There are a few things that Sarah Ockwell-Smith is passionately against. One is stickers – when used to reward children for ‘eating up’ their meals. Another is age restrictions on certain foods. Raising children who are really ‘good eaters’, she argues, is not about encouraging them to finish everything on their plates or dictating what they should eat. It’s about teaching them how to listen to their bodies.

Ockwell-Smith is a leader in gentle parenting, an approach that encourages parents to follow their children’s instincts rather than imposing regimes on them. She is the author of nine books, the first of which, BabyCalm: A Guide for Calmer Babies and Happier Parents, came as a response to the rising popularity of sleep training, in particular the ‘cry-it-out’ method promoted by the author Gina Ford, which teaches parents to leave their children to cry so they can learn to settle themselves and sleep through the night. Ockwell argues that this leads to unnecessary stress, can damage a child’s bond with their parents and potentially impact on their development. Instead, she suggests parents are led by their babies, allowing them to feed or cuddle whenever they need to. Her latest book, The Gentle Eating Book, uses these principles in the context of food.

Healthy eating for children is currently a popular topic in the media. According to the government, on average children consume three times more sugar than is recommended, around half of which comes from unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks. Childhood obesity is increasing, and a reported rise in teeth extractions among under-18s is being blamed on sugary food and drink.

On the surface then, it might make sense to restrict access to these foods, and this is being done through a variety of channels. One campaign, launched by Public Health England in January this year, recommends that parents give their children a maximum of two 100-calorie snacks per day. Schools are advised not to provide more than two portions of deep-fried food each week. Recently, some supermarkets have imposed a ban on the sale of highly caffeinated energy drinks to children under the age of 16. However, these measures, Ockwell-Smith argues, are misguided and potentially damaging.

“What parents don’t realise is that the more they restrict when their child is younger, the more likely the child is to go crazy when they are older because they don’t know how to self-regulate,” she says.

“The whole ethos of gentle parenting is to trust the child and give the child more autonomy to do things more naturally,” she adds. “If you use baby-led weaning, so not making a baby eat puréed food off a spoon, you see how easily babies self-regulate.”

An important part of teaching children to self-regulate is understanding eating habits from an evolutionary perspective. Ockwell-Smith argues that a preference for sweet foods in young children is one way Nature has protected them from being poisoned, because toxic foods tend to be bitter. In the same way, refusing to eat unfamiliar foods could have saved our distant ancestors from snacking on something inedible when they were toddlers. From this angle, ‘picky eaters’ are not seen as negative, but as having a natural response to their environment.

Allowing children to follow their instincts means learning to recognise and act upon hunger cues, Ockwell-Smith writes. This means eating when hungry, not for the sake of eating, and understanding what makes them hungry. She suggests that should not be associated with emotion. To this end, we should avoid anthropomorphising food, not describing it as ‘naughty’ or ‘good’. Her advice even extends to using food as terms of endearment, like ‘honey’, ‘pumpkin’ or ‘cupcake’. “If you’re calling children something like ‘cupcake’, they are going to subconsciously associate food with feeling good,” Ockwell-Smith says. When food becomes emotional, it is no longer mindful, and it can risk being used as an emotional prop.

The biggest thing that this approach conflicts with is the idea of sharing a meal and sitting around a table enjoying it together. “It’s important, but it’s at odds with whether their children are hungry or not,” Ockwell-Smith says. “Say your child is hungry but it’s only 4pm, and dinner’s not until 6pm. Really, it’s better to give them their dinner at 4pm than to make them wait, because you’re getting the social side of things but they’re not learning about hunger.”

An integral part of Ockwell-Smith’s advice is self-reflection. She says she still struggles with feelings of guilt if she doesn’t finish everything on her plate, and finds it hard to regulate her eating. “I know where my food issues stem from,” she writes in The Gentle Eating Book, “but they are so hard to overcome.” That’s why, before even thinking about how to encourage mindful eating in your children, you have to start with yourself, she says.

Problems can range from binge-eating to orthorexia – an unhealthy obsession with otherwise healthy eating. “I work with a lot of parents who are into natural and green things, and I would say a lot of their attitude to eating is psychologically unhealthy because of their worries about organic, not having refined sugar, not having processed cereals, so I think you have to strike a balance,” Ockwell-Smith says. “Prohibiting foods that contain these things isn’t going to raise a child with healthy eating habits. They will most likely develop orthorexia, or when they are older they might completely rebel and eat fast food.”

It’s difficult not to take food personally, and parents often feel judged on their children’s appetite, Ockwell-Smith says. She uses the example of her first child, who for the first year of his life polished off everything he was given with gusto. “I felt like a good mum,” she says – but things quickly changed. “Around two months after his first birthday, my ‘good eater’ son pretty much stopped eating. Foods he had previously wolfed down were left untouched, met with grimaces and tears.” The result was a knock in her confidence. “I felt like a complete failure. Each day I felt as if I was failing my son, failing to keep him healthy, failing to provide him with the nutrients he needed to grow big and healthy.”

The answer, she discovered, was to relax. “I educated myself about eating in early childhood. Once I understood his eating, or rather lack of it, I could relax, which was possibly the most powerful thing I did.”

In the end, learning to relax is an integral part to raising a child with a ‘healthy’ appetite, Ockwell-Smith says. “In order to trust children, you have to trust yourself, and as children we were all taught we couldn’t be trusted. There’s so much we have to undo from our own upbringing. I can’t self-regulate, so how can I teach my children to? But they do.”

The Gentle Eating Book is published by Piatkus.

Marianne Brown is Deputy Editor of Resurgence & Ecologist.