After my posts on Intuitive Eating, which you can find here, here and here, one of my awesome readers asked an important question in the comments. Gina wanted to know: “Do you have to cook 4 meals if what your body wants is not the same as what your husband’s or teenage boys’ bodies want?” Now, I figured that many of you out there who have children are probably wondering the same thing. Learning (or remembering) to eat intuitively on your own is already hard enough, but what about when you’re responsible for feeding multiple people? How are you supposed to know what their bodies want? And will you have to prepare separate meals for everyone? I’m sure a lot of you felt completely overwhelmed at the mere thought of getting your whole family to implement this way of eating and decided that while it’s a nice little idea, it’s completely unrealistic in practice. Let me try and squash some of those fears and clear up some of that confusion.
In preparation for this post, I sat down with a few moms to find out what their biggest concerns were (ok, I cornered them at a kid’s birthday party and wouldn’t let them go until they answered my questions). You see, I don’t actually have kids myself, and so while I understand the principles involved, I’ve never had to deal with a child who has decided that from this moment on, he will no longer eat anything except cheese. Apparently, threatening to scrap the kid and make a better one from scratch doesn’t work. I needed to do my research, damn it. And what I discovered was that although many of the old paradigms that I was subjected to as a child had diminished, they were still lingering about. And once again, parents who already knew what to do, simply needed to be given permission to follow their instincts. Because nothing will bring out other people’s opinions (like your family’s, your in-laws’, your neighbors’, the lady at the grocery store’s), like the subject of raising your kids, and especially the subject of how to feed them. Everyone’s going to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, that you need to get them to eat more of this and less of that, and that you’re almost certainly going to just completely screw them up. How are you supposed to follow your own inner guidance amidst all that noise? Let me give you some back up. And then, when your mother in law tries to make you feel guilty for not loving your kids enough to smother them with diabetes-inducing foods, you can just blame it all on me. I’ll set the bitch straight*. Ready?
You DO NOT have to force your kids to eat
The basic premise of intuitive eating is that you learn to listen to your body and then give it whatever it wants. The number one fear that every mother I spoke with had, was that if they gave their kids free reign, they’d gorge themselves on sugar and would never touch a vegetable. And I’m sure they’re right. Children are born with the ability to eat intuitively. And then we go and train them out of it (this is getting better, but it still happens). We can’t help it. It’s how we grew up and we have all these old “rules” to follow, which make it nearly impossible to follow our own inner guidance. One of those rules is that you have to make sure that your kids eat enough, and especially that they eat enough of the good stuff, like veggies. This belief is based in the thought that your kids, if left to their own devices, would starve or become completely malnourished. Except, they wouldn’t. Because the body’s survival mechanism is much stronger than that. And once children are old enough to physically feed themselves, and as long as they have access to food, they will never, ever starve.
You, as a parent, are responsible for providing your child with a variety of healthy food choices. Your child is responsible for eating them.
I cannot stress this enough. Unless your child is actually deprived of all food, locked in a room and physically restrained, they will not starve. You never, ever have to force a child to eat, or eat enough. You just have to control the choices. So, the idea is not to let the child loose in a candy shop and then ask them to eat anything they want. The idea is to present the child with a variety of healthy food choices and then let them manage it from there.
Your kids are allowed to have taste buds
The old adage of forcing children to eat their vegetables, whether they like them or not, is pure and simple bullshit. It’s also cruel. Imagine going to a restaurant and ordering your favorite dish. And then the waiter comes over and informs you that they will not be serving you what you ordered, but rather something that you hate, and you’d better clean your plate, mister! It’s as if we’re saying that kids aren’t allowed to have taste buds. They will like some foods and they won’t like others. Just like you. So, if your kids hate Brussels sprouts, for God’s sake, don’t force them to eat Brussels sprouts (this is for you, mother in law!). And slathering them with cheese (or artificial cheese sauce) doesn’t make it better (or healthier). If your kids’ bodies needed what’s in Brussels sprouts, they’d like them. That’s how it works. As long as your children have access to a variety of foods that contain the nutrition they need, their bodies will not allow them to become deficient in anything. They will begin to crave what they need.
Cooking real food DOES NOT take all day
You don’t have to can your own peaches to serve your family healthy meals. Personally, I don’t cook anything that takes more than 20 minutes (because I’m lazy and I’m totally willing to admit that). But you might be surprised that you can actually make a healthy meal from scratch in the same amount of time that it takes you to heat up a processed meal. We have this idea that healthy cooking is an all-day activity. Well sure, the makers of processed foods and their marketing teams just love to paint that picture. It will take you hours and hours to actually cook a meal for your family. You’re a working mom. You’re too busy for that. Let us do that for you! And we’ll do just as good a job as you would, give or take a few ingredients. Trust us. Buwahahahaha. The truth is that throwing a few fresh veggies in a pan takes minutes. Making a sandwich with good quality, natural bread takes no more time than making it with nasty, artificial bread. You can even make your own mayonnaise in 60 seconds.
Yes, this will necessitate that you actually cook, and I get that this is a lot to ask if you’re a working parent. It’s a lot easier to pop a frozen pizza in the oven than to make one from scratch. And while it’s absolutely possible to make and freeze your own pizza ahead of time and while I can present you with the arguments that your family may actually come to love the natural meals more (because they taste better), and that your husband will no longer produce hallucination-inducing gas all night long, the harsh truth is that what this really comes down to priorities. Our society, especially the Western Nations, have stopped placing any value on what we feed ourselves. We eat foods that should, by rights, come with a hazmat warning and then wonder why we’re becoming sicker and sicker. But the truth is that the quality of the food we eat does make a huge difference. Our bodies were never designed to digest chemicals and processed foods. And eating these types of non-foods does come at a price.
You don’t have to change your whole diet at once, or even overhaul everything you eat. But you do have to be willing to make a change here and there, try new things every once in a while, and be open to learning a few new skills. For some of you, that may mean learning how to cook fresh vegetables or how to use herbs and spices. For others, it may simply mean starting to read labels. You have to be willing to make what you eat and what you feed your family a priority.
As you transition into intuitive eating, the first step is to move away from artificial ingredients and towards natural, healthier foods. I would not recommend informing your macaroni and cheese loving family that from today, you’re all going on a green juice fast. I can pretty much guarantee that this will not go over well. There will be tears, and possibly even be bloodshed. Make the transition slowly. Begin to replace some of your normal meals with healthier choices. For example, there is a way to make a healthier version of macaroni and cheese (hint: it involves actual cheese that does not come in powder form). You can still serve pizza, just make it with natural ingredients (you can buy all natural bread dough and in some places, all natural ready-made pizza). Stop buying processed foods and begin making meals with actual vegetables. Read labels. Anything with more than 3 ingredients is probably not a natural food source. If there’s anything in there that you can’t pronounce or don’t recognize, stop buying it. Do this gradually, one food or meal at a time, and you won’t get overwhelmed.
More tips for making the transition with kids:
- Present kids with a variety of choices. Serve family style meals when possible and let your children choose what they want to eat. They do not have to have a balanced meal at every meal (neither do you). If their nutrition balances out over a series of days, that’s fine. This will also take care of the problem of having to make more than one meal. Everyone takes what they want from the variety provided.
- Allow mono-eating. Especially small children will do this. They may eat only protein one day, and then tons of veggies the next. Again, the nutrition will balance out over time and this is fine.
- Let your children manage their own quantities. If they are old enough, teach them to take a serving and allow them to take more, if they want more. Don’t restrict their quantities (some days they’ll eat a lot) and don’t force them to clean their plate (some days they may barely eat.)
- Let your children graze between meals. Nature never designed the human body to eat only 3 meals a day. The reason we do this is for convenience. Don’t “punish” your kids for not cleaning their plates by restricting foods between meals. Again, you can restrict their choices (so they don’t eat one spoonful of dinner only to grab a pile of candy), but never their ability to eat. This will teach them to eat when they’re hungry and not to eat when they don’t really want to.
- Expose your kids to new foods periodically. Introduce some new foods here and there and ask your kids to try them. You don’t have to make a whole meal of new stuff; just add a bowl of some new food. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat it. But you and they may be surprised at some of the new things they’ll come to love. Of course, this will necessitate that YOU also expose yourself to new foods here and there. I consider that a win-win. Your and their bodies cannot ask for a food that contains what they need if they’ve never experienced that food before. But again, do this periodically, and one food at a time. You don’t have to change your entire meal plan overnight.
- While you shouldn’t insist that your kids eat things they don’t like, you can insist that they at least try new foods. They can take one bite, and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to have more.
- Just as I advised that you take your lunch to work with you, make your kids’ lunches. The food served at school cafeterias is generally atrocious. Give your kids healthy foods that they like (even the pickiest of eaters will like some kind of fruit or vegetable).
- If you have teenagers, it will be harder for you to control their food choices. All you can do is make sure that the fridge and pantry at your house are stocked with lots of healthy foods that they like to eat. So, when they come home from school famished, they’ll be able to satisfy that hunger with good choices. You can’t control what they do outside your home. Don’t even try. When your children notice that natural foods make them thinner, give them more energy for sports or see their acne clearing up, they’ll pay attention.
- You don’t have to ban fast food completely. There’s a reason we have a liver and kidneys. If your children’s general diet is healthy, their bodies will easily be able to handle some candy or fast food. But perhaps a Happy Meal could be something special instead of an everyday thing.
- Be an example. If your kids see you eating healthy foods and truly enjoying them, if they see you trying new foods and discovering new favorites, they’ll be much more apt to do the same, especially if there’s no pressure to eat anything they don’t like. This is a journey for both you and your kids. Let them find their way just as you will find yours. Don’t force anything to happen (they will push back).
- Allow food to be just food. If you want to sit down together at mealtimes so that you can talk and connect, make sure that you don’t force your kids to eat in order to facilitate that. They can sit and talk and not eat. Food does not have to equal love, affection or connection.
- Listen to your own intuition. You know your child better than anyone. While I don’t condone forcing a child to eat, sometimes kids are hungry, but get so excited about something that they won’t want to actually take the time to have a meal. If you make them sit down with food, however, their hunger will take over and they’ll chow down. So please don’t take anything in this post so seriously that you’ll let it override what you know is best for your child in any given moment.
None of this actually has to be hard. If you make changes slowly, prove to yourself one meal at a time that making healthier choices doesn’t have to take much more time out of your schedule than heating up processed foods, and that your children will accept the healthier choices, providing you allow them to find their way and present them with a variety of foods, eating intuitively can not only be totally doable, but an exciting journey. This is not a diet. This is not about denying yourself the foods you love. It’s about discovering the foods your body craves, nourishing yourself properly, finding out what it is to feel truly good (gas, indigestion and energy dips are not normal) and breaking out of the old rules that no longer serve you. Your kids will adapt to this way of eating faster than you will. They’ve had a lot less time to establish bad habits.
What are your experiences with intuitive eating? Have you tried to change to a healthier lifestyle before and failed? Why? What were your biggest obstacles? Did you find something that worked really well for you? Spill it in the comments y’all.
* = Ok, I lied. I will not, in fact, set that bitch straight. Your mother in law is one scary woman. I’m sorry, but you’re on your own.