Kick the ‘Clean-Plate Club’

Parental anxieties can damage kids’ relationship with food

(The below completed story, assigned to me by Optimum Wellness, is posted here with permission from my editor. It’s been held indefinitely as Covid has affected many magazines’ page counts, but I wanted to get it out there as I really enjoyed this one!)

By Sarah Protzman Howlett

As parents, it can be a tall order to foster positive body image and a healthy relationship with food in our kids when both are sore subjects in our own lives. The new book “A Parent’s Guide to Intuitive Eating” by pediatrician Dr. Yami Cazorla-Lancaster helps parents navigate these confusing waters using the principles of intuitive eating, a so-called “anti-diet” that eschews food restrictions. In the book, Dr. Yami outlines five pillars she says will help parents cultivate adventurous, joyful meal times for everyone at the table, no matter what hang-ups lurk in your past.

Honor hunger and satiety

Parents should decide what food to serve and when, Dr. Yami says—and then? Shhhh. “After you’ve presented the food, your job is done,” she says. Steer clear of any goading: Come on, have another bite! Don’t you want more? You didn’t even touch your broccoli. If you want dessert, you have to eat your… are all counterproductive, she says. Instead, let the child know they will never be forced to eat but that they must use manners, perhaps remaining at the table until everyone is done eating. Parents who are fearful their child is too small or too large seem to struggle most with this one, Dr. Yami says: “When a parent is anxious about a kid who is larger or more robust, or is very lean or petite, they’ll start urging a few more bites and so forth,” she says. “In other words, intervening when the child should be using their own intuition.”

Emphasize whole-plant foods

This phrasing intimidates many parents, Dr. Yami says, because it conjures images of salad and little else, when in reality plant-based eating is much broader. Think beyond mere leaves and create meals around the foods kids almost universally love that also happen to be plants: potatoes, corn, fruit, etc. Plant-forward meals decrease the risk of chronic disease and increase longevity, she says, and are packed with fiber and antioxidants. Avoid restrictive diets, especially ones that forbid foods widely considered healthy, she says: “The Paleo diet eliminates beans and whole grains, which are very health promoting and support the gut microbiome,” she says, “and fad diets like Keto can be incredibly dangerous for kids because of the lack of macronutrients. We can have carbs and fat as part of delicious, abundant meals.”

Establish a positive environment

Dr. Yami urges filling your home with health-promoting foods, making sure what’s available matches the messaging: “If you tell your kids to eat fruits and vegetables but there are chips everywhere, you’re not giving the brain and the eyes an opportunity to make those things part of kids’ consciousness,” she says. Further, examine what body-image messages your kids may be absorbing, through TV, social media and films, or hearing talk about dieting or body size—be it yours or someone else’s. “You may be telling your kids ‘all bodies are good bodies’ but have a magazine that says LOSE 10 POUNDS on the cover,” she says. “You put the culture into your child’s brain.”

Be flexible

Parents should feel free to honor the cultural importance of, for instance, cake at birthday parties, candy on Halloween and chocolate bunnies on Easter—again, without additional commentary that can instill guilt. “When they eat their cake, don’t give them the side eye or say something like, ‘I think you’ve had enough,’ ” she says. For older kids, Dr. Yami advises candid conversations about sugar, salt and fat—and how we as humans are naturally driven to eat those things because they taste good. For parents with younger kids, the temptation to forbid sugar can backfire once a child goes to school and sees other kids enjoying such foods in moderation. Denying access to sweets or other foods deemed “bad” can lead kids to hoard food, binge or hide candy wrappers in their pockets, she says.

Relax and have fun

Dr. Yami says too many parents in her practice deal with crushing guilt and shame over any number of parenting issues, but that tensions run highest where food is concerned. “Parents are so anxious, and the dinner table becomes stressful,” she says. “When it comes to food, parents do not need to be saints or be perfect. Their kid is going to be fine. We are not trying to feed them enough broccoli to get into Harvard.” She says that if a parent is getting whole-plant foods into their child’s diet, to not overthink the rest. Pressure and perfectionism zaps all joy from family mealtimes; she says. “Your kids love you, so give yourself space and time to try different things,” she says. “You do not have to get everything right all the time.”

>> No “bad” foods

In Dr. Yami’s family, no nosh is forbidden. But this cornerstone of intuitive eating—that no food is banned or off limits—doesn’t ignore the fact that some foods pack more nutrition than others. “I call them ‘health-promoting foods’ and ‘play foods,’ ” she says. “Play foods are fun but are probably more processed, and we won’t eat them all the time.” Regardless of what your kids may hear at school—that certain foods are “good” and others are “bad”—parents who reject this rigid way of thinking about food must say so, and say so often. “You can say, ‘Some foods help us feel better and have more health benefits than other foods, but nothing is off limits,’ ” she says. “That gives kids the ability to keep foods on an even platform.”

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