Everyone wants their kids to have healthy eating habits - to eat up their veggies and not whinge about what's on their plate every night so you can imagine how proud I was that my kids were happy not to have McDonalds, loved home-made food, never complained that their lunch boxes didn't contain Pizza Shapes or Tiny Teddies, loved veggies and a wide variety of fresh foods and always ate their dinner without complaints.
They understood more about food and nutrition than most adults - of course I was proud. Who wouldn't be happy with that?
Their diet was made up solely of clean, fresh whole foods, they loved what they ate, they felt sorry for kids whose parents fed them “junk” food. I had won the healthy food battle and they were only in early primary school. I was so full of pride ... and then the pendulum swung too far.
The wake-up call came at a friend's kid's party. On the way my kids asked me what “toxic” foods they should avoid. I happily told them to steer clear of those red cocktail frankfurters, lollies, cake, chips, biscuits, party pies, sausage rolls ... I said they should just check with me before they ate anything they were unsure of.
At the party I overheard my kids having an argument - one had some home made plain popcorn in his hand, the other was telling him it was “toxic junk food” and he wasn't to eat it.
Time stopped for me. I looked around at all the kids happily enjoying fairy bread, sliced watermelon, mini muffins, chicken wings in sauce ... playing, laughing, having a wonderful time - and my kids arguing whether home-made plain popcorn was “toxic”.
I explained that the popcorn was fine, but my older son had tears in his eyes - he refused to eat it. He refused to eat any of it. It was all “toxic junk party food” and he wasn't going to poison his body with any of it.
I sit here typing this now - years later - with tears pouring down my face. What had I done? What lower primary school age kid should have to go to a party and fear he would be poisoned? What kid goes to a party and refuses to even eat popcorn? What kid deserves to have one of childhood's ultimate pleasures - parties with their friends- taken away from them? What kid deserves to live daily with fear and anxiety surrounding one of the simple pleasures in life? The answer is NONE. Not one kid deserves this - what the hell had I done?
Parents' behaviours and habits are what kids absorb and learn from. They will do as you do. If you are active, they will be active. If you are obsessive, they will be too.
When I hear the pride in people's voices as they tell me they have eliminated sugar from their kids diets, they have put their kids on a low-carb diet, when they won't let their kids eat “toxic processed foods”, when they've put their kids on a “detox” diet, a little bit of me dies inside - the bit that knows how I affected my kids through my own extremist views and poor relationship with food.
And it will affect them if you “diet” too. Almost every one of my clients can recall their mother in particular having a poor relationship with food - yoyo dieting, being unhappy with her size or shape, talking about being fat and constantly eliminating “bad” food from her diet only to binge on it a few months later.
Yes, restrictive, eliminative clean eating is disordered at the point where it interferes with normal personal, interpersonal, social and cultural interactions.
My story does have a happy ending. Because I now have a healthy relationship with food, so do my kids. We all eat fresh whole foods for most of our diet, but if they ask me for a cinnamon donut or chocolate bar occasionally, I will happily get it for them – but they rarely ask.
My youngest and I both enjoy a small bowl of sugary cereal at brekky a few times a year; my oldest loves the occasional hash brown. We have home-made pizza every Sunday.
Since that fateful day, my kids have enjoyed many parties and party food - I explained that because we eat lots of fresh food it is fine to eat party food at the few parties we go to a year. I still cringe at those red cocktail frankfurters but they haven't died from “toxicity” from eating one yet.
So in your quest to give your kids the best quality of life you can, remember to apply common sense and balance. While it might have made me feel morally superior to have kids who were model “healthy eaters”, the price of continuing down that road would have been a life time of disordered eating behaviours for my children.
Balance and common sense are of greater value to teach our kids than extremism - on either side of the food choice spectrum.
We don't want our kids growing up eating fast food every day, but we don't want to restrict and eliminate food so heavily that they miss out on living a normal, happy life.
I hope people understand that this is the hardest thing I have ever written. I love my children with a protective, nurturing love that is overwhelming. To think that love had contributed to potentially harming them is devastating.
I share this with you because every day I see people going down the same extremist, eliminative and restrictive road I went down, and I am despair for the next generation - already I have parents coming to me with their teenage children stuck in the restrict/binge cycle.
I hope my experience encourages people to reject extremes and consider balance before it's too late.
If you love your kids, set them free from food fear and anxiety and teach them common sense and balance.