Social Events & Saying No
One of my frequently asked questions when it comes to feeding little ones is how to manage social occasions and the pressure for children to eat or try foods which are (ultimately) unhealthy, highly processed and low in nutrients.
To be perfectly straight, as someone working in public health and actively trying to make a significant dent in the food industry with my own brand this question fundamentally makes me feel so frustrated. Our challenge is 'out there' as in tackling the food industry. It should not be without our parenting tribe units - and yet this is where a lot of pressure comes from. It should be the opposite. Social gatherings are meant to create a sense of belonging and an easing of pressure. When parents constantly have to combat not only nutrient poor foods being in abundance but also high pressure to feed foods to their children which they do not want to (and do not need to justify) this adds so much mental load.
Here are some quick fire tips on how to navigate this. My overarching message is that it is ok to be firm here - your choices are your choices! Our children do need our protection and guidance to navigate this food industry themselves. This process will only get harder not easier for them as they grow and spend time away from you independently.
Get clear on your values first
This is a hard one to begin with. Confronting social norms even for yourself. Are you doing something because its always been done this way? Is it how you want to celebrate this particular time or festive period. In one of my latest blogs I talk about my choices around 'Santa' for the boys we also do not do Easter Egg hunts (but do other Easter activities).
I would encourage you discus your values with your primary parenting unit first before the wider unit – this maybe yourself, maybe yourself in a hetrosexual relationship, might be yourself and a grandparent – getting clear together first is important as you might be surprised how many things are different for each of you. You cannot tackle the wider unit if the primary parenting unit is not untied first. When you are ready to discuss this with others, best to do not right at the time of the event if you can. Talking in advance allows others to process their thoughts, feelings and potential disappointment in their own way.
Have a list of no-nos
Our food environment is teaming of ultra processed foods moderation does not exist in this environment. This does not lead to deprivation – we don’t need to take elicit drugs in order to ‘try them’ and not feel deprived. Considering some foods follow the same dopamine pathways as elicit drugs this is not a far-fetched point. When there are foods which literally provide zero nutritional value it is ok to have them as a 'no-no'. I encourage this to be in place within your home and allow flexibility when out - it is what children will come back to as a boundary and ultimately help them guide their choices when you are not there.
It is ok to say no!
Please know that you are well within your right to simply say no! You do not to protect others feelings in order to override yours or your children's. this is end of story. You are also teaching your children to say no as well – trust me they will HAVE to as they get older – and it will get HARDER for them as well in the face of peer-pressure. Seeing you as their primary parenting unit say no, stand tall in the face of social pressure is modeling to them to do the same.
It is not just a one-off, a way to ‘show love’ or funny!
I do not believe you need to justify your food choices for you children. However some science always helps right!
* One night of sleep deprivation up turns our hunger hormones upside
down! This is for all humans regardless of age.
* One meal or afternoon of high doses of sugar, additives, ingredients which are not foods (numbers hello take one look at how many numbers are in a McDonalds hamburger – over 30 just fyi) immediately impacts blood sugar, insulin processing, liver detoxification (remove waste) and mood (highs and lows with sugar crashes and subsequent dopamine lows).
*This is in all children - highly sensitive children will respond stronger and find it even harder to regulate their mood, impact on sleep and thus the cycle continues.
*It is not ‘just a one off’. Many parents are dealing with things behind the scenes even one bad afternoon can tip that balance and make what is already the hardest job in the world seem impossible.
*As a generation we are also ‘not all right’ - look at global rates of screaming health statistics in both physical and mental health - this is about change and it starts with us.
Eat before the event
This is just a very practical strategy to implement. I have used this on many occasions, even for myself. If you know that you are going to an event where good food choices will be limited or there will be a lot of pressure, not being hungry helps a lot! Children I find have a much better ability to simply not eat when they are hungry so this will keep the focus off food.
As note to wider family members:
The mental load we carry as parents is enormous. Family time is meant to ease that load not add to it. The most important part of a gathering is the sense of belonging, connectedness and the creation of a safe place for us to feel like we are supported and cared for – if you are doing something that takes away from this and adding to the mental load it is not helpful and is damaging. We understand this is most likely unintentional or from a place of love – so this is not about blame but about offering a different perspective.
Consent is absolutely critical. Consent around food choices and what we put into our bodies and our children's bodies is an important aspect of learning the depths of this concept which will play out in other areas of children's lives later on.
As parents we do need a justification or a reason – ask first, ideally not at the time, but at the very bare minimum ask and if the answer is no simply please respect this, not question it, and then walk away.
This behaviour is what we would want children to do – we are modelling this behaviour for them.
At the end of the day:
No means no. Period.
We love you, respect that you may have been brought up differently but this is just something that is important to us and we would ask you to just please respect this even if you do not understand this or agree - we want spending time with you to be fun and enjoyable without this pressure.
- In my book - The Nourished Toddler - I discuss in depth the science behind the need for boundaries, parenting styles which impact food behaviours and food choices and many other evidence-based practical strategies which you will find helpful to build on the points discussed in this blog! This book is available in both hard copy, kindle and audio (which I have narrated myself).
- Also check out my upcoming virtual events - the toddler one is most helpful and I find if you can have all members of your parenting unit take part it can help to open up these conversations more.
x Dr Julie