My son Jeremy and his grade-five teacher had a personality clash. They just didn’t get along. I heard Jeremy’s complaints — but I also saw another reaction. After a stressful day at school, my 10-year-old would come home and head straight for the kitchen — cookies and muffins if I had some handy, platefuls of buttered toast if I didn’t.
Many of us turn to food for comfort and calming, says dietitian Elizabeth Frank of the South Shore Healthy Diet and Nutrition Services in Lunenburg, NS. “Often it’s not so much the food as the associations. We turn to the foods our mothers gave us to make us feel better when we were sick, or the foods we enjoyed during happy times.” But biochemistry plays a part too, she adds. “Carbohydrates are calming; they actually affect your brain and make you feel better.” So it’s no surprise that many of our favour-ite comfort foods are easy-to-eat carbohydrates, such as mashed potatoes or brownies topped with ice cream.
The preteen years are often a time when kids eat for comfort. Says Frank: “Besides pressures at school, preteens are going through a lot of hormonal changes. Premenstrual food cravings are a fact of life for many women, and preteen girls are starting to experience those — so they want chocolate, sweets and salty snacks. And as they get more independent, kids want to manage stress by themselves, without turning to parents for help, and this is one way of doing it.”
In addition, preteens pick up on the messages in the media that processed snack foods are fun and part of every kid’s social life.
While it may be a natural impulse, Frank points out that comfort eating is at the root of many weight problems. “The foods tend to be high in fat, salt, sugar and carbohydrates, without much nutritional value. Often they’re consumed mindlessly — a child can easily consume a whole bag of potato chips while watching TV and not even realize how much he’s eaten.”
With that in mind, Frank suggests parents try these tactics:
• Don’t make comfort eating a battle. You’ll only increase stress, and your child will tend to eat more, not less.
• Have lots of prepared, ready-to-eat healthy foods on hand. If it’s easy to just grab and eat, they’re more likely to try it.
• Pick foods that combine the soothing powers of carbs with some nutritional benefits: popcorn, whole-grain crackers or pretzels, muffins, fruits and vegetables.
• Dairy products (yogurt, milk pudding) are comforting and add calcium, which is often deficient in preteen diets. A bowl of cereal with milk can be a healthy pick too.
At the same time, you’ll want to give your child some new — and healthier — ways to handle stress. Exercise is one of the best options, says Frank. Taking the dog for a walk or shooting a few hoops in the backyard will put most kids in a better mood. If you sense she needs to talk, try joining her on that walk — or take her for a drive in the car, something that seems to help reticent kids open up.
“Kids don’t see the long-term effects of getting into the habit of eating for comfort,” Frank adds. “So it’s up to parents to involve them in finding new strategies.”
Preparing food together can be fun for both parents and children, and another way to relieve stress. Involving your preteen in planning and preparing his own snacks gives you a chance to talk about food choices too. If you take some time on the weekend to create a batch of muffins or mini-calzones, these can be kept in the freezer to last all week.