Instilling healthy eating habits at a young age is key to ensuring your child’s long-term health. Ilana Wiles, creator of the blog Mommy Shorts, says teaching your kids moderation, rather than restriction, is the key to them making their own healthy choices.
How do you ensure your children have a healthy relationship with food?
I was brought up with a lot of foods that were off-limits except for special occasions, which I think put too much importance on those foods and didn’t help me learn self-control. On top of that, my mother and sister were always naturally thin, while my dad and I struggled with our weight.
I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I just had a different body type from my mom and what I wanted was not possible. I thought I was doing something wrong. My dad and I would try all these different diets in the hopes of finding some magical weight-loss trick. When I did see results, it was usually because I was going to too much of an extreme, and then I would fall off the wagon in a big way and feel bad about myself.
It created a really unhealthy roller coaster and a bad relationship with food. Definitely not something I wanted for my own children.
What finally helped me understand my body was getting pregnant. I started thinking about food in terms of what would feed my baby instead of what would make me lose weight. Pasta and bread, two things I had previously restricted, made me feel satiated and helped with nausea, so I ate them without guilt.
For the first time in my life, I listened to my body and ate what felt right, and I continued to do that after my kids were born. The irony is that by being more forgiving with myself when it came to food, I actually lost weight. I found that by allowing myself to eat whatever I wanted, I learned moderation and balance.
I’m not super skinny like I always wanted to be growing up, but I am at a weight that feels comfortable and right for me. I think having two daughters helped me learn self-acceptance as well.
In our house, we do not make anything off-limits, and we never talk about dieting. It helps that I am no longer ever on a diet. We talk about food in terms of what makes us strong and healthy, and offer plenty of opportunities to eat healthy foods.
They eat a colorful plate of raw fresh veggies before dinner every night. They eat fresh fruit every morning. We give them well-balanced meals. There is always a protein, a vegetable, and some kind of grain, but we also enjoy sweets and always have them in the house.
We have dessert pretty much every night, we just give a reasonable portion and make sure our kids understand that overconsuming sweets can give you cavities or a tummyache.
I am a firm believer in not putting too many restrictions on food and letting kids make their own decisions. I’ve been through so many phases in my life when I denied myself things and it always lead to overeating in what I perceived to be a “moment of weakness.”
One of the best things I ever did for my body was let myself eat dessert guilt-free. No “oh, I really shouldn’t” or “I won’t eat this again after today.” I don’t want my kids to think about sweets that way.
Restriction will never teach moderation or balance. Knowing that you can have dessert again tomorrow does a much better job.
With the holidays approaching, how important is it to find a healthy balance when indulging in holiday treats while maintaining a nutritious diet?
We tell our kids that if they have too many sweets they will get a stomachache, and this has played out in real life, so they both know it’s true. One time, my daughter Harlow had birthday cake at school and again at home. She threw up that night, which I think was because she was legitimately sick, but now the kids associate it with having too much cake.
My kids eat holiday meals the same way they would eat regular meals. There might be more choices and more food on their plate, but ultimately, they know their bodies and eat the same serving sizes as usual. The same goes with dessert. They pick and choose what they want and might sample a bit more, but I’ve never seen them overindulge. I think this is because they are used to eating a moderate amount of sweets on a daily basis.
What are the benefits of making cooking together part of your family’s routine?
My daughters love cooking, particularly baking, and it’s a fun activity we do together often. I honestly think they love the process of it more than eating the food. They love mixing and decorating, and smelling our baked goods in the oven.
Eating the stuff we make is really secondary. They usually do a taste test after they are finished and then eat a portion as their regular dessert. They also love sharing their baked goods with family and friends. Our doorman usually makes out really well because we always have more than we can eat! They love going downstairs in the elevator and bringing him a slice of what they baked.
Why is it important for parents to educate themselves on childhood nutrition?
I think it’s important to educate yourself on what foods are part of a healthy diet, and teach your kids what they are eating and why. We give our kids information about what foods are good for our bodies and we make sure they have plenty of opportunities to eat those foods.
We say blueberries are good for your brain, colorful veggies have tons of important nutrients, foods high in fiber are good for digestion, protein keeps your body growing and strong, dairy keeps your bones strong, etc. I think it helps for kids to have context around what they are eating.
What’s your favorite meal to cook together as a family?
We love making breakfast together on Saturday and Sunday mornings. We make pancakes, French toast, and scrambled eggs. We usually cut up fresh cantaloupe and put out a bowl of strawberries as well.
The kids know how to make all these foods, so they really contribute and do a lot of the work. There is a sense of pride in actually helping prepare a whole meal on their own for the family.