What is Normal Eating? Demystifying Dinner for Busy Families

It’s 9:30am at a school in York Region and I’ve just finished talking to a hundred eleven year olds about developing healthy relationships with their bodies. First shy, then clamoring for attention, a gaggle of girls queues up to talk about what’s normal. Their weight – is it what it’s supposed to be? Are they too tall? Do they look their age? It was easy enough for me to tell them that they were perfect the way they are. But how do busy parents address the normalcy question at home? The question of “what is normal eating”, in particular, is one that has increasingly become a focus on magazine covers, public discussion forums, and in conversation between mums and dads trying to keep families satiated without going to extravagant lengths doing so. Where do fried and fatty foods belong? How do we teach healthy eating to our kids? What if a child wants to skip dinner, or seems to be restricting?

Kori Kostka, a Registered Dietitian and member of the Central East Local Health Integration Network’s Health Professionals Advisory Committee, coaches intuitive eating as a philosophy for parents and children. She provides the following tips for families struggling to define their brand of normal:

  • Listen to what your body is asking you for (which often means learning to drop the “good” and “bad” labels we assign to foods). As Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Family Therapist Ellyn Satter has said: “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.”
  • Eat when you are hungry and have enough to feel satisfied – notice when you’re full.
  • Enjoy a variety of meals, but take the time to enjoy them. Unplug, and allow yourself to savour every bite. Eating together at night can help to minimize distraction and allow for family time as well.


Image credit: http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/child-diabetes-position-statement.php

If a child doesn’t want breakfast, Kostka says, find out why. “Are they waking up five minutes before they need to leave the house and perhaps they aren’t able to tap into their hunger and fullness cues? Did they have a nighttime snack that is interfering with their morning hunger cues? Are they doing it in an effort to lose weight?” Depending on the answer, consider prepping breakfast food with your child the night before, switch to a smaller nightly smack, or encourage counseling around body image and understanding how the body works.

Focusing on mindful eating, says Kostka, is integral to learning what normal means to your body. The message for kids is: Healthy eating varies according to what your body needs each day. And sometimes, the healthiest thing to do is to let go of rigid control over our diets. “Every family is different”, says Kostka. “I believe food is meant to taste good, be enjoyed and eaten in variety. We don’t spend enough time playing with our food!”


Jackie Grandy is a Registered Social Worker and Outreach & Education Coordinator at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), a program of University Health Network. NEDIC provides support, information and resources to Canadians through its national helpline, outreach and education programming, biennial conference, and Beyond Images, a free media literacy curriculum for grades 4 through 8. You can contact Jackie at jackie.grandy@uhn.ca and follow NEDIC online through Twitter and Facebook