Most parents worry about their child’s eating at some point. Common concerns include picky eating in toddlerhood, sweet cravings and vegetable avoidance in the early school years and dieting and worries about weight in the tween and teenage years. In The Gentle Eating Book Sarah Ockwell-Smith, mother of four and co-founder of the Gentle Parenting website, shows you her method to help your child establish positive eating habits for life.
Gentle eating encompasses four main beliefs that apply in any situation and at any age:
Gentle eating is mindful
Being mindful of our eating requires us to focus on the whole experience. That means we are not distracted when we eat and that we do not eat as a distraction. We eat when we are hungry, being aware of the signals our bodies are sending us, and we stop eating when we are full. We don’t eat to silence uncomfortable emotions and we are aware of any beliefs or conditioning from our own upbringing that may cause us subconsciously to repeat patterns of eating.
From a parenting perspective, eating mindfully means dissociating food from not only your own emotions but also your child’s. It means not using food as a reward for ‘being good’ or as a distraction to keep your child calm or quiet. And it means not labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and being aware of how your own beliefs about eating can influence your children. Being mindful also means avoiding distractions at mealtimes, whether that’s eating in front of the television or having intense conversations over the dinner table about something your child has or hasn’t done at school. It also involves being aware of your own feelings around your child’s eating and not taking their behaviour personally or extrapolating it as a judgement of your parenting skills.
Gentle eating is empowering
Following gentle-eating principles empowers all members of the family: parents are empowered to trust their children and their own parenting skills, based on a sound understanding and knowledge of normal, healthy eating; and children are empowered to follow their body’s own signals and self-regulate their food intake, rather than rely on instructions from their parents or messages from society. This will have far-reaching effects (including the possibility of empowering their own children in the future) and creates a positive spiral, enabling everyone in the family to feel more secure and confident.
Gentle eating is respectful
When parents understand the psychological and physiological effects and roles of eating, they can show true respect for their children. Far too many parents believe they are doing ‘the best thing’ for their children by force-feeding them, rewarding, praising, chastising and restricting their food intake. This erroneous belief unfortunately serves to disrespect children by misunderstanding them.
The informed beliefs of gentle eating allow parents to afford their children the respect that they deserve. This, in turn, teaches children to respect their bodies and the marvellous things that they achieve every day, which can only be positive for their overall well-being and self-esteem.
Gentle eating is authoritative
When it comes to childhood eating, most commonly parents fall into two camps.
On the one hand, there are the authoritarians, who seek to control what their children eat. They restrict foods, often banning what they believe to be unhealthy, or ‘bad’ food. Portion sizes are prescribed – not too much and not too little – plate clearing is often enforced and rewarded, eating is done on a schedule, with routine mealtimes and consequences if the children don’t eat ‘well’. Personal preferences and dislikes are not truly respected if they are believed to be ‘unhealthy’.
On the other hand, there are the permissives – those who give their children full control, with little attempt to regulate any aspect of eating, particularly when it comes to choice of foods offered. Permissives may give up trying to offer healthy food or abandon all hope of any table manners. Permissive eating tends not to be mindful and distractions often abound – for instance, eating while watching television to encourage the child to eat more.
In the middle of these two styles is authoritative parenting. Authoritatives strike a balance between too much control and too little. They are informed and understand both the physiology and psychology of eating. They respect their children and seek to empower them through their eating by taking most of the control of some of the more mature aspects, such as choosing and preparing foods and deciding when to seek professional help. They don’t attach emotions to eating, don’t reward or punish; instead, they encourage the development of self-regulation.
Gentle eating is very much in line with authoritative parenting and, in my opinion, it is the only approach that is mindful of the child’s eating today, while also being concerned with their relationship with food in the years to come. Gentle eating can help not only to change our children’s well-being for the better, but our own as parents, too. It is sensible, intuitive and, most importantly, supported by a growing body of scientific evidence.
Gentle eating principles apply at any age, from the day your baby is born to the day your teenager leaves for college and beyond. However, it is not a quick fix. It is a lifestyle ethos and requires a shift not only in the way you feed your child, but also in how you yourself think about food.
To change children’s eating for the better, we must first start with understanding what normal eating looks like and the physiological processes that govern it. Sometimes that means re-educating ourselves, in order to change the way our children eat. And a wonderful and unexpected side effect of this is that often this knowledge can bring a new sense of freedom to our own relationship with food.