Feeding the Beasts!

With Halloween upon us, followed by a busy holiday season, it is very likely that your little preschoolers will be surrounded by sugar for the next few months! That makes now a perfect time to start thinking about intentional food choices. The goal is to teach our children to make healthy choices for their own bodies, to listen to their body’s needs, and to have a healthy relationship with food. Parenting these physiological needs (much like, toileting and sleeping) can be some of the bigger challenges you will have, but I always find setting ideal expectations and being prepared with information goes a long way in preventing challenges.

I’ll talk about sleep and toileting at other times, for now I want to talk about food. From the moment our children are born, most of us have this intense need to “feed” them. It is a strong biological drive. I have never met a parent that wasn’t overly worried their infant might not be getting enough food. Luckily, when they are new, it is fairly easy to tell how much they need by how they grow. Their diet is limited to breast milk or formula and they are so small that you can actually see the nutrition you’re giving them adding on pounds and inches day by day. Once they transition to solids, this becomes more complicated, as they naturally start getting greater variety to what they eat. Their young, underdeveloped taste buds generally like bland foods. Certain taste sensors, like those to bitterness and spice, are sensitive and haven’t had a chance to dull over time (this is why very few will like their first bite of brussel sprouts). At the same time, they also can’t tell when things are too salty or sweet. They just haven’t developed the internal monitors that tell their brain, “this is too much salt” or “too much sugar."

Just like we have to help a 2 year old know when something it too high to jump off or when something is needed to keep them healthy or safe (e.g., car seats or holding a hand). We have to let them know when they have too much of a not-so-good thing—or when they haven’t had enough of a good thing. This is where the expectations and information come in handy. First, we should set our expectations correctly: Children taste things differently than adults. Don’t be disappointed that your child wants sweets all the time, it is hard-wired in their biology—we also shouldn’t expect them to like everything we like. It takes a while/years to develop a taste for some foods. Start from a point of understanding what your child needs to be healthy, and how much is the right amount. Then have an image of what you want them to learn about food—this image can vary based on family and cultural values, but the health parameters remain the same. This is where you share your information. I find preschoolers are more game to what you’re teaching if you explain to them the science behind it. As a bonus, explaining why carrots are good for you, or how prunes help you “poop” is much better conversation than “because I said so”.

Want them to eat their vegetables? Have them try a variety of things and let them know that some things they won’t like the first time. Most children are pretty game to do the one-bite rule, especially if they have some choice items on their plate as well. The more they are exposed to a flavor, the sooner they will like it. I can attest to this, as can almost every adult. We don’t just like spicier, more flavorful dishes as we get older because our tastes buds are dying (although that may be in play too), we also like a greater variety because we have built up our taste for it. Don’t make it a fight, but rather an adventure. Use information as your friend. How many children have eaten leafy greens because they were taught doing so helped give them muscles. If they don’t enjoy a bite, have them talk about why and explain that sometimes we learn to like things over time. You can explain how there were things you didn’t like when you were little too. The above article suggests:

Don’t teach your child that the only way to refuse food is to say she doesn’t like it. “Just try it and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it,” can be rephrased, “Try it and tell me what you think.”

You are also the keeper of the knowledge for what is an appropriate serving size for your child, in consultation with your pediatrician, you can help your child start listening to his/her body and stop eating when they feel full. You can also make sure to offer them smaller portions and have them ask for more if they are still feeling hungry, rather than giving them too much to start. Small growing bodies have less room in their bellies but also a pretty decent caloric need and may need to eat smaller portions more frequently throughout the day.

When dealing with holidays, like Halloween, where they will have more access to sugary treats, you should follow the same rules and goals you have set at other times. Rather than seeing the holiday as an enemy to the otherwise healthy lifestyle, see it as a great chance to teach your child about making healthy choices. In my family, I always told my children that if they exercised and ate their growing foods, we could also have one desert after dinner if they wanted—since I am the least consistent exerciser, usually I am the one foregoing dessert. That was the same rule at Halloween, after they made all their healthy choices they could have dessert (OK, on the actual trick-or-treat night, they probably had more than one…but after that). I have ended up with two teenagers that are conscientious about their health and their control over their diet and exercise. One still has an sweet tooth and enjoys an almost nightly ice cream and one does not, but both of them understand why we don’t have 3 or 4 desserts a day and why we also have to eat our vegetables and exercise—because the purpose of food is to nourish and take care of our bodies (sometimes the sweets nourish our souls, and bring us together in social traditions, but always within moderation and in keeping with our rules we previously established).

I am going to repeat: Parenting physiological needs (eating, toileting and sleeping) can be some of the bigger challenges you will have. We can’t actually force our children to sleep, poop, or eat and we shouldn’t try as I can link to many articles about how forcing those things to happen can backfire and derail lots of good intentions. Our goal should be to give our children the support, materials, information and settings they need to make smart choices. We can give them consistent bathroom, bed and meal times, offer them dark, quiet rooms for sleep, warm, family conversations at dinner, and teach them why we make the healthy choices we make—which almost always is to help us grow, which is something every child wants.

Good Good-Byes

The start of school can be filled with mixed emotions for both grown ups and children. For the adults, we offer coffee and support on Monday the 9th and Tuesday the 10th. For the children, here are some Tips for Good Good-Byes:

  • Talk to your child beforehand about what to expect. Meet the teachers and ask questions at the visiting day. Look at the calendars in this email and use that information to talk to your child about the classroom and what to expect. Talk about your teachers and use their names often, if your child sees you as liking and trusting of the teacher, they are more likely to build their own trust faster.

  • Be on time. It is hard to come into a full room that is already in full swing. It's also when everyone else will be there doing the same thing.

  • Greet your teachers at the door and then say "good-bye". Keep your good-bye brief. I know this is hard especially if your child is crying, but you want to show your child that you are confident that they will be safe and have fun. If you prolong the good-bye it can make them feel less certain/secure.

  • If it goes great, keep the same routine on day 2!

  • What if it doesn't go well? Follow the plan above and leave your child with the teacher. We are no strangers to tears. They usually calm down quickly once the caregiver is no longer in sight. If they don't your teacher will call you and discuss a plan of action for day 2.

  • What if I am sad? Come to the library for support and coffee! First days can be hard whether they go well and your child gleefully bounces off with the teacher or they are rough and you say good-bye to a crying child. Don't be shocked if you feel like crying too. It is normal, but try to save it for when your child can't see you.

  • The teachers have done this before and they have seen it all. We will absolutely be in contact if there are any issues and we expect surprises (sometime the child that seems the most ready at visiting day is the most reluctant on day one). We are ready with extra teaching hands on deck in these first few days to make sure every child gets the support they need for a successful start to school.

The BIG importance of the Everyday things.

As parents we are constantly playing offense as we respond to the joys and trials of parenting in real-time: illnesses, injuries, school placement, peer issues. Things change and we adapt on a daily, or even hourly, basis. That is why it is so helpful to have a defensive plan for three of the most important areas for your family’s overall health and wellness: sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Treating sleep, nutrition, and exercise as a priority for yourself and your child will help keep you all in the best possible shape to be able to respond to life’s unexpected hurdles.

Sleep is the most important factor in a person’s overall health. Disrupted sleep is one of the first signs something is not going well with our bodies. Disrupted sleep also has the most impact on every other system of the body. It impacts our mental health, our cardiovascular health, and our metabolic health. If a child is suddenly experiencing unusual behaviors, irritability, or health symptoms, I encourage parents to look at their child’s sleep pattern for clues, as sleep disturbances is so often the cause of many of our ailments.

Nutrition is also extremely important as it too impacts your body’s overall health and ability to fight off illness and disease. It is important to consider ahead of time how your family will talk about eating healthy and how you will work to ensure your family has a healthy, balanced meal plan. In today’s fast-paced world, we often substitute convenience for health, and having a plan in place that ensures you don’t have to be thinking about this everyday will help save you time in the long run. Children may naturally be disinclined to eat certain foods. They are more sensitive to consistency and flavors than we are as adults. The key is to keep introducing a variety of foods to your child. Like all things, they will get better with practice and expand the repertoire of enjoyable foods (how many times did you have to try brussels sprouts before you started to like them?). A common refrain of nutritionists is that a child has to be exposed to a new flavor at least 30 times if you want them to learn to like it. Of course, in addition to variety, we want to ensure our children are not being overexposed to processed foods, and things with high sugar and salt contents. Young children do not fatigue in their ability to tolerate sweet and salty the same way adults do (their internal sensors that tell them they have “had enough” just aren’t developed yet), so they require parents to let them know when they have had too much of a good thing. As adults, we need to know how much is too much, so we can teach them good portion control as well.

Exercise is the last piece to the puzzle. Unlike nutrition, where children really need our help to learn what is healthy, we can really follow our child’s lead when it comes to exercise. Children’s need to run and play and explore will meet their bodies’ need for exercise. It is our job to save space and time for them to be able to meet their natural demand for vigorous movement. We need to protect school recess and physical education. We need to make sure that we save time each day to let our children run and explore. We are often the obstacle to children getting enough exercise as we build lives that are increasingly over-scheduled.

Taking time to think about these three issues and to ensure your family is maintaining a lifestyle where sleep, nutrition, and exercise are valued priorities will ensure that you are able to impart your family beliefs in these areas on to your children. These are areas that, if protected and valued, will make it easier for your child to face the world and its daily hurdles.