In today’s climate of monitoring everything our kids are doing – from the clothes they wear to their test scores on the school portal (could you imagine the horror if OUR parents had that transparency?) – it’s so important to give them some degree of independence when choosing the foods they eat. Obviously, the amount of independence depends on how old they are, but getting kids involved in their food choices from a young age helps on so many levels. When children are allowed to choose, it provides them with a sense of control in a world where they don’t have many votes. Opportunities to make food decisions help to build a child’s independence, which helps foster a better relationship with and cooperation around food, and better overall nutrition.
Kids’ Intuition About Food
Kids need to learn how to listen to their bodies, begin to monitor their own food intake, all while fostering a sense of autonomy around food. As parents, we love when our kids are card-carrying members of the “clean plate club.” However, the healthier route is for our kids to learn to stop eating when they are no longer hungry. If we stop eating when we are full, it’s already too late. We’ve already overeaten. This is nutrition 101. It’s a simple language shift. Instead of asking your kids “are you full?” ask them “are you still hungry?” Once they learn to listen to their bodies they begin to intuitively make better choices for their nutrition.
With my patients, one of the topics we almost always cover is food pairing for satiety, slower digestion, and a more gentle digestive hormone release. I’ve successfully translated that message to my kids by simplifying that they can pick one “Brain Food” (so they succeed in school and throughout the day) and one “Muscle Food” (so they can grow to be super strong or good at their sport), but they must eat them together. This helps them begin to identify food groups, pair them appropriately, and associate the physiological benefits in their own bodies.
In simple terms, “Muscle Food” is food containing protein. Protein plays many roles in our body. For our purposes here, it is the building block of muscles and bones. Some muscle foods in our house include cheese sticks, yogurt, roasted edamame beans, sweet roasted chickpeas,, shelled pistachios, almonds, sunflower seeds, cashews, and nut butter packets (What kid doesn’t want to suck peanut butter out of a “ketchup like” packet all for bigger muscles?)
“Brain Food” is what we adults know as carbohydrates. Carbs are our body’s main source of energy as they help fuel our brain (and many other organ systems). My kids will tell you their favorite brain foods to snack on are goldfish crackers, apples – they LOVE the mini ones as they’re not a huge commitment and the actual perfect portion size, berries, carrot sticks, graham crackers, and well, any kind of cracker really. Turn it into a words game, and the kids will be eating out of your hand – pun intended.
Giving Kids Autonomy with Their Food Choices
When my kids were younger, I set designated snack times. Sometimes, I had them help me pack their lunchboxes with THEIR choices by having them pick between 2 paired options. For example, “Do you want an apple with a cheese stick or graham crackers with peanut butter?” When they chose the paired snack of their choice, I portioned it out. Then, I would make them identify what was the Brain Food and what was the Muscle Food. I would then say something kitschy about how they’re going to be super smart in school while kicking the kickball super far out of the schoolyard. They’d laugh…then they’d eat the snack. Let’s be honest, the kitschy stuff sticks, and it taught them a great deal about nutrition.
Now that the kiddos are a little older (12 and 8), we are careful not to “over talk” about food. This can backfire on even the most astute dietitian. We’ve moved along to simply identifying the food groups as part of our main meals. They even know that the real word for Muscle Food is Protein and that Brain Food is indeed Starches. With my eldest, I’ve casually introduced portion sizes in relation to the size of our hands because SHE broached the subject with ME. My husband and I continue to offer a variety of foods. Furthermore, we do our best to lead by example. We trust that we’ve laid a strong nutritional foundation for them. We trust that this knowledge will allow them to further develop their relationships with food in a positive way.
Don’t get me wrong, I do sometimes find too many wrappers of one food in the trash can. They’re not perfect, but the groundwork is there for them. But we have provided them with simple opportunities for food autonomy since they were young. These have helped shape their hunger cues, their satiety signals, and has given them opportunities for growth and independence.