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June 04, 2016

Listen to your body: Our family’s #1 food rule

Guide to healthy eating for children

Lifestyle Wellness
Girl Eats Cereal 08032019 Photo by Hal Gatewood /on Unsplash


“Mama, I don’t need to take another bite.

I’m listening to my body. I know.”

– Taber, age 4-and-a-half

I have only one memory of my mother making me finish my dinner. I was very young. It was a bowl of hotdogs and sauerkraut. (To this day I can’t stand either.) She sat next to me, commanding each and every horrid bite. I cried and cried.

I imagine the event was also difficult for her. After all, watching a child sob as she is compelled to eat is, at the very least, unpleasant. Certainly, parenthood entails traversing steep learning curves. What to do if your child doesn’t like what you’ve cooked? I am the eldest of my mother’s seven children and served as a test case of sorts when it came to trying out various parenting approaches. She was learning. After that singular event, I was again never forced to eat against my will.“Stop when you are full,” she learned to say.

Yes. Stop when you are full. This became our de-facto family food rule throughout my childhood.

One evening, however, my father broke from the norm. Perhaps he simply had an unusually difficult day a work, but for some reason an untouched pile of green peas on my sister’s plate proved an irritant.

“Eat your peas,” he said.

“No,” my sister replied. “I don’t want to.”

“You won’t leave this table until you finish them,” he asserted. This deviation from our mealtime routine silenced all.

“But I’m full,” my sister stated softly.

“You won’t leave this table until you finish,” he sternly repeated.

The awkward silence grew. My father finished his meal, got up and left the table. Eventually, the rest of the family did the same. Yet, my sister-with-the-peas remained.

Ten minutes passed. “Can I get up now?” she asked.

“Have you eaten your peas?”

My sister started to cry. Did my mother try to intervene? I can’t remember. The situation put everyone on edge. Having been forced once to eat hotdogs and sauerkraut, I felt a call to duty.

When no one was looking, I swept the offending vegetable off of my sister’s plate into a kitchen towel. “Shhh…” I told her. Then, I walked casually to the bathroom. Down the toilet went the peas. My sister nodded gratefully, wiped her eyes, and got up from the table.

“Did you finish?” my father inquired.

“Her plate is clear, Dad.” I replied.

I disliked the gnaw in my conscience. Yet, I hated watching my sister being forced to eat even more than lying. Thankfully, the situation never repeated itself.

Fast-forward 30 years.

Now I’m a mother and, like my mother before me, at times I make choices I regret. As long as I am willing to learn from my errors, these choices inspire me to right the proverbial ship and steer my family toward more reasonable, compassionate and clear horizons.

“Mama, I don’t need to take another bite,” he replies. Then he places his hand on his chest. “I’m listening to my body. I know.”

Parenting is a journey and sometimes one must start out on a path in order to realize that the best course of action is to turn around. My mother forced me to eat against my will. She noted how it made me feel; she noted how it made her feel. She noted the error and changed course. A more compassionate and reasonable directive, “stop when you are full,” followed suit.

Reexamining assumptions about what constitutes “good parenting” is central here. And it isn’t easy. One need only acknowledge the profound resistance some parents feel when confronted with the fact that 50 years of scientific research on corporal punishment demonstrates its profound harms. The “I was spanked and I turned out fine” mentality mirrors a “my mother made me clear my plate and I’m grateful for it” response. Both sentiments belittle the harm felt by a small child whose body was disrespected.

When the time came to introduce solids to our breastfed son, my husband and I delighted in noticing what our 6-month-old enjoyed tasting and eating. We chose the Baby Led Weaning approach precisely because it emphasized offering up a plethora of diverse, healthy and safe foods of all colors and textures. We didn’t spoon-feed. Central to Baby Led Weaning is the notion that little ones do best when they feed themselves . This way they can pick from a variety of nutritious options and notice when they are full. Even before they speak words, they learn to listen to the wisdom of the body.

Our son is now 4-and-a-half-years-old. Lessons learned from childhood along with the principles of Baby Led Weaning inspire the creation of our family’s food rules.

This is what I tell my son:

Eat what you like.

Stop when you’re full.

Listen to your body.

Yes, we purchase and cook nourishing, primarily organic food. We consume minimal refined sugar and eat a pesco-vegetarian diet. Our son knows “we don’t buy candy” and is, so far, at peace with this fact of life. Our family food rules are predicated upon the reality that the offerings presented at mealtime are nutritious and whole.

But what does this look like around the kitchen table?

My son loves granola and yogurt. He’d probably eat it at every meal if I gave him the option. If he only “eats what he likes,” how do I get him to try new things?

“Ew…” my son says. “I don’t like that.”

“You haven’t tried it yet,” I reply. 

“Yuck,” he picks a piece of baby corn up and transfers it from his plate to mine.

“Hmmm,” I pause.

I examine the new addition to my dinner. “I wonder if this piece of baby corn is a 1 or a 5. Do you think you could help me figure it out?”

He looks at me.

I continue: “You might like this game. To play, you take a bite and tell me if it’s a 1. That means you really don’t like it. Ew. If it’s a 5, that means you really think it’s great.”

Usually our 1-5 game works. Sometimes beloved foods are discovered. Sometimes foods are given dramatically low ratings. Sometimes he doesn’t want to play at all. But the game sure beats the forced “clear your plate” mentality that I intuitively rejected as a girl.

As a yoga teacher, I am often in awe of the intricate connections found between emotions, physical tensions/release, and inner wisdom. It’s taken years of practice, but I’ve learned to listen to the promptings of spirit when sitting quietly in meditation, and to trust the body’s guidance while moving from posture to posture. This knowledge transfers over to how I move throughout the day, how I make room for difficult emotions, and how I eat.

American poet Mary Oliver writes: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

I want my son to trust that soft animal body. I want him to develop patterns of nourishing his body with healthy food, chosen by free will, and enjoyed happily.

“Can you take one more bite, honey?” I ask him.

“Mama, I don’t need to take another bite,” he replies. Then he places his hand on his chest. “I’m listening to my body. I know.”

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