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.