One of the things I learn as a parent is that there are a lot of questions that I don’t know how to answer. Kids are known for asking “why?” to infinity, so I’ve always been willing to test the limits of my scientific knowledge and philosophical reasoning – but what I never expected was to be disturbed by some of the day-to-day things like “is this food healthy?”
My daughter is at an age where she asks for that all the time now. And, to be clear, there are certainly foods where the answer is obvious — but those never seem to be the foods that matter. She comes to me with things like Greek vanilla yogurt or vegetable straws.
That inevitably leads to the not-so-obvious conversation about balancing our choices. The more she and I talked about it (and the more I saw her burdened with the thought of weighing each individual choice throughout the day), the more I realized we needed a different approach to eating and eating. So I did what any reasonable parent would do; I decided to stop using the word “healthy” when we talk about food. wait what?! Yes, you read that right. I now do my very best to avoid labeling food with ‘the h-word’.
I realized that by calling certain foods “healthy,” I was suggesting that others aren’t — or that everything we eat can be categorized into one of these two extremes. In reality, many foods are somewhere in between.
The bigger problem in my opinion, though, was that when I talked about “healthy” eating in such a restrictive way, mental wellbeing shouldn’t be part of the equation. Sure, we need to fuel and nourish our bodies, but sometimes we need to eat foods that also make us feel happy.
That said, I’ve started teaching my daughter intuitive eating. If you’re unfamiliar, intuitive eating skips the “rules” for eating and focuses instead on listening to your instincts and trusting your own body. One of the first steps we took was simply changing the conversation. Now, instead of saying something is healthy or unhealthy, we talk about how it nourishes us or how we feel when we eat it. Then we do our best to listen to our body and stop eating when we are full.
When we first started on the path to intuitive eating I was nervous that my daughter would have a hard time recognizing when she was full (especially when it comes to sweets and treats!) but she has impressed me multiple times now by something along the lines of, “I want to to eat another candy, but I don’t think I’m going to feel good if I do.”
In fact, she radiates empowerment. She is no longer obsessed with every choice and instead talks to me about how good she feels after snacking on fresh vegetables or how surprised she is that just one or two pieces of chocolate was enough to satisfy her craving. I can even see her eating a wider variety of foods now.
Intuitive eating may not be the answer for every child (my daughter is at an age where she is naturally becoming more independent, and she has no health problems), but for us, the shift is away from labeling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ‘ has been positive. I am convinced that by focusing on the connection between what we eat and how we feel, my daughter will develop a good relationship with food – a relationship that will last a lifetime.
I may not have all the answers, but when it comes to whether intuitive eating helps my family eat healthier, I have no doubt it’s a yes!