Working as a paediatric dietitian at a tertiary hospital for almost 10 years specialising in childhood obesity taught me many years ago that our kids eat too much. Case after case I would see families with children weighing 20-30kg more than their ideal body weight and work towards reducing their food intake even slightly to stop the rapid weight gain cycle they had become a part of thanks to frequent snacking, high sugar drinks and large portions. This was my work; I knew the signs and risk factors and could discuss them with any client who presented to my private clinic.
But it has not been until more recently as I find myself in the rather challenging role of step mother to primary school aged children have the real food issues for the average family become more apparent – the constant daily feeding of crap to our kids that is now considered the norm. Suddenly I was finding soft drink in my fridge, 1/2 finished containers of iced tea in bedrooms and the healthy snack box had been filled with packets of little things I would never recommend or buy under any circumstances – the universe was officially testing my dietitian boundaries. And no matter what the reason or justification there is no way I am having crappy food, the exact foods I tell my clients to stop eating and buying, in my own home, stepmother or not.
Now I know I am not going to win any fans here, but I am going to say it, even louder and more clearly than I do in my day to day work. I want all parents out there to hear it, very simply. Our kids eat way too much, way too often thanks to a mix of guilt ridden parenting, child want focused parenting and social norms that see daily treats, celebratory foods and non-hungry eating the regular rather than occasional occurrence for our kids and ultimately only they and their health will suffer long term.
I want you to think back to the 70’s and 80’s when you were growing up – party food was party food; parents would never purchase expensive snacks from the petrol station and no one cared what the kids wanted to eat, it was not their decision. Fast forward twenty years and we have lollies as daily rewards, children regularly consulted on what they feel like eating and a kids café culture after school where daily orders or milkshakes, gelato and banana bread act to prop up struggling cafes bottom line enough for them to now stay open until at least 4pm to help lure the after school crowd.
And forget waiting until a meal time to eat, or even real hunger, at the mere request for something to eat under the proviso of hunger parents are seen rushing to satisfy a child’s need to eat now, for fear they may indeed die of starvation that may come from tolerating any level of hunger. Children as young as 12 months are fed an ongoing supply of snacks in the form of dried fruit, rice crackers, biscuits and sandwiches from tiny plastic containers from the second they leave the house to help pacify small children so mummy can enjoy her morning cappuccino in peace. There are no meal times rather a constant graze from breakfast until bed time with as many as 20 eating occasions throughout the day.
Unfortunately, these laisse fare approaches to child feeding gives our kids very wrong messages when it comes to food and eating. It teaches our kids that they are allowed to eat whatever they like when they like. It tells kids that eating is something you do when you feel like it, not when you are hungry. It gives control to children who do not know what is best for them and instils bad food and dietary habits long term. And once these habits become entrenched they are very difficult to change.
Some basic points to remember – children, even small children do not need to eat very often. Every 2-3 hours at most, their bodies need time to register that they are hungry and full and that is unlikely to happen when there is a supply of treats and snacks on hand. Never ask a child what they want to eat as generally it will be rubbish. Take control as a parent and offer them one or two different options – do you want an apple or an orange. If they say neither they are not hungry. Stop buying rubbish snack food and then giving kids free access to it at home. There are times to eat and times not too, the kitchen should be closed in between. There is no place in the diet of children for sweet drinks – juice, cordial, iced tea, soft drink, they should be avoided entirely, even at parties. And party food is party food, and should be consumed at most once each week – this includes dessert, fast food, lollies, potato chips, chocolates, cakes and pastries.
We need to get strict with our kids. Enough sugar coating it or we are going to have a bunch of very large children on our hands we don’t want to eat vegetables or drink water as they were never taught to. Stop being their friend and start acting like a parent. And in the meantime I will continue to throw away the iced tea containers and crappy snack food I keep finding in my own home – hated stepmother or not.