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I’ve counseled thousands of children and families on “healthy eating” which boils down to learning to feed.

Feed, as in nourish.

As I think about this year’s USA Gymnastics Congress and what I want to lecture about, I settled on feeding.

Much of raising and nourishing a healthy athletes hinges on good parenting, including what is called “food parenting”. 

Without getting too deep, there are four main feeding styles (see here) that align with overarching parenting styles.

For many gymnastics parents, you want to “make them” eat well just as you tell them to work hard at practice. Neither is productive in the long-run and often causes undesired behaviors (food sneaking, slacking off at the gym, etc).

From one of my favorite child feeding experts and pediatric dietitians, Jill Castle, I present feeding with “Love & Limits”.

This concept stems from the work done by Ellyn Satter (another child feeding expert) and her “Division of Responsibility” aka DOR. The DOR means you as the parent chooses the “what, where, when” and the child chooses the “how much”. For many parents, this seems terrifying. You’re afraid that if you give your child full access to frequent “fun foods” aka chips/candy/fried things that they will loose all control and gain unhealthy weight. Though this seems intuitive, it is generally the opposite effect.

For example, when I was a young gymnast my coach said we (me, my teammates) would all give up sugar for 1-2 months prior to Thanksgiving which was right around competition season. At the time, I was a strong and healthy gymnast who was rapidly progressing through the levels. I had chocolate milk as a post-workout snack on the way home each night after 3+ hour practice, had a snack before practice since lunch was before noon, and didn’t pay close attention to the mirror.

The moment he said “no sugar”, I started to believe chocolate milk was bad, sugar was bad, and caused feelings of restriction. All I wanted, and all we talked about, were sweet treats and how we couldn’t wait to eat them again.

It has taken me a lot of years to get over this, and I now make a point to always have chocolate, ice cream, and materials for baked goods (ATK’s Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies. Thank me later)

So, how to you handle the sweet stuff?

Stick to the 90/10 rule which equals to 90% fresh fruits/veg/lean meats/whole grains/healthy fats and 10% fun foods (chips, cookies, candy, etc). The 10% equates to 1-2 treats per day, with appropriate servings. Sometimes you offer peanut butter and apples as an afternoon snack or chocolate chip cookies and milk. Keep the 10% consistent so your child learns to trust that the fun foods will always be there and they don’t need to “eat all the things” when exposed to them.

For athletes, as much as I’d prefer to not serve a high fat chocolate chip cookie or two before practice (fat delays stomach emptying, will slow down how quickly the carbohydrate can get into the muscles for fuel during practice), every now and again is not a big deal (1 cookie + 1 glass of 2% milk= carbs, protein, fat in appropriate quantities for pre-workout). If your athlete gets a tummy ache mid-practice from the fun foods, they’ll learn themselves to choose something different. I learned very quickly as a gymnast that Mexi Nacho Wednesdays at school were not good days to eat in the cafeteria unless I wanted to have heartburn the entire workout.

The limit comes into play when you can remind your child they already had their fun food for the day. This isn’t a bad thing, but give them the options so they can choose well for themselves. It’s as simple as saying “we’ve had our fun foods for the day, but there are more for tomorrow and the next day, and the next day”. You reassure them that it is OK to have already eaten the treat and there is no need to feel desperate as there is always more for tomorrow.

P.S. This also works well on adults, ahem, husbands 🙂

Send me a message if you’re struggling feed your athlete or are worried about trying to feed with “Love & Limits”