Hi Sofie, welcome to the village! We don’t often get to interview Belgian parent-preneurs so we’re especially delighted to have you! Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.
Hi everyone! I grew up in small town between the Flemish cities of Mechelen and Leuven. After my studies in communication, I moved back to my roots in Brussels. I live in Auderghem, together with my husband who’s from the Tunisian island Djerba and our little boy who is 3.5 years old now.
While I was pregnant, I retrained as a dietitian. Inspired by my son and my own experience, I help (expectant) parents raise healthy eaters and build a solid basis for lifelong nutritional well-being.
Long before you became a dietician, your career as a journalist revolved around health and well-being. What drew you to that field?
Honestly? I have no idea! Being passionate about health and well-being is part of who I am. I don’t know where it comes from and honestly, I’m more interested in exploring where this passion can bring me – and others. At an unconscious level, I think I really like to help people find what feels good for them, so they have the energy to achieve their life goals.
What triggered your decision to retrain as a dietician?
I like to eat, and during a very challenging period in my life, cooking became a sort of therapy. Touching food with my hands, mindfully cutting vegetables, smelling spices, and transforming ingredients into a dish that nurtures all the senses: it really helped me to feel grounded, stay emotionally sane, and nourish myself in demanding circumstances.
At a certain point, I felt that I also wanted to follow my heart in my professional life. And so retraining as a dietician was a natural step. I wanted to help others the same way food had helped me, and I knew I needed to have the right base.
“IF I WANT MY CHILD TO BE ABLE TO MAKE BALANCED FOOD CHOICES IN LATER LIFE, I SHOULD LET HIM TASTE EVERYTHING, WITHOUT STRICT RESTRICTIONS.”
Was it your own pregnancy, and the birth of your son, that helped you decide to focus on perinatal and family nutrition and habits?
Definitely! My matrescence – a difficult word for a mother’s birth – turned me into a dietitian with an intergenerational vision. During my pregnancy, I was very aware of the fact that what I ate was having a huge impact on the development of my unborn baby. Ironically, my nausea made it tough to follow the recommended guidelines. Finding ways to transform my so-called unhealthy cravings into nourishing foods was one of the solutions.
Also after giving birth, I felt there was a gap between the expectations we have, and what is realistically possible for families of a newborn when it comes to food. I wanted to support mothers in choosing healing foods for themselves, their breastfeeding, and their baby – but with a very practical, down-to-earth approach.
Another area I’m passionate about is the way we raise and feed our children in a world where processed foods are ultra-available. When my son was born, I wanted to become the healthiest version of myself. Until I understood that if I want my child to be able to make balanced food choices in later life, I should let him taste everything, without strict restrictions, feelings of guilt, or myths around certain foods.
“THE GREATEST GIFT OF A MULTICULTURAL FAMILY IS THAT I CAN EASILY STEP OUT OF SOCIETAL EXPECTATIONS…”
You talk about the importance of the ‘first 1000 days’ – when does this start and why is it so special? What are the challenges and opportunities during this period?
The first 1000 days is the time from conception to a child’s second birthday. During this period, the foundations of your child’s brain, body, and emotions are established. It’s no secret that this window of opportunity has a huge impact on the further development of our children.
The first 1000 days is a very valuable and evidence-based concept, but it can also make parents extra vulnerable: we know it’s a crucial period and we want to give it our all, but how? We often lack our traditional village and support. We’re tired, often insecure, and can barely think as we give our baby unlimited access to our body, time, and energy. I want to give young families nutritional support that makes life easier in this unique period, not harder.
Like many people reading this, your own family is multicultural – you’re Belgian and your husband is Tunisian. What challenges and gifts does combining two cultures bring?
The greatest gift of a multicultural family is that I can easily step out of societal expectations because I can see how closely these are bound to place and time. For example, my sister-in-law, who just gave birth, is spending 40 days with her own mother who will feed and take care of her while she feeds and takes care of her baby.
The culture clash with Europe is huge: we live in big cities but our village is lost. And although our Western world brings advantages, those advantages can be meaningless if we can’t think outside the boundaries and challenges our society often puts us. This is especially the case for mothers.
In my own family, our greatest challenge is raising our son with different cultural habits and different views on education. But if we dig deeper and discover the values and morals behind those habits, we find each other.
Many of us have baggage from our own upbringing when it comes to beliefs or habits with food. How can we shed baggage that doesn’t serve us?
When we teach our children about the world, what we teach is never an absolute truth. What we transmit comes from our own education, along with other truths we discovered along the way. When we teach our children about food, we might be passing on internalised coping strategies like ‘here’s a cookie’ when you are hurt. Or we say things like ‘no dessert until you eat your veggies’, ‘don’t eat too much candy’ or ‘sugar is bad for you’.
All these ‘food rules’ can be passed on from one generation to another, and they often come with good intentions. However, they can lead to unwanted outcomes like more emotional eating, overeating, and shame.
“[BY] EATING TOGETHER [THE] FOCUS ALSO SHIFTS FROM FOOD TO FAMILY, FROM EATING TO TOGETHERNESS.”
When our own food rules match with the current diet culture, we have the tendency to consider them as truths. But if we can recognise those internalised rules as the cultural rules they actually are, we see it’s possible to change them, and as result, improve our relationship with food.
So our efforts to raise healthy eaters can be healing for us too?
Yes, absolutely. Taking myself as an example, if I’m triggered by the fact that my son asks me for candy, I try to see this as an opportunity to work around my own issues with candy. Why I am so upset about this? Where does it come from? What’s my personal relationship with candy? Which of my own food rules are triggered?
If I can find peace with the foods that trigger me, my son can find peace with them too – meaning I lower the chances of him overeating candy, feels guilty while eating it, or being obsessed with it.
Becoming aware of your own diet patterns, as well as those of your partner, is the first step in this process.
Do you think it’s important for a couple to discuss their approach to family eating?
I think becoming aware of the long-term goals and discussing them is very important. Ideally, the deeper motivation behind those goals will be aligned within a couple. However, even when your main goals are the same, the path to achieving them can often be a point of discussion. Communication is crucial and can be a challenge – especially when our inner food police comes up in the discussion.
For example, the biggest challenge my husband and I have food-wise, is how to lower the emotional load on processed foods. How can we make these foods less special than they look? How can we trust that our son will, one day, eat what we eat if we lead by example? What if we stop preaching about ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ foods?
From what I know, restricting processed foods is not the answer. In our home, we discuss this and try to not label our chosen foods as good or bad. And we try to not say ‘no’ to certain foods in a way that could be harmful.
How important do you believe it is for families to eat together? What about eating the same thing?
Eating together is really helpful because we can stop preaching and lead by example. The focus also shifts from food to family, from eating to togetherness. The basic idea is that your child learns a lot from you as a role model, also at the table.
But the fact that I find eating together important does not mean I impose family dinners. If you don’t have the time or mental space to organise a moment where you can all eat together, don’t do it. Do what works for you!
“I ALSO HELP MOTHERS FIND PEACE WITH THEIR NEW BODY, FOCUSING ON ‘HEALTH GAIN’ RATHER THAN ON WEIGHT LOSS.”
Also, I think that every parent should feel free to eat how they like. Children can – in my experience – understand that different caregivers have different food habits. We’re aiming to be role models, and fake role modelling is not a solution. My husband and I don’t really eat the same things and we don’t expect each other to do so. For example, our breakfast habits are very different. My son knows who likes what and can pick what he likes from what we both offer. If one of us eats breakfast alone with our son, we serve what either of us eats while also taking into account his preferences.
What are some of the most common reasons families come to you for support?
Many of my patients follow a vegetarian or vegan diet and want to check if they’re eating well and meeting their body’s needs. I also help mothers find peace with their new body, focusing on ‘health gain’ rather than on weight loss – if we only focus on weight loss, we tend to talk more negatively about our bodies or about certain foods, which also has an impact on our children.
Last but not least, I see a lot of families worried about the fact that their children eat too little or only want to eat the same thing(s), with little variety. A lot of these problems get resolved when we can give back some of the responsibility of eating – how much and if – to the child.
Children know exactly what they need at birth and they’re great at listening to their tummies. How do we maintain their natural hunger and satiety in a world of plenty? How do we raise healthy eaters?
What are some of your own earliest food memories, and what are your own favourite healthy and fast/simple family meals or snacks now as an adult?
I guess my earliest memories go back to Portugal, where my (Belgian) grandparents lived: grilled fish, ice lollies, Cornflakes, white bread with jam and omelette with fresh tomatoes. Life was pure, simple and free from food police.
These days, I really like a mezze-style way of cooking and mix flavours from all corners of the world. For recipes, I really rely on The Green Kitchen Stories and the Belgian-based blog Karola’s Kitchen (in Dutch). I like vegetables, plant-based or oriental meatballs, vegetarian lasagna, meal soups, fish with fries, and couscous.
I try to pimp these meals with as many plants and spices as I can, for example with a pesto sauce or hummus. For snacks, I really make it easy for myself: fresh or dried fruits, yoghurt with honey, banana bread, or a chocolate pudding with avocado.
The good things in life can also be very easy!
If you feel that Sofie De Niet could help you or your family and you would like to know more, call or text Sofie (0496 612 866) or arrange a free 30-minute video call.
Sofie offers personal nutrition counselling through online consultations or in Brussels at Healing Stories and – in collaboration with Wheel of Care – at Huis van het Kind Nieuwland.
Check Sofie’s website www.sofiedeniet.be for more information and workshops.