Recently, my father gave me an old textbook he had used in the ‘70s when he was studying as an extramural student at Massey University. The textbook was on developmental psychology. I’ve been browsing through this text book with much interest and sometimes amusement. One section jumped out at me in particular. In the ‘70s academics were already concerned about the over abundance of high calorie food easily available in the western world and the possible consequence of obesity becoming a more widespread problem. The authors proposed that perhaps parents were overfeeding their children due to the mistaken belief that more food would create taller and more robust adults. The wider discussion in this section was about some new insights into the importance of nutrition to healthy development in children and young adults.
When we fast forward to 2018, it seems that the concerns of the 1970s academics were certainly justified. Childhood obesity rates in New Zealand and internationally are soaring. I suspect, however that many educated western parents are well aware that children require not just quantities of any food but the right quantities of high quality and diverse foods in order to grow to their full physical potential and develop into healthy adults. Whilst knowledge is a powerful tool, in this case it is clearly not enough. Parents often mention to me difficulties around feeding their children. The whole issue of eating can become emotionally challenging and guilt inducing for parents.
When my children were very little we saw a wonderful paediatrician, Bess Gold, who had this advice for me.
Wal’s book is suitable for parents who are just starting the journey of feeding their children and those who are in the middle of this journey and would like to understand how to improve their children’s eating habits. It is also suitable for parents who are struggling to feed a child who has developed some difficulties in this area. Wal’s style is very matter of fact and down to earth. She removes some of the fear of getting it wrong by sharing her own mistakes, acknowledging that none of us are perfect parents. She also emphasises that in our modern world information about the nutritional value of foods and what quantities we should eat is widespread. Governments have nutritional pyramids, dividing plates up to show proportions of foods and companies such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig have other ways of calculating and measuring intakes of particular kinds of food. Wal proposes a simpler measure, she divides foods into, real food/alive food which should be eaten first. Real/alive foods are fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and unprocessed meats. Now and again foods, these are lightly processed foods such as yoghurt, pasta and breads. These foods can be eaten daily and should be eaten after real foods. Finally, processed foods, these are foods that are heavily processed and should only be eaten occasionally and only after the other two categories of food. I thought that these three categories were simple enough for even a young child to understand and they take the emotional load out of discussions about types of food. Instead of terming a certain kind of food ‘bad’ we can discuss where it fits in the three categories and why it might be that it should be only an occasional part of our diets. Wal’s book also asks parents to reflect on their own beliefs and behaviours around food. She points out that children will look to their parents as role models around food and that an awareness and honesty about our own behaviour is a good place to start when looking at how to support our children to develop a healthy relationship with food and eating.
In the end eating together and enjoying each other’s company whilst eating nutritious and delicious food is one of the joys of being a family. Bon Appetit and happy eating.
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.