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  • Dina Cohen

What's in YOUR Lunch?

by Dina Cohen, MS RDN CEDRD

Whether your child will be eating lunch that’s provided by school or he’ll be bringing his own lunch from home, you’ll be sending him off to school knowing that you’ve arranged for a way for him to fill his tummy midday. We’re generally pretty good at ensuring that kids don’t go hungry. Here’s the big question…can you say the same for yourself? Do you know what you’ll be having for lunch? Do you plow through your day without a thought as to how you’re going to re-fuel in middle? Will it be a granola bar you found at the bottom of your purse, ice coffee from the bagel store, or perhaps nothing at all? So many women put in all their effort to taking care of their families but find that the well dries up when comes to their own needs. I hear clients tell me about the time they spend making beautiful lunches for their children and husbands but find that they have no energy left to do the same for themselves. What comes next? They criticize themselves for their “horrible eating.”

How do we get around this? How can we take as good care of ourselves as we do of our children?

Before we dig into the solution, I’d like to clear up something that’s become a source of confusion. It’s that now-popular concept known as “intuitive eating”. It’s a sparkly term that’s been enthusiastically adopted in some circles, but it also leads to a lot of raised eyebrows. In case you haven’t heard about intuitive eating yet, the short version is that it is a non-diet approach to health and wellness that focuses on making food choices from internal cues (hunger and fullness) versus external rules. Many people have become huge fans of this approach but there are plenty of skeptics as well.  If you tell someone you’ve decided to eat intuitively, you might hear the following responses: “You mean you’re just eating whatever you want all day?” “Won’t you gain a ton of weight?” “How can that be healthy?” When someone is TRULY eating intuitively, she will likely eat well and maintain the weight that is healthiest for her, but there are some problems with how intuitive eating is being practiced. The first concern is that many people think they’re “doing intuitive eating” when they’re actually not. Practicing intuitive eating as it was intended to be practiced requires a lot of education and a lot of hard work. It’s a far cry from just “eating whatever you want.” The other issue is that with our busy lifestyles, true intuitive eating can be quite challenging to achieve.

As a dietitian who works with individuals with all kinds of eating challenges, I love the idea of intuitive eating, but I find that I actually prefer another model, one called the Satter Eating Competence Model (ecSatter). This model was developed by dietitian and social worker Ellyn Satter, and it’s the grown-up version of her Division of Responsibility model for feeding kids. I like of this model because it embraces the principles of intuitive eating yet provides more structure. People generally do better with structure. That doesn’t mean we need a lot of rigidity or strict eating plans to eat well, but it does mean that from a practical perspective, we are more successful at achieving nutritional balance when we implement some planning and routine into our meals. This is not a contradiction to intuitive eating, but it does place more emphasis on setting yourself up for success. Ellyn Satter puts it really well:

Structure is the supportive framework for taking care of yourself with food

Research demonstrates that people with higher eating competence scores do better nutritionally, have healthier body weights, better lab results, and are healthier emotionally and socially.  The four elements of eating competence are context, attitude, food acceptance, and internal regulation. Simply put, this means:

1. Plan ahead for meals and snacks. You do what it takes to ensure you have healthy meals and snacks available. You make your choices with nutrition in mind, but you don’t consider only nutrition when planning your menus - taste is a strong priority as well. You establish regular meal times and allow yourself time to eat.  Your eating is not haphazard.

2. Have a positive attitude toward food and eating.  Your thoughts about food aren’t dominated by anxiety or guilt. Your focus is on providing rather than depriving.

3. Be relaxed around food. You enjoy your meals and snacks and are pretty relaxed about your food in general. You eat a variety of foods. You aren’t afraid to try new things and are okay with eating something that isn’t your favorite food or isn’t particularly “healthy” if the situation calls for it.

4. Let your body guide you. You know what it feels like to be hungry and full and can arrive at meals hungry and eat until you are comfortably satisfied.

What does that mean for a woman who is busy with back-to-school, holiday prep, and perhaps back-to-work as well? It means you are as important as your children. You need lunch (and breakfast, and dinner!) just like they do. It means that if you don’t plan for it, it likely won’t happen. And if it does happen, it probably won’t happen in a way that’s as balanced and satisfying as you deserve. For best results, pretend you are one of your children. If you don’t have children, pretend you are in charge of a child for a week. How would you plan for that child to eat? For children to eat well, they need to be provided with a variety of nutrients at regular intervals. They need to know (roughly) when food will be made available and they need to be served foods from a few different food groups. You are no different. Don’t expect yourself to make quality, satisfying choices “intuitively” when you are rushed, tense, or burnt out. Your intuition and your exhaustion may be at odds with each other! Or your intuition and the contents of your fridge might not match up! By blending intuitive eating with planning, the ecSatter model can help support you in eating well without dieting.

As an illustration, you might prepare an appetizing, satisfying lunch for yourself either the night before or in the morning or at least know that you have the ingredients and time available to do so at lunchtime. This fulfills the “planning ahead” requirement. While you are preparing your meal, you focus on including nutritious foods but also make sure that they are prepared in a way that’s appetizing. Nutrition is important, but so is enjoyment. Make sure it tastes good. That’s “having a positive attitude.”  At lunchtime, you might find that you’re unusually hungry and you add something else to the meal that you’ve prepared. If you don’t have much of an appetite, you might not finish the meal. That’s “letting your body guide you.” If a friend surprises you with your favorite takeout because it’s your birthday, you are flexible and decide to eat that instead. That’s “being relaxed” instead of being rigid.

One of the happy side effects of being a competent eater is that you become a great role model for the people around you, especially the little ones. What you do packs a stronger punch than what you say. When you take the time to prepare meals for yourself that are balanced and appealing, and when you join the family in the nutritious meals you prepare for them, you can portray such powerful messages to them without saying a word! They can learn that it’s possible to have a responsible yet relaxed approach to food, that you feel grateful for the delicious food you provide for your family, that their needs matter to you…and that YOU matter to you.

Ready for lunch?

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