“Your mom is a nutritionist? Like, are you ever allowed to have ice cream?” Those questions permeated my kids’ life experiences from an early age.
Those who know me and who know my family know the reality. Yes, I am a nutrition professional. And yes, we eat ice cream. Not only do we eat it, we enjoy it! Never is my freezer without a few flavors to choose from. My kids were raised knowing it’s okay to enjoy ice cream.
I’ve raised three athletes. They are strong, healthy, happy and accomplished. Each has achieved tremendous milestones in life and in sport. My oldest daughter was a standout goalie in soccer and ice hockey, earning herself a scholarship to play Division 1 soccer in college. She loves ice cream. In fact, I believe it was the topic of her college essay. My other daughter is a competitive figure skater. She’s competed on a national level since middle school and now skates on two collegiate teams. Her nut allergy means she has to avoid several flavors, but she’s a huge fan of mint chocolate chip ice cream. My son is a three-sport athlete in his first year of high school. This summer, we will travel to Italy as a family and are already dreaming about the food scene, especially the gelato.
Every parent wants to see their child succeed, in school, athletics, the arts and socially. We want our children to be competent; competent students, competent drivers and competent decision-makers. It is also a parent’s job to raise competent eaters.
Competent eaters like a variety of foods and enjoy learning to like new foods. They take time to eat and make feeding themselves a priority by planning several daily meals and snacks. Competent eaters are relaxed about eating, trust their bodies to eat enough and are flexible enough to “make do” when other people, situations or logistics dictate what’s available to eat and what is not. Competent eaters listen to their bodies to know when they are full, when their hunger has been satisfied and when they are ready to end a meal. Most importantly, competent eaters enjoy food, are comfortable with their enjoyment of food and take pleasure in eating.
Competent eaters give themselves permission to eat; to eat what they want and what they enjoy. Competent eaters can savor a scoop of ice cream and leave the rest in the freezer because they know they can have some again tomorrow, or the next day if they choose. Competent eaters sometimes eat in response to their emotions; they might overindulge from time to time, but they are not distressed by these occurrences because they trust their bodies to adjust from one day to the next.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can see how eating competence is the direct opposite of most eating disorder beliefs and behaviors. For this reason, fostering eating competence in childhood and adolescence is a key strategy for preventing eating disorders.
What can parents do to raise competent eaters? Here are my top five tips:
1) Make time for meals. I cannot emphasize this enough, for it teaches your children that their bodies need breakfast before going off to school in the morning, that they need mid-day nourishment and that dinner is a time for the family to come together at the end of the day, as often as possible. Family meals provide an opportunity to role model your own enjoyment of food, celebrate your own healthy relationship with food and demonstrate how you value sharing food as a family. Build autonomy at mealtimes by asking your child to choose the vegetables or side dish to go with your entrée. Honor their preferences, their input and their palate as often as you can.
2) You decide what to serve, but let your child decide how much. Your role is to provide access to a wholesome variety of foods and snacks by stocking the pantry and the fridge, and planning and preparing the daily meals. Allow your child to select their own portions, to ask for seconds if they’re still hungry or to leave some on the plate if they are full. This approach honors the child’s internal hunger and fullness cues and teaches them to trust their own body.
3) Teach your kids to cook. Cooking is a valuable life skill, and time spent engaging your kids in the kitchen yields payback for years. Passing on your favorite recipes and family food traditions is a gift to your children. When your college-age daughter is living in her first off-campus apartment and she texts you, “how do I make your Brussel sprouts?” I promise you, you will burst with pride!
4) Practice positivity. Keep an open attitude about trying new foods, flavors and cuisines. The more you role model this for your children, the more willing they will be to experience new foods. Don’t expect your child to like broccoli the first time you serve it! Be patient, introduce it again in a week or two and try preparing it different ways. Be creative and have fun with new foods to link positivity to the food. Avoid creating negative energy or pressure around food and new food experiences.
5) Let your kids eat ice cream. And cake and cookies, if they want. When they have it, let them find pleasure in the flavors, textures, colorful varieties and fanciful decorations. Teach your kids that sweets and treats and savory snacks are not forbidden foods. Defining certain foods as “off limits” is a control strategy that will eventually backfire. It gives forbidden foods too much power, often leads to behavior like overeating or binge eating and contributes to feelings of failure when food rules are broken. In my house, these foods are “once in a while foods,” distinguishing them from “everyday foods” – such as fruits, vegetables, dairy foods, fiber-rich whole grain foods and protein foods like beans, eggs, nuts, fish, tofu, chicken, and meats that form the basis of the daily menu. Once your child learns that all foods can fit into a healthy eating plan, it’s likely they will be more relaxed about their choices, will enjoy food and will be able to eat an amount that is satisfying without overdoing it.
Is eating competence something you – or someone you know – struggle with? It’s at the core of Walden’s eating disorder treatment programs.
Dr. Quatromoni is a senior consultant for Walden Behavioral Care, and one of the nation’s top minds on the intersection of sports nutrition and eating disorders. As a registered dietitian, she has more than a decade of experience working with athletes with disordered eating and has published several papers on both clinical experiences and qualitative research on recovery experiences of athletes. Dr. Quatromoni is the Department Chair of Health Sciences and a tenured associate professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Boston University where she maintains an active, funded research program. In 2004, she pioneered the sports nutrition consult service for student athletes at Boston University. Dr. Quatromoni was recently named a 2016 Outstanding Dietetics Educator from the Nutrition and Dietetic Educators and Preceptors (NDEP) Council. She earned her B.S. and M.S. degrees in Nutrition from the University of Maine at Orono and her Doctorate in Epidemiology from the Boston University School of Public Health.