Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Beyond Chocolate and Children

My son is 16. When I started Beyond Chocolate he wasn’t quite 6. When he was a toddler and through his first four or so years I was obsessed (it’s the only words that described the way I behaved) with making sure he had a good, healthy, wholesome diet. He never ate sweets or chocolate. I wouldn’t have dreamed of giving him anything with artificial colours or flavors. Fizzy drinks were out, fruit juice was only a rare treat. And on the other hand I gave him rice cakes in the car when he was bored. He ate his wonderfully nourishing home-made sandwiches while watching Postman Pat and this curious and spirited little vegetarian boy loved nothing better than to play ‘butchers’ whenever his Zia (aka Audrey) came over to visit! Meanwhile I was yo-yoing on and off diets constantly and eating for Britain and the rest of Europe in between.

When he was two and a half he once asked the man behind the bar at the beach cafe if he could “please have the blue ice-cream, the one with artificial colours and flavours in it”!

By the time he was nine I had created Beyond Chocolate and he had discovered the ‘Eat whatever you want’ principle. He didn’t take much persuading. Chocolate, crisps, Haribo, cake, biscuits…. he couldn’t get enough of them. I knew that taking the brakes off and allowing myself to eat what I wanted had worked for me but I cannot describe how scary it was to do the same with my children. By then he had a little sister, nearly five years younger.

I watched him put on weight and eat sweet stuff seemingly without any sign of reaching satisfaction point.

I gave them carte blanche in the supermarket and they bought junk upon junk upon junk.

I stocked up with piles of chocolate…. and it was all eaten. Hundreds (literally) of packs of crisps and they all went.

This went on for longer than I felt reasonable. I was prepared for a few weeks. But months… and months… At times I faltered (without telling them or changing anything noticeable!). I told myself I was crazy. My husband had ‘serious talks’ with me. How could I do this to my kids? It may work for my clients but these were our children we were talking about and he was not at all sure. Our friends raised their eyebrows and shook their heads (the polite ones!). Some felt they just had to speak up.

I gave the children mixed messages. Yes, eat what you want. It’s fine. As long as you’re hungry and you sit down at the table… And when they looked all innocent and said yes of course they were hungry, only minutes after dinner, I questioned them and doubted them and even though I eventually said ‘yes, they could have it, my body language was screaming NOOOOOOO!

And I was terrified as I saw Jasper put on weight and I pretended that I wasn’t.

I stuck with it. I read Preventing Childhood Eating Problems - A practical, positive approach to raising children free of food and weight conflicts by Hirshmann and Zaphiropoulos to reassure myself. It was very, very reassuring. It’s a great book.

I stopped asking if he was hungry (he ALWAYS said yes anyway!). I just kept reminding him to put it on a plate, sit down and focus.

Gradually, very gradually his attitude to food changed. After going to Costco and buying boxes of chocolate bars (Mars, KitKat, Crunchie etc) he stopped finding them all that interesting. He hasn't had a chocolate bar in months. In fact, as he reads this over my shoulder, he tells me he hasn’t has a chocolate bar in years!

After aeons of saying yes to crisps and pretzels and peanuts, he stopped asking and lost interest; they were no longer special.

He started asking to taste my luxury chocolates from Rococo, Marcolini, Valrohna a few years ago he asked for a small box of good quality chocolate for Easter rather than the huge Cadbury’s concoctions he’s been attracted to before. He'd go and stay with his grandparents in the south of France and come back with a box of Jean Luc Pele's amazing creations.

He stopped overeating at mealtimes and started leaving food on his plate.

Slowly, slowly he lost weight.

Today he is a slender, healthy young man who has a passion for good food. His favourites are things like Godminster cheddar, home made pickles, salami with white truffle, organic, dry cured bacon, fois gras and salt licorice. Having said that he’s not above the occasional pack of Doritos, a visit to KFC or a bag of M&Ms.

His relationship with food is balanced, healthy and so is he.

And now I’m watching my daughter follow the same path. As she learns to manage her desire to eat when she’s bored, to have chocolate because it’s there, because it tastes nice. And since I’ve been here before I’m more confident. We talk about it and she understands what it’s all about even when she can't or doesn't want to change how or what she's eating. I know she’ll get there in her own time and I know for certain that putting her on a diet or restricting what she eats in any way would be the best way to guarantee that aged 30 she'd be overweight, struggling with her eating! And she'd look back at photos of herself and would probably think "I looked lovely, a little puppy fat that's all, if only she had let me be!'.

Teaching our children to trust themselves, to make healthy food choices, to listen to their bodies is a process. And the key for me is that they learn to choose. I could have told them what to eat. I could have continued (as I started) to ban certain foods, to focus on their weight, to make it an issue. Instead I decided to teach them how to be discerning. By giving them information, talking and listening, I empowered them to decide for themselves so that for them healthy eating isn’t about deprivation or being good it’s something they do because they want to, because actually it’s all they know. They know about the reasons we eat when we're not hungry. They know what it's like to want something and choose not to have it. Not because it's not allowed but because they know the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. They know about the impact of different foods on their bodies, not just because we've read about it or talked about it but because they've experimented with it themselves. Importantly, I protected them from the prejudice and mis-information all around them about 'obesity'; I refused to let them be weighed and measured at school. And most important of all; I practiced what I preached. I modeled the behaviours I wanted them to emulate. It wasn’t always easy but I stuck with it and I still do.

One of my primary goals as a parent is to make sure my children grow up feeling good about their bodies and the way they eat, healthy and fit; informed and empowered. We’ve had so many requests over the years for a Mother & Daughter workshop; if you have a daughter and you’d like to come on a workshop with her, to find out more about how you can work on your own relationship with food and support her to grow up with a healthy and balanced approach to food and her body, click HERE and let us know.


  1. Soooo interesting and reassuring, Sophie, thank you. I would like a few more details - HOW do you teach about healthy food? HOW do you make sure they make their own experiments and draw their own conclusions? Do you keep asking them 'So did you feel good, light and fit after you had that fish and chips?', 'So did you feel sluggish after that yummy rice and tuna salad or did you feel full of energy for the rest of the afternoon?' Do they ever get bored/fed up with you talking to them about food in this way, or are they the ones always asking you questions about it? Fascinating! More please!!!

    My daughter is still a bit too young (2 and a half) to justify the cost of attending a whole-day workshop in London, and also I would feel that I'm making too much of a fuss/making it into an issue by taking her there whereas I've been breastfeeding and then feeding her in the same way that Hirshmann recommends (on demand) and therefore wish to continue in the same way - no fuss, no issue. However, I would LOVE another post with more details and I wonder whether I will indeed have to teach her a few things about healthy eating vs unhealthy eating or whether it will just come 'naturally' to her by simply watching her parents eat (a bit of everything in a balanced, non-fussy way)!

    If my daughter was older and had problems with food and/or her body, though, I would DEFINITELY do the one-day workshop you're offering.

  2. Thanks for a very interesting and reassuring post (it works with kids too!). Potential children was one of the reasons I wanted to work on my relationship with food after realizing dieting was not the answer. I figured that if and when we have kids I didn't want to pass on any issues with food and body image I had acquired along the way.

  3. Hi Truffle 35,

    The HOW is the bit we'd work on at the workshop. And we'll work on an e-book and then a book on it too!In the meantime the book I mention in the post is really very good.

    It sounds like you're doing great with your daughter and so maybe this workshop isn't really for you.

    You wrote "If my daughter was older and had problems with food and/or her body, though, I would DEFINITELY do the one-day workshop you're offering." All I would say is that it's a good idea (if you're NOT sure how to go about it) not to wait until there IS a problem, both for the child and for the parent. But at 2 years old and with all the work YOU are doing and have done yourself, there's no need as you say to do any more just now. How lucky she is to have a mum who is so aware and walking the talk herself. It's the most important thing really.

  4. Facinating stuff!! Interestingly, before I had my daughter I never ever dieted - I was a healthy size 12/14 and couldnt have told you what I weighed. After I had her 25 years ago I started 25 years of yo-yo dieting and as a result am 5 stone heavier, but I never inflicted my food choices upon my daughter - was never part of the 'clean plate brigade'.

    When I joined BC last year I asked her as a beautiful healthy 25 year old never changing size 8..'when do you eat', ..'when I am hungry mum', 'what do you eat?' 'whatever I fancy'..'when do you stop?' 'when I am full....'

    I obviously did something right without realising, and slowly I am getting there myself!!

  5. Hi there I have a three and a half year old and did have to move the biscuit tin in the end as free access meant she had no space for meals, now she has to ask but gets told yes unless it's straight before a meal.

    I try to offer food choices for snacks including fruit and cake together and (mostly) think I'm getting it right(ish). Her grandfather got 'told off' for offering food as a reward and I don't say 'good girl' when she finishes all her food or make her clean her plate.

    It does terrify me that she'll inherit my issues I'll certainly bear in mind the course when she gets bigger if she starts to eat less intuitively. She's certainly partial to similar foods, I was amused when she was offered cake or smoked salmon for pudding and chose smoked salmon!

  6. This is a timely post for me, Sophie. I'm working through the overeating course myself, and trying to pass some of what I'm learning to my children. My daughter (aged 10) is overweight - there's no two ways about it, we need to buy clothes aged 13 -14 to fit round her waist. I can see her following in my path of secret eating (things disappear from the cupboards and fridge. I would be really interested in a mother-daughter course, but as we live overseas, that's unlikely to happen. An e-book/course/masterclass series would be very welcome though. She is outgoing, confident and believes us when we tell her she is beautiful, so perhaps she won't end up with all my problems... We've adopted a "serve yourself" approach at meal times, which works well, I just need to learn to not monitor them so closely, and trust to what works...

  7. Hi Sophie,
    Sounds just like my son, after my divorce he lived on microwave meals, kitkats and Percy Pigs when he was at his father's. He even said to me, I will only live with you if you buy a microwave! Two weeks ago I had to go to Italy for a week. I said to him, do you want me to get in a whole load of microwave meals for you? He replied, no, I don't eat that s... anymore. Just get me some chicken breasts,noodles and veggies, so I can make some stirfries. And can you get me some interesting fruit too?

  8. Brilliant post! My almost 6 year old son still has Easter eggs on the table in the lounge but very rarely asks for them, if he does I break a few pieces off and put them in a little dish so he can sit and enjoy it. He prefers good quality chocolate now too. The only struggle I have is when he goes to my parents. My mum thinks he eats "too healthy". She force feeds him massive portions and large puddings,if he says he is too full she scoops up some more food and puts it is his mouth to clear his plate!! I do tell her but she gets offended and I dont like making a fuss in front of my son. Luckily he only has one evening meal there once a week when Im home from work late. Maybe I will buy the book you mentioned and lend it to her.

  9. Really good post - despite my own issues with food I somehow managed not to pass them on to my children. I have been working with Beyond Chocolate for a couple of years now and have also adopted the 'self-service' that Anonymous mentioned - and it works well - we are all getting used to choosing how much we would like to eat at each meal instead of having it dished up to us in a quantity someone else thinks we should eat. This is particularly the case in cafes and restaurants ...
    It certainly takes nerves of steel to bring children up in this apparently 'free and easy' way, but it is sooooo worth it!

  10. The "self service" sounds a great idea, however, my partners children are very different, the teenager is very intuitive but the 10 yr old would eat everything in sight especially if she knows it has to be shared between everyone!! For example.. if we have a gralic bread in the middle of the table to share with our meal, she wants to get the biggest portion. If my partner makes a dish with, say prawns in, she sulks if she gets less prawns than everyone else. If there is a choice of flavours of yoghurt she will also have the one that she knows her sister will want because she thinks it must be the best?! He has also given them a free rein with their own chocolate at Easter and they are told to take their supplies to their rooms & eat them when they want. The youngest child's has gone within the first week were the eldest child makes her's last months!!Its very strange because they have both been brought up exactly the same around food?

  11. I don't have children myself but am very interested in this whole concept. Although many food/body image issues are born through societal pressure I really do believe that many more come from our upbringing. Being told to eat everything on our plates; "think of the starving children in Africa"; and (my biggest bugbear) using unhealthy foods as a treat or reward.

  12. Hi Sophie,

    Thank you for taking the time to anwer my questions. I've only read bits of Hirschmann's book so I will try to read it from cover to cover now!

  13. Thanks for these posts. I started following BC a while ago and have had some successes in my habits if not in my waist line yet. I have also started to let my son (9) eat freely and have explained to him what the basics are about. He is making some very good progress but he does still eat when I know he can't be hungry (straight after dinner) and he is putting on weight. It is very hard for me not to panic about the weight gain and although it is not much yet it is definately noticable. I will get the book mentioned and take comfort from the comments here that you just have to trust that it will work eventually. There have been some glimmers, he does sometimes turn down chocolate and now he often wants me to buy him sweets but he forgets to eat them so there is hope !


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