Learn Intuitive Eating while in Quarantine
If you’re anything like me, you’re in a bunch of mom groups on Facebook. And those groups are flooded with moms complaining about eating through the pantry themselves and their kids doing the same.
I get it, you’re stress eating. My husband is a stress eater and I constantly have to remind him to be mindful of what he puts in his mouth. It’s tough. You’re off your normal routine, your kids are in your face 24/7, you have to balance your work, schooling your children, taking care of the house, managing your anxiety about the whole quarantine and virus situation, but amidst all that there is still boredom.
No matter how busy you are, it is boring to be at home all the time with little escape outside. And the food is right there in the pantry, calling your name any time you even think of entering the kitchen. It’s a hard call to resist.Your kids are behaving the same because they’re also off their schedule, bored, feeling your anxiety, having their own anxiety, and are probably conditioned to having endless snacks at home.
Snack culture goes against intuitive eating
Let me say this without judgment but as an observer from outside: US has a serious snacking problem. It’s so pervasive that it’s part of medical and fitness advice. How many times have you heard that you need to eat 3 full meals per day and at least 2 snacks? Probably your whole life. So how often does that mean you should be eating?
Let’s assume the classic recommendation of getting 8 hours or sleep per night. That leaves you with 16 awake hours. No one is going to recommend that you eat right before bed, so let’s say the last morsel of food enters your mouth no later than 2 hours before bedtime. That leaves you with 14 waking hours to eat 5 meals. That means that you should be putting something in your mouth roughly every 2.5-3 hours. Are you actually hungry every 2.5 hours? I mean really hungry, not I can eat a cookie right now hungry? I’m betting that no, you are not. But your body has been conditioned to eating that often, so it asks for it. Not because it needs the fuel, but out of pure habit.
Same is happening with our kids. We are, with the best intentions and recommendations in mind, setting our kids up for wanting to eat every 2.5 hours. But our bodies don’t necessarily need it.
I personally have a theory about why all parents constantly stick food into their children’s mouths. Wherever you turn, all the advice about kid behavior is about checking in to see if they’re sleepy, hungry, thirsty, overstimulated, etc. Couple that with breastfeeding infants around the clock and we, as parents, get conditioned into a mindset that our kids need to eat all the time. And we never readjust this mindset as they get older. So it’s a Catch-22, we feed our kids 24/7 and eventually they expect to be fed 24/7. But it’s not necessary. You can break the cycle. You can do it by following your child’s lead from early on.
What is Intuitive Eating?
And this brings me to the topic of intuitive eating. While it’s been touted as the new weapon against our damaging diet culture, it’s really just a return to our roots. We are intuitive eaters from birth. Our kids are intuitive eaters, we were intuitive eaters once. But our parents (or other family members) overrode and destroyed our eating intuition and we are doing the same to our kids.
Everything starts out innocently enough. We start by breastfeeding our infants on demand. Then after a month of doing so, we start trying to impose an eating schedule. Then this grows into imposing a schedule with night time feedings. So instead of following our children’s hunger cues, we are overriding them and forcing their bodies to respond to a schedule rather than natural hunger cues. Convenient, yes. Healthy in the long run, not so much.
Now I’m not saying never to impose a feeding schedule with your kids, but keep to it loosely. So if you’re trying to stretch the time between feeds to 4-5 hours, do it slowly, see how your kid reacts and adjust as needed. It may also mean that instead of there being neat 4 hours between every feed, you may have feeds that are 2.5 hours apart and feeds that are 6 hours apart. Our hunger is not unilateral throughout the day, respect it. By keeping a loose schedule, it’s also easier to see when your kids go through growth spurts. They will eat like crazy for a few days and then scale back. It’s normal. But take your kid’s lead.
Now when it comes to toddlerhood and our children enjoying table food, we shouldn’t get carried away. A lot of us have these preconceived notions about how much our toddler should be eating and a lot of us are wrong! Your toddler should be eating as much or as little as they want per meal. They know how hungry they are, you do not. Your job is to serve them a healthy and filling meal. Their job is to figure out how much (if any) of the meal they wish to eat. So if your toddler eats a banana and milk for breakfast, it just means that’s their level of hunger. You don’t need to find tricks to make them eat more.
A bit of a personal example. I have 2 boys. One is 4 and the other one is 17 months old. From the very birth they were different eaters. My older one ate every 2 hours for about 2 months, then stretched it to every 3, then every 4, until we were done with breastfeeding. My younger one ate in roughly 3-5 hour stretches from birth, increasing frequency briefly for growth spurts. Both kids dropped night feeds by 4 months with no involvement on my part.
My older son has never been a huge eater of table food. He eats, has his preferences (an egg and cheese quesadilla for lunch every day) and does little snacking. My younger one is a voracious table food eater. We’ve had days (growth spurt) when I don’t think his mouth ever closed. But we also have days where he has 4-5 very small meals and he’s happy. And I’m happy and not stressed about his food intake.
Take Judgment Out of Food
By practicing intuitive eating for both you and your children you are giving all of you freedom to just eat without judgment.
Because I have had a very tumultuous relationship with food from a young age, I am very careful about how I talk about food to my kids. I avoid placing foods into a “good” or “bad” categories, don’t talk about how fattening dessert is, and definitely don’t talk about calories. I make sure that I mostly have nutritious, fresh food available for consumption. Cookies, cakes and candies are limited but not off limits to anyone. We just eat small portions. I absolutely do not limit fruit and vegetable snacks. I make it clear to the kids when we are eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. No snacks served close to dinner time unless I see that my kids are melting down and we’re behind on dinner prep.
And because of this approach in our house, food is just food. We don’t open the fridge or pantry constantly, even though we spend most of our day in the kitchen area (the kids’ play room is attached to the kitchen). We only really think about food when we’re truly hungry. There are no snacks during any media time (TV or games on the tablet) and most meals are eaten at the table. I don’t force my kids to finish what is on their plate and don’t offer seconds unless they ask for it (even the 17 months old has a very clear way to communicate that he wants more). I respect their fullness signs.
I hope that by understanding what drives you and your kids to constantly raid your pantry, you will be able to start making some positive changes in your eating habits. And if you need some extra help, here is my FREE Guide on “Intuitive Eating”.