A couple of weeks ago I was invited to serve on a panel at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health for their A Smart Start Symposium on preventing early childhood obesity. My task was to share my thoughts on early childhood obesity prevention efforts from the perspective of a nutrition researcher and, more importantly, as a mom. Along with two other panelists I was meant to wrap-up the days’ presentations into a nice neat package and provide my thoughts on strategic direction for the future of obesity prevention efforts. No problem, right?!
As I was thinking about how to wrap the topics covered that day, including breastfeeding, prenatal care and weight gain, and food and physical activity policies in childcare into my own experiences as researcher mom, my husband suggested that I forget about what everyone else was going to say and think about what I wanted to say. “As someone who knows what she is “supposed” to do, what do you want to say about the realities of how difficult it is to actually do those things?” he asked me.
The answer was pretty clear: I wanted to say exactly that. Despite my years of training in what and how to eat in ways that promote health, even I struggle to do this well. I have a son who most days wants only to eat carbs, I get recipe (and cooking) fatigue, and am often crunched for time. Doing what I know I need to is much harder than knowing what I need to do.
Knowing what is not enough
When my oldest was a baby I read a lot of parenting books. Understanding what makes a healthy parent and a healthy kid kind of runs in my family, so it doesn’t surprise me that I wanted to make informed decisions about the type of parent I was going to be. I am not alone in this endeavor: to be a thoughtful and informed parent. Most of us have a sense for what kind of person we want our kids to be. This often applies in the broadest sense – we want them to make healthy choices, be compassionate, hardworking, engaged citizens – but rarely do we extend this type of thoughtful and active parenting to specific aspects of raising kids. Specifically, to something like eating.
One thing I’ve learned over the last six years as a parent, informed by the previous nine as a graduate student and early-career researcher, was that knowing WHAT I needed to do to feed my kids in a way that supported and promoted their health was not enough. To do that well, in the face of conflicting time demands, varying taste preferences, and competing interests, I needed a set of goals for WHY I was doing what I was doing. In the same way that I identified why I was making certain parenting-related decisions, I needed some guiding principles for why I was making certain food-related decisions. (Identifying some clear strategies for HOW to achieve those goals would probably help too.)
Define your Eater
As I prepared for the talk at Columbia, it became clear that this is what I could contribute to the conversation about childhood obesity prevention. From the perspective of a nutrition researcher and mother, what I want people to think about is why. As a parent, I wanted to people to thinks about what long-term goals they had for their kids regarding the type of eater they wanted their kids to become. As researchers, I want them to consider that these goals may differ for different families, and that helping parents and caregivers to identify their own WHYs might help us – as researchers and clinicians – to create more concrete strategies and supports systems for promoting childhood health.
In my our family, our set of WHYs inform the decisions I make about what and how my kids eat and how we, as a family, engage in the act of buying, preparing, and eating food. And, having identified those WHYs, also allowed me to come up with a long list of strategies for HOW to get there. I’m not suggesting that these should be everyone’s WHYs, but I do think it’s worth having some. In our house, they have helped reduce stress around meal times, eliminate (maternal) guilt over what (and how) my kids are eating, and provided guardrails to keep us all on track.
In the next series of posts I’ll unpack each one and provide some of the strategies that we use to achieve them. For now here are our long-term food goals, in no particular order:
- Be willing to taste new foods.
- Eat a variety of foods.
- Listen to our internal signals of hunger and satiety.
- Take part in meal planning and food preparation.
- Know where our food comes from.