By Katie Bartel, registered dietician, New Westminster
My son was about a month or two into his Kindergarten adventure when he stopped eating his once-loved power cookies.
These homemade cookies were loaded with seeds and whole grains and topped with a sizable chunk of chocolate. They were tasty. They were filling. They were a nutrient-dense food that I knew my child would readily eat. Until, he didn’t.
When I asked my son why he no longer ate them, he said, “Because, Mommy, they’re not healthy.”
This new understanding of food for him stemmed from being stopped mid-bite and told he had to eat the “healthy” foods in his lunch before the “treats.”
We already know how to eat
Did you know that we are all born with an innate sense of knowing how to eat? That’s right.
Before our parents told us what we could or couldn’t eat, and before schools started teaching us the Canada Food Guide, and before we were exposed to the widespread diet culture in media, we knew how to eat in a way that was perfect for our bodies.
We started eating when we were hungry. We stopped eating when we were full. We ate as much as we needed.
We provided our bodies the necessary nutrients to grow in a way that they were supposed to grow, specific to us.
But the moment that we are exposed to food rules, guidelines, and restrictions, our bodies and brains become confused, and that natural ability starts to get chipped away.
When we encourage children to eat beyond their fullness, that affects their natural satiety cues.
When we suggest children focus solely on the task of eating, and not the company around them, that can take away the enjoyment of food.
When we classify foods as healthy vs. non-healthy, or suggest eating more of one food than another, that puts food into a category of good vs. bad. By telling children if they finish their vegetables they can have dessert, we imply to the child that desserts taste better than vegetables. Labelling food as “junk food” or “candy” or “treats” puts those foods on a pedestal. Even though these nutrition recommendations are likely well-intentioned, they can actually do more harm than good. They can impair a child’s relationship with food, and they can be the early start toward disordered eating. If we call all foods by their actual names—apples, broccoli, chocolate, chicken, bread, lollipops—we equalize them and help create a more balanced appreciation of food.
Food is more than just nutrition. Food is culture. Food is social. Food is family. Food is memories. Food is comfort. And no one should feel guilty eating any kind of food.
Changing the message
Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility is considered the gold standard for feeding children.
The division of responsibility states that a parent is responsible for choosing the food, the time, and the location of meals, and the child is responsible for determining how much they eat and whether they eat.
In the absence of parents, the “when and where” becomes the teacher’s responsibility. And the “how much” should continue to be the child’s responsibility.
Children are not going to starve themselves: if they are hungry, they will eat.
Let’s promote balanced eating with nutrition education, instead of restrictive and rules-oriented eating. Let’s allow children the space to decide what foods they choose to eat. If they undereat and are hungry later on, they’ll learn to eat more the next time. Likewise, if they overeat one specific type of food and develop a stomach ache, that is also a lesson learned in their exploration of nutrition.
When we’re teaching nutrition let’s focus on the nutrients that various foods will provide and the benefits to daily living that they will allow. But let’s also go beyond nutrition and explore the other benefits food provides. Let’s allow children the opportunity to develop their own relationship with food without the polarizing messages.
Just as the education curriculum changes, so too does the nutrition curriculum.
Tips for success
We need to recognize that parents often overpack their child’s lunches for fear the child might become hungry midday—believe me, I am that parent.
We also need to recognize that young children’s stomachs are much smaller than those of adults. That’s one of the reasons why we have recess: so students have multiple opportunities to eat and refresh if they choose.
Food is one of the first areas where children start exhibiting their independence with decision-making. They may eat a lot some days, while other days not very much at all. They may love a specific food one day, and completely ignore it another day. This is their way of exploring eating. And we, as adults, need to encourage that.
Pressuring a child to eat more or less than they want can backfire and lead to negative nutrition outcomes.
Rather than focus on how much or how little they’re eating at mealtimes, let’s focus more on providing them experiences with food. Here are some ideas:
- Creating gardens in the classroom and learning about the foods they’re planting and the growth process.
- Baking breads or culturing cheeses and learning about the history and varieties of these foods.
- Going on field trips to dairy or chicken farms to give them an understanding of where their food comes from.
- Having taste tests in the classroom and tying it into a lesson plan related to history, social studies, or even math.
- Bringing farmers, bakers, or other food producers in as guest lecturers with food-related activities to work through.
These are just a few examples. Nutrition can be incorporated into nearly any lesson plan. The more experiences children have with food, while learning about the origins of food, the more likely they are to try different foods.
And that is half the battle in getting them to expand their nutrition knowledge and food acceptance.
Visit linktr.ee.KatieNutritionalResources for links to Katie’s recommended resources.
Katie’s power cookies
(yields approx. 30 cookies)
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp flaxseed
1 3/4 cups rolled oat flakes (quick cooking)
1/2 cup sunflower seeds (shelled)
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds (shelled)
1/2 cup hemp hearts
1/2 cup raisins
1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup milk, soy milk, or almond milk
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips or dark chocolate medallions
Preheat oven to 350º F. Spray two large cookie sheets with non-stick cooking spray. In a large bowl combine flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon, and mix well. Add the oats, raisins, and seeds.
In another bowl mix oil, molasses, and milk. Beat until well-blended. Add the wet mixture to the dry, and mix well. Mix in chocolate chips or place 1/2 a chocolate medallion on top of each cookie once they are portioned out on the sheets.
Use a cookie scoop to form cookies and place them on the prepared cookie sheets.
Bake in preheated oven until cookies are golden brown on the edges and tops are set, about 20 minutes. Cool on racks.
1 cookie ~ 15g carbs and 4g protein
About the author
Katie Bartel is a registered dietitian, self-proclaimed ice-cream-aholic, and mom of a comic book and skateboard loving nine-year-old boy. To learn more, visit her website at www.katiebartel.ca.