Food. My relationship with it has been a struggle. I don’t know how to stop even though my body says no. I have been told to ignore the age-old impulse of ‘enough’ that our bodies speak in a bid to protect us. I ate out of a pre-programmed instinct.
You see, I wasn’t allowed to leave the dining table till I had finished everything on my plate; I was taught to chew and swallow mindlessly. Why do our parents do this? It’s not because they don’t love us. They do it to protect us and themselves; it is the love language they have been taught, and so they pass the lessons on in a bid to equip us with strength, with love and with what they know to be true: that if you’re fed, you will be okay; and if you are okay, they are okay.
Parenting is a no-man’s land. We are handed children we are meant to keep alive. And so we grapple in the dark, trying our best to keep them alive in the way we know how, in the way we were kept alive.
So many of us have a dysfunctional relationship with food because we were never taught to listen to our bodies. Our children are smarter than we are. They know when something doesn’t feel right. When they are fussy about food, it is the energy around food and eating they are reacting to, not the food itself. They sense our anxiety, our helplessness, our bid to control them. This is what they’re rejecting, not the food.
So, how do we undo this? How do we help our children eat well and develop a healthy relationship with food, whilst maintaining our sanity?
1. First, address what feelings mealtime brings up in you. Are you stressed? Are you worried? Sit with those feelings and see where they come from. Empathise with the feelings.
“I know meal time is hard. You are worried s/he won’t eat. And if s/he doesn’t eat, s/he will be cranky and then the rest of the day is ruined. I am here, I understand.” Once you empathise with yourself and breathe into the feelings, that is really all you need. Feelings need to be felt for them to leave. This helps you regulate your nervous system.
2. Approach mealtime with your emotionally regulated self and say this, “It’s breakfast time!” If they don’t eat anything, no comments.
You: “You’re not hungry?”
Your child: “I don’t like the food!”
You: “I’m sorry to hear that. Listen to your body. You decide how much you put in to your body. We decide (together when possible the week or night before) what is on the menu.” (If you can’t collaborate, then say you decide what is on the menu). “The next time the kitchen is open is snack time. Would you like this or that?” (always give an option so they feel they have control).
3. If they eat well, no comment. If they don’t eat well, no comment. Always.
Include a safe food (one that they love) on the plate, alongside new foods. No comment if they eat it, or they don’t. We want to remove our voices and our energy from the entire scenario.
The change will not occur overnight. It will take time. As you remove pressure from mealtime, you will see your children blossom and develop their own special relationship with food. And as always, seeing them listen to themselves as they eat is an opportunity for us to look within and listen to our bodies; to honour ourselves and to tune in to the only voice that matters beneath all the conditioning: ours.
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