When I was six years old, I had a habit of sneaking off and hiding shit. I once found a cool set of fake nails at my local CVS, and I walked right out of the store with it. Sometimes my parents forgot to pack my first-grade snack, so I’d steal my best friend’s food and pretend it was mine. And whenever my little brother gobbled up more than his fair share of desserts in our kitchen, I’d find any unopened boxes and hoard them upstairs in my toy chest.
Eating in secret was a satisfying source of rebellion for me. I had grown up in a home where diets were king, my body size was the occasional topic of parental debate, and I believed that the only path to lovability was to be really fucking skinny. My younger brother ate anything he wanted with the abandon that a lightning-fast metabolism brings, and yet for some reason I was encouraged to be aware of what and how much I consumed. You can only imagine how confusing it was to feel like there was nothing wrong with me, but to be treated like there was.
I’m not surprised at all with how my early behaviors evolved during my teen years. Sneaking desserts as a young kid led to binging, purging, an addiction to diet pills, and restrictive eating. Being criticized for gaining weight during puberty and enduring ongoing abuse at home led to debilitating body dysmorphia that I’m only now recovering from. While food was celebrated in my home and was even a source of great joy at times, it also felt like my mortal enemy. I spent much of adulthood self-harming, riding the diet culture rollercoaster, and masking my self-loathing with toxic positivity.
Thankfully, in the past few years I have healed my relationship with my body, recovered from my eating disorder, and enjoy modeling self-love at any size for my daughter, June. I parade my fat bod all over on Instagram, enjoy weekly Lizzo dance parties with the fam, and always make sure to let her squish my big belly with every ounce of four-year old enthusiasm. Sure, she’s a majorly selective foodie and pretends she’s allergic to most vegetables. But outside of a few minor eccentricities, my daughter seems to be adjusting well when it comes to her evolution with eating.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly, until I encountered something I’d never prepared for. I was spending so damn long working to heal myself that I totally forgot to pay full attention to how my daughter was relating to food.
I remember noticing some red flags early on, but it’s tough to always ruminate about every issue when you’re an exhausted AF mom raising two kids under five. It’s also hard to separate what may feel like average toddler behavior from something that seems legitimately concerning. I remember when June started begging a dozen times a day for the desserts we kept tucked away in our cupboard. Then she started having 30-minute meltdowns if we didn’t give her a fourth cookie and went into fits of rage when we told her she had to refrain from drinking all six apple juice boxes out of the pack at once. When she started intentionally sneaking and hiding sweets, I had an inner meltdown for the ages.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always know what I’m doing as a mother, but I definitely show up and do my best. I’ve listened to all the responsive parenting podcasts, read all the “raising awesome kids” books, and have spent hours in therapy working through my own shit so I don’t project it onto my children. Yet here I was standing in front of my little girl who was basically the same high-functioning dessert hoarder her mom used to be. How did this even happen, and how would I get her back to a place of trusting herself – and us – with the food she eats?
I certainly realize that my daughter is in a situation that is light years ahead of what I experienced as a child. My husband and I make mealtimes very easygoing, and we never bring up weight loss or criticize anyone’s body. I’ve also worked hard to break the chains of abuse I experienced as a kid and got the help I desperately needed when my mental health was floundering. But no book or therapy session or podcast really taught me how to handle a moment like this, and I didn’t want my daughter’s seemingly innocent behavior to morph into something more dysfunctional down the road.
I decided to retrace my steps to figure out why my four-year-old might be feeling the need to be extra sneaky with sweets. There have definitely been moments during her covert missions when I resorted to loud and blunt warnings with her in the hopes that it would stop her in her tracks. Sometimes I’ve even yelled out of sheer frustration and overwhelm. While assertive parenting has its merits at times, there are also situations where an empathetic heart can go a long way. I made sure moving forward that until I researched more about this stuff, I’d remind myself that I was once a little girl afraid to tell my parents that I wanted more dessert.
I also scoured the internet looking for an expert’s help, and my investigation led me to the Instagram page for Thalia the Dietician. This mother-of-two is also a nutritional educator who teaches parents how to enhance and support their children’s relationship with food. Thalia’s page was filled with exactly the kind of support and guidance I needed in my life, and reminded me how important it is to lean on others when we’re out of our parenting depths.
Thalia’s posts spoke to me in particular because they promote a radical idea I love. While she explains it in full on her page, here’s the basic rundown. If your kid’s starting to have a vice grip on desserts, the dietician suggests taking the power out of the sweet stuff by sticking a little bit of dessert on each mealtime plate alongside every other food. If the child skips their veggies one night and only goes for the cookie, don’t bat an eye. If they complain that they don’t want apple slices taking up real estate next to the noodles on their Paw Patrol dish, just casually tell them they don’t have to eat them. Keep it calm, cool, and collected, and you might just find that your kid feels less mounting pressure to eat the nutritionally dense shit and less rebellious enthusiasm to overly consume desserts.
When I first learned about Thalia’s method, a ton of light bulbs went off in my mind. There were so many times during childhood when desserts felt to me like a big, juicy secret I didn’t want anyone to know about. I knew I was doing something that others deemed as wrong, and yet I did it behind closed doors anyway. I went into my preteen years being taught that anything with fat or sugar was inherently “bad,” and just a few years after that, I was popping diet pills and severely restricting my food intake. Maybe now I had found a way to finally lower the stakes with sweets. Maybe, just maybe, I could model for my daughter the intuitive eating I’ve learned how to do during my eating disorder recovery.
My husband and I were hesitant, but we began to give Thalia’s technique a go. One thing she recommends is for families to call every single food by its actual name instead of a “treat” or even “dessert.” June’s plates were filled with the pasta, cucumbers, and roasted chickpeas she loves, and then I’d also stick some sautéed veggies on there that I knew she’d most likely not eat. Mixed in with the rest was a little donut, a few pieces of candy, or a cookie, and I think this kind of presentation helped her see that everything on her plate had equal moral value.
At first glance, June was confused as hell. Why were there desserts on her breakfast, lunch, and dinner plates?! She did what she usually does and gobbled up the cookie first. She looked at stuff like cooked broccoli with sheer disgust. She whined at me to take the green shit off her plate, and I continued playing it cool by easily saying, “You don’t have to eat it.” Then she reached for her cucumbers, and within about ten minutes, her plate was mostly clean.
I’d like to say we follow Thalia’s methods every day for consistency, something she understandably recommends to parents. But I’m unbearably tired and imperfectly human, so this doesn’t always happen. Some mornings start off with a cinnamon roll and others end with a variety-filled plate of food. Then there are days when I let the kids chow down on crackers straight from the box. What surprises me during this process is that with just a few small changes in how I talk to my daughter about the desserts she loves, I’ve noticed a profound shift in her behavior.
These days, June no longer sneaks behind our backs to steal and store sweets. She has stopped deeming them as “treats” and now calls each food by its actual name. When we do remember to execute the “dessert at mealtime” method, she eats most of the stuff on her plate and sometimes does so before she even picks up a piece of candy. Sometimes we just don’t have desserts in the house and other times we do. On the days when popsicles are newly stowed away in the freezer, June will desperately want to eat a bunch of them at a time. And I do something quite revolutionary now. I let her. I don’t make a huge deal out of it, except to just remind her that we’ll be out of pops once she eats them all.
Doing this last step was the biggest light bulb moment for me. I’ve discovered that on the days when we allow June to have as much dessert as she wants and don’t make it feel like it’s something that needs to be restricted, she eats until she’s full and moves on to other activities. When sweet food isn’t available in the house for whatever reason, she doesn’t pitch a distressed fit anymore or obsessively beg us to buy it. When we have the ability to do Thalia’s method, it works swimmingly. Overall, I have relaxed so much more around food of all kinds with my daughter, and I honestly believe it has helped her do the same.
The biggest takeaway I’ve had from this entire experience is that when I model and encourage a positive relationship with food, my daughter always benefits. Here’s why it’s so critical that more of us do the same, courtesy of the National Eating Disorders Association. They share the findings from an extensive study of 14- and 15-year-old teens which proved that dieting was the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder. Being exposed to the “healthy eating” education so many of us get as youths has also led 62.3% of teen girls and 28.8% of teen boys to actively diet and even harm themselves with fasting, vomiting, and taking laxatives to lose weight. Not to mention that 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years.
To be clear, the data mentioned above reflects kids of all varied sizes. Which means that no matter how your body appears, as a child growing up in our diet-driven society you will definitely be exposed to factors that may led to disordered eating.
I’ve seen firsthand how vital it is to stop placing pressure and moral value on food. It can start with something as simple as learning how to let desserts stop feeling like a big deal to our kids. I wish someone had shown all of this to me when I was a scared little girl who hid her food, but at least I can now offer my daughter the example I didn’t have.