Here are the 3 deeper lessons our children are trying to teach us at meal times.
Written by Registered Dietitian and Mindfulness Teacher Nishti
Mealtimes are often stressful for both the child and the parent. Rather than being a space for fuelling the body peacefully, meal times are often a battleground. Parents are provided with so many strategies to help destress meal times. These include:
- Eat with your children
- Expose them to different foods
- Model the behavior
- Praise and validate when trying new foods
I used to say similar things to clients but after years of experience and training to be a mindfulness teacher my approach has changed. From a mindfulness point of view, having a defiant child at meal times goes much deeper than what we may think.
In this blog post, I will provide you with the chance to see the real truth of why meal times might be stressful and what can be done to change it. No manipulation and no fancy strategy are required here. Just your openness to change and to learn something a new way. This is not mainstream advice and it may upset some people because as humans, we become triggered when our belief systems are challenged. My intention is not to upset anyone but to shine some light on the REAL reason why meal times are often stressful. I have also done a video on this topic on my Youtube channel.
Please note that some children labeled as fussy or picky eaters may indeed have a more serious condition requiring specialist help and advice. For example, some children may have ARFID or Autism. It is therefore vital to work with a dietitian if your child is losing weight and struggling intensively at meal times.
What is mindfulness:
Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Children live in the present moment. They have no preconceived notions or judgments of how things ought to look or be. “Should” and “shouldn’t” is not the vocabulary that they use. They are blissfully unaware of government guidelines on healthy eating. Also, they don’t know that it is expected to eat protein with every meal, and they don’t know that it is expected to eat a certain amount of fruit and vegetables every day. No comparison is made to anyone regarding their diet or their growth! They know none of this, yet they thrive. Children know mindfulness like no one else and they try to teach us mindfulness throughout the day, particularly at meal times. The question is, are we aware of this?
In the traditional parenting approach, the parent is here to fix the child and the child is here to obey and follow commands. This hierarchical structure is a problem as it places the child at the bottom, the adult in the middle, and the government right at the top.
Why is this relevant to meal times? This is relevant as it may help to explain the anxiety and stress that some parents experience at meal times.
A mother of two girls:
Jackie, a mother of 2 little girls called me one day as she wanted advice as she was worried about one of her daughter’s eating habits and weight. Her daughter doesn’t eat breakfast and isn’t interested in eating meat. She isn’t underweight but in comparison to her younger sister, she is a smaller build. This seemed to frustrate Jackie a lot.
I saw videos of meal times and it was very evident that there was no connection between Jackie and her daughter. Jackie sat trying to gently encourage her daughter to eat the chicken and to eat more potatoes. Her daughter was having none of it and she ended up pushing her plate away screaming out of frustration.
We explored the reason for Jackie’s worries about her daughter’s dietary intake. Jackie revealed expectations of what a child should eat and a desire to ensure her daughter is “healthy for the future”. Jackie admits that when her daughter eats a full healthy meal she feels like a success or like a good mother. On the contrary, when her daughter doesn’t eat well she feels like a failure. Going back into her own childhood it turned out that Jackie herself was expected to eat everything on the plate and to eat 3 balanced meals daily. After a few sessions together Jackie was able to see that her own upbringing and her expectations about food and nutrition caused so much fear and anxiety in the present moment when feeding her daughter.
Children show us how little we live in the present moment and how anxious and unaware we may be. They also show us where we may lack boundaries and how we may be following a pattern from our own childhood.
In contrast to the traditional parenting paradigm, conscious parenting is a term used to describe a style of parenting that usually focuses more on the parent rather than the child and how mindfulness can drive parenting. Conscious parenting asks that instead of striving to “fix” our children, the parents must look inward at themselves. Conscious parenting views children as independent beings, who teach parents where they are yet to heal and grow.
Mothering is not just about mothering your child, mothering is also about mothering ourselves. Our own inner child, that anxious part of us that may feel unworthy, unseen looking for something on the outside to validate us. For example a great career, our beauty, or perhaps how well our child eats or not. Our children don’t push our buttons. There is no trigger on the outside. Any emotional charge comes from the inside. Perhaps it’s misplaced expectations, misplaced needs, misplaced desires. We hurt our children because we are hurting ourselves. We have inherited baggage from our own parents and our own upbringing and it is through our children that we get a first-class view of our emotional immaturity. They make us feel powerless, out of control, and anxious.
All these feelings tend to come up throughout the day. If the parent has an emotionally charged relationship with food then meal times will be a particularly stressful time for the parent and child. However, this can all change for the better, and here is how.
Welcome your child’s invitation to pause:
When your child doesn’t meet your expectations of what they should eat, be aware that you may be triggered. Perhaps you feel the anger rise in you or you feel anxious that they may not get enough vitamins which will affect them later in life. You may even be afraid that they will lose weight (despite the fact that at this moment their weight is absolutely fine). All these fears are future projections that the mind makes into a catastrophic event.
When these feelings arise try and pause. Take a few deep breaths, observe yourself and come back to the present moment. When we pause, we come back to the heart and we stop the mind from going into the future. After a moment of pausing, you will know the right action to take and this action may well be out of love and not fear.
Accept your child
Your child is asking you (indirectly) to let go of your script of who you need to be and asking you yo enter their AS IS.
- They may not eat a perfect diet but it is their AS IS.
- They may not eat vegetables with every meal but it is their AS IS.
- They want you to see them, really see them and not their achievements.
Unconditional love for our children is accepting them for who they are and what they eat. Not what we want them to eat.
Accepting children for who they are and loving them unconditionally will teach them self-worth. Is there anything more powerful than a human being who knows their worth?
I don’t think so.
Let go of your conditioning
Were you told to finish your plate, were you told to eat 3 meals a day, and were you told that breakfast is the healthiest meal of the day? Children march to the beat of their own drum. They are real and authentic and have a strong connection with their inner being. They know when to eat and how much to eat. I encourage you to revisit everything you have been told about nutrition and unlearn it. Who says breakfast is the healthiest meal of the day? Is this true? 🙂
Children teach us mindfulness every day. Take the invitation and engage with them fully in the present movement whatever that moment may look like and welcome the deeper lesson(s) your child is here to teach you.
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