this post, as a doting mother and a nutritionist. So here goes...
My 5 year old daughter, Faith came home from school with a drawing of ice-cream, lollipop and French fries. When I asked her what’s her drawing about, she told me that she was asked to draw her favourite foods and so she did. My heart sank. I immediately thought that I had failed as a mom, not just any mom but a nutrition trained mom who is also a healthy eating advocate.
I questioned myself.
Why would Faith chose those food that she hardly eats? I had given her so many ‘lessons’ about healthy food choices and the consequences of eating unhealthy food, so I’ll like to think that she is some sort of a novice nutrition expert. Now don’t get me wrong, her diet is still a healthy one. She is blessed with nutritious home cooked meals and soup almost every day of the week which she happily chomps down most of the time. So how on earth did she get to nurture this ‘love’ for ‘naughty’ food when I have given her such an conducive environment? Could it be that she hardly ever gets a chance to sink her teeth into unhealthy food, hence the craving? Am I realistic? Am I expecting her to draw quinoa, spinach or raspberries?
Reality sank in. Rationalisation began.
I might have lost the ‘battle’ to genetics! Do you know that humans have genetically determined predispositions to like sweet and salty flavours and to dislike bitter and sour tastes? Our children are born with innate preferences for sweetness, perhaps that’s why breast milk is sweet tasting! Human preferences for energy-dense sweet and high-fat foods may have evolved for reasons of survival. I also found out that restricting access to particular foods increases rather than decreases preference! A few studies studied the consequences of restricting access to certain foods, it seems that children with stronger parental control ate more as they aren’t as capable in regulating their food intake. Wow, I had no idea that my dietary ‘rules’ can actually ‘harm’ my babies! This is a good reminder for me and fellow parents. Restriction without proper education may have negative consequences in the long run. Having said all this, I still think that a reasonable amount of control is important.
The struggle is real.
I have reasonable control over their diet at home, but once they step out, they fly free! I narrowed down a few unavoidable scenarios where unhealthy cravings can be created or (sadly) satisfied.
Birthday goodie bags from her school mates. She brings back at least 1 to 2 goodie bags monthly. It is usually filled with salt and sugar laden snacks. Usually, she will be able to resist the temptation and bring it home to ask me for permission before she eats any. Sometimes there will be power struggles and persistent whining. I usually try to ‘win’ by distracting her with a new toy/book, video or fun activity. She recently brought home a goodie bag and was so eager to show it to me her loot. Check out the video in my channel https://youtu.be/rdL1_I5Mu1k. It’s quite entertaining to watch her negotiate and attempt to convince me that her favourite one is the healthiest option.
2. Peer influence. Faith talks about her friends'lunch/snack boxes pretty often. She will describe what her friends has brought to school and ask me to buy it or ask why can’t she have it as well. Cravings created. She has asked a couple of times why is she always having fruits when her friends get all sorts of cookies.
3. People who love her; grandparents, aunties and uncles etc…who think that a small treat won’t do any harm. Soon she knows who to go to for a treat. Usually from the good people that has some sort of ‘authority’ over me. (Fingers crossed that my parents wouldn’t see this post)
My saving grace.
Kids will be kids. They have very little self control, they test boundaries and I bet they have succeed in popping a few ‘naughties’ into their mouth without getting caught. I know my children are aware of the consequences of unhealthy diet and they know that they will face consequences if they don’t ask for permission. During the recent CNY visiting, i an so comforted to hear my 2 older ones telling the youngest one that the 'goodies' on the table are bad for her. On most days they will come to me and ask me for permission before eating an unhealthy food. Typically, my eldest one will come to me and sigh loudly and then say: “I know mommy will not let me eat this” followed by a pout. He is getting good at tugging my ‘soft spot’. The younger ones will usually ask but demand to eat it anyways. I usually think about their diet that day and will allow them one if they had not consumed any other unhealthy choices that day. I think it’s important to cut them some slack once in a while, if not they will not approach me anymore.
Help our children nurture healthy eating habits.
Parents play such an important role in determining food preferences and the development of obesity. I stand by these techniques/tricks:
Help our children understand and be in tune with their internal cues of hunger and fullness. Force feeding or pressuring them to finish their food by threatening a punishment will have a negative impact on children. Negative associations with mealtimes or food will only make matters worse.
Be role model parents; demonstrate healthy eating. Better still, get your family involved in preparing healthy meals. If your kids see you chomping vegetables/healthy choices happily they will likely follow suit. Also, help them understand what foods are considered unhealthy.
Do not offer food rewards. For example saying: “Eat your veggies and I will give you ice-cream later” only makes your child crave for the ‘reward’ more. Don’t put any food on the pedestal.
Choose a childcare that participate in the Healthy Meals in Child Care Centres Programme. The certified child care centres are required to comply with guidelines which aim to cut down fat, sugar and salt and serve whole-grains, fruit and vegetables in the meals.
Practice restraint but cut them some slack at times (imagine not being able to enjoy a piece of Birthday cake at a party…) All you can do is to help your child learn consequences of eating unhealthy foods and teach them to say ‘no’ to temptations. I am not saying that you should stop your little ones from eating all treats, I am saying help them understand the importance of healthy eating.
If you have seen the video of Faith showing me her loaded goodie bag, you would have seen an excited wided-eye girl wilting into a sad pout. I couldn’t bear asking her to surrender everything to me. My idea was to talk to her, go through the items, let her point out which ones are not healthy for her and help her to ‘give up’ the idea of popping any into her mouth. In this case, she was receptive and was willing to give up all except one. I eventually gave her one after she ate well at dinner. I think she deserved it.
I wish my fellow parents all the best in nurturing happy healthy eaters!
Fat Detection: Taste, Texture, and Post Ingestive Effects. Montmayeur JP, le Coutre J, editors. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2010. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2004 Jul;28(7):858-69.
Role of parents in the determination of the food preferences of children and the development of obesity. International Journal of Obesity (2004) 28, 858–869