Developing Healthy Eating Skills

Have you ever wondered why eating a balanced diet comes naturally and consistently to some while it is a lifelong battle for others? Why can some people find their stopping point with sweets while others require superhuman control? There is an underlying skill to eating that has nothing to do with nutrition knowledge or self-control. This skill is best cultivated in childhood. If your parents helped you cultivate this skill, good nutrition will likely come naturally to you. If not, your eating might be turbulent. How can a mother help cultivate this skill in her child?

Beginning with infancy, emotional development evolves in stages. During each stage there are developmental tasks that that a child is expected to master in order to transition well to the next stage. The mother plays a pivotal role in this process. In line with the psychosocial developmental theory of Erik Erikson, healthy development would include mastering the following tasks: achieving homeostasis, developing healthy attachment and cultivating autonomy, initiative, industry and identity. The newborn works to achieve homeostasis. This means she is at peace within herself and with her environment. For example, a tired infant cries and her mother soothes her to sleep, then the infant may wake up uncomfortable and the mother helps relieve the discomfort. As her basic needs are met, the infant will naturally develop healthy attachment where she feels completely bonded and connected with her mother. This sense of security enables the child to comfortably master the next developmental task during toddlerhood which is autonomy (independence). This is when the child begins to experience herself as a separate entity from her mother and has some control over her environment. It is common for a toddler to insist on doing things herself or to shout, “No” and tantrum as a way of asserting herself. Continuing into the preschool stage, the developmental task becomes taking initiative. At this stage the child will experiment as they try new things. For example a preschooler may see a package of cups and create a tower out of cups. Following that, the school aged child works on achieving industry where she strives to learn master and achieve. For example, the school-aged child might decide to surprise her mother, and set the Shabbos table. Finally, the adolescent works to achieve identity as she strives to “make it” among her peers. For example she might form her own ideas and opinions about social groups and personal growth and decide she wants to attend a specific seminary in Eretz Yisroel.

In truth, these tasks are the natural expression of the child’s individuality and inner potential. At each new stage the child engages in a more sophisticated expression of his individuality and potential. Each new task builds on the one mastered before it. A parent can help well-develop these tasks by providing a healthy dose of freedom with-in age appropriate limits, so the child’s individuality and inner-potential can be expressed productively and appropriately.

The foundation of your child’s nutrition is also rooted in his self-expression and individuality and evolves similarly to the stages listed above. Each developmental stage has a corresponding feeding goal. Mastering the feeding goal in each stage can improve the child’s nutrition and enhance her emotional development. Beginning in infancy a baby already has natural hunger cues and knows how much she needs to eat. When the mother feeds the infant in response to her cues the infant better achieves healthy attachment. The infant feels loved and secure when her mother respects and responds to her feeding cues so her emotional development is enhanced as well as her nutrition. The toddler who works to develop autonomy will be invited to the family table and allowed to make independent decisions of which foods to try and when to stop eating. This allows her to discover her inner cues of hunger, fullness and appetite while feeling a sense of independence. Once again, her nutrition is enhanced as well as her emotional well-being. The adolescent who is developing an identity has a nutrition goal of accepting and respecting her body. When she feels good about herself, then she takes care of herself. She eats foods that make her feel good, accepts her body size and shape and doesn’t feel a need to compare herself to others or engage in unhealthy fad diets to change her body. As a result, her nutrition thrives as well as her emotional well-being.

Your child has inner cues of hunger and fullness that correspond to her inherent growth and energy levels. Beginning in infancy the mother’s role is to allow her child to follow her inner cues. When a child connects with her inner cues related to eating she is developing a skill called interoceptive awareness. This means that one can identify her physical and emotional needs, and tend to them. As a child develops eating habits she should be aware and responsive to her hunger, fullness and appetite cues, and as time goes on, with the way foods impact her energy. A helpful parent supports her child’s ability to eat in response to her inner senses and grow consistently and predictably on her genetic path by providing a healthy dose of freedom around food within age appropriate limits. This creates a foundation for good nutrition. Good nutrition will likely come naturally to a child who is raised this way.

In the coming weeks we will address each age group in more detail, providing more insight into each developmental stage and practical nutrition applications.

Brochi Stauber is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist whose goal is to make healthy living a lifestyle reality for individuals and families. In her practice, Brochi combines clinical nutritional knowledge with an understanding of the behavioral science of food, enabling clients to sustain healthy habits which benefit both mind and body. She can be reached at 732-731-9340 or satisfinutrition@gmail.com.

Shira Francis is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Chicago, IL. She provides guidance and counseling in relationships and self-development. Contact her at 773-971-3388 or shirafrancis@gmail.com.