Like many Jewish families, food has always been the center of our holiday celebrations. I have fond memories of the special meals that my grandma would lovingly prepare for our family. I also remember her and other family members gently coaxing me to finish the contents on my plate. “Ess, mameleh, ess” (eat, little girl, eat), my grandma would say. Between my father’s side, which survived the Great Depression in America, and my mother’s side, which survived the Holocaust, there was always reason to give thanks and finish what was put in front of you, without a fuss. So, from my childhood onwards I always cleaned my plate and often ate when I wasn’t even really hungry. This eventually caught up with me.
It wasn’t until I was in my Masters program in nutrition that I began to look more critically at where some of my own eating issues stemmed from. One of the most fascinating things I learned in my Pediatric Nutrition course was about children’s innate ability to self-regulate their food intake based on caloric density. Children actually respond to the energy content of foods by adjusting their intake to reflect the energy density of the diet, meaning, that unlike adults, a child will stop eating when they have taken in enough calories. They still rely on adults to offer a variety of nutritious and developmentally appropriate foods though, since the ability to self-regulate excludes the ability to choose a well-balanced diet.
A parents feeding style therefore can directly impact a child’s eating habits, their self-regulation mechanism, and their future relationship with food. Authoritarian feeding, characterized by pressuring or forcing, has been associated with a lower intake of fruit, juices, and vegetables and children who are told to “clean their plate” are less sensitive to satiety cues. Most children lose the mechanism to self-regulate intake by around age 5, but with the right feeding style, a child can maintain a healthy relationship with food and stay in touch with their physiological cues of satiety.
I am by no means blaming my family for my bad eating habits as a child (which included overeating at meal times and eating when I was bored), but I do think some of the pressuring I experienced with eating did have a long-term impact on me. Over the years, I’ve had to re-tune myself to read my internal cues more clearly and think more critically for when I have the urge to snack. Luckily, going through this process has been a wonderful learning experience that I can now share with my own patients as a registered dietitian.
It has been well-documented that there are “eating issues” within the Jewish community. Eating disorders (mainly anorexia nervosa and bulimia) within the Orthodox sect unfortunately are becoming more and more common, as this New York Times article notes. These disorders stem from a variety of pressures but health professionals have speculated that it may also come from our religion’s strict dietary rules and food-centric celebrations on holidays and Shabbat. It’s no surprise to me that the pendulum would swing the other way, where Jewish children develop a habit of overeating (sans purging) too.
So how do you raise a healthy child that has an equally healthy relationship with food? One of the best things our religion facilitates is eating together as a family. This gives parents (and siblings) the perfect opportunity to be a role model by showcasing healthy eating habits and behaviors. Setting mealtimes and creating a positive eating environment is important as well. Finally, encouraging (but not pressuring) children to try new foods will expand their palate and diet. I often have to remind parents that foods need to be repeatedly offered until they are accepted. Believe it or not, offering a food up to 11 times is actually completely normal and is often what it takes.
When I used to teach kids cooking classes at the JCC, I gently encouraged any students who were unwilling to try something to “just take one bite”. Knowing that I wasn’t requiring them to finish it, 99% of the time I succeeded in getting them to give it a shot. At the end of the semester, parents would thank me for transforming their picky-eaters into foodies and for having a night off from cooking as their kids now begged to cook for the family!
Between food companies marketing to children, 24/7 access to food, substandard school lunches, and lack of nutrition education and physical activity, it is now more important than ever before for parents to lead their children to make healthy food choices and to foster behaviors that will stick with them. I hope this article gives parents some food for thought and empowers you to set the stage for helping your child build good eating habits while also giving them space to let their bodies naturally guide them as well.
Jackie Topol is a registered dietitian at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and a Masters candidate in Clinical Nutrition at NYU. In her free time she teaches health-focused cooking classes at the JCC in Manhattan where she has been an instructor for over 4 years. Her career has been greatly inspired by her experiences at Adamah, where she was a Fellow in 2007.