A negative relationship with food can lead to a lifelong struggle with body, weight, and diets. As a parent, you can help your kids foster an easy, healthy relationship with food with these dietitian approved tips.
So many adults I know either have or have had a disordered relationship with food, and it's not hard to see why. Our society puts thinness on a pedestal and equates a small body with health. A preoccupation with food and body has led many of us to struggle with guilt and anxiety around food for years or even decades, and we want better for our kids. We want them to have an easy-going attitude toward food where making the choice of what to eat for lunch is just that - a simple choice that takes a split second and there is no guilt or agonizing over calories.
And they can absolutely have that - after all, nobody is born with a disordered relationship with food. It's learned. As parents, we have a lot of influence over the way our kids view food and their bodies, and it's our job to help foster a healthy relationship with food from the start.
What Causes a Poor Relationship With Food?
When we are babies, food is sustenance, nothing else. We're naturally born with the ability to regulate our eating based on hunger and fullness. As we grow and learn, our environments have a big impact on how our relationship with food evolves - and a big part of that is parents or primary caregivers. Attitudes, actions and words of parents can influence how children view food, whether consciously or not. Things like frequently making negative comments about their body (or their child's), enforcing a 'clean your plate' rule, and using food as a reward or punishment can all have a negative impact on a child's relationship with food, and it can have a lifelong impact. But the good news is, as a parent or caregiver, you can also have a positive impact on a child's relationship with food!
Here's how we can help our kids develop a healthy relationship with food for a lifetime of stress-free eating.
1. Start When They're Young
Babies are born eating intuitively, so why not capitalize on that and help them maintain that innate pattern of eating instead of having to reteach those skills? Help babies maintain trust in their bodies' hunger and fullness cues by taking a responsive feeding approach, such as baby led weaning, when starting solids. You can feed responsively if you're feeding purees, too. The main point is to watch baby's cues and stop feeding when they show signs of being full and satisfied instead of forcing them to finish their portion of food if they are not hungry.
If you want to learn more about feeding babies to be intuitive eaters, I highly recommend the book Born to Eat.
2. Respect Their Hunger Levels (Avoid Pushing Food)
While we mean well when we say things like, "Take three more bites!" we're really overriding our children's natural hunger and fullness cues by either pushing food on them or not allowing them to have more food. Kids' appetites vary greatly from meal to meal and day to day, and we need to help them develop trust in their own internal hunger and fullness cues. Avoid the 'clean your plate' rule, try not to push food when kids say they're full, and allow seconds or even thirds if kids are still hungry.
I know what you're thinking. "But my kid needs to eat something nutritious!" Respecting hunger levels does NOT mean allowing them to eat snacks freely only to ignore their dinner later. Look at it like this: As parents, we decide what food to serve and when (try to include at least one food you know your child likes), and they decide how much to eat at each occasion. You'll start to notice that even if they don't eat great at a couple of meals, they'll probably make up for it at another meal soon. You can also encourage children to notice how their bellies feel when they are hungry or full. By allowing our kids to control how much they eat, we can help them feel natural hunger and fullness and practice listening to their bodies.
3. Don't Label Foods As 'Good' Or 'Bad'
As a dietitian, I preach that all foods can fit within a healthy diet. That doesn't mean I want my kid to eat M&Ms for breakfast every day, but there is a time and place for all foods. Kids (and everyone else) shouldn't be made to feel guilty for enjoying a less nutritious food like a donut or a cupcake. Nor should they be praised for eating their vegetables (although we certainly want them to!). We want kids to know that every food can be allowed in moderation. Food has no moral value, and labeling certain foods as 'bad' or 'off limits' creates a 'forbidden fruit' complex and can lead to serious food issues like hiding food and eating in secret when taken to an extreme, or even just overeating when we do allow that food 'just this once'. Instead of saying things like "we can't eat cookies, they have too much sugar," or "you have to eat your broccoli because it's good for you," try focusing on what foods can do for our kids, for example, "eating fish makes our brains smart," and "baking cookies together is such a fun treat, isn't it?"
4. Avoid Using Food As Rewards
If you find yourself begging your kids to eat their vegetables, saying, "If you eat your green beans you can have some ice cream" or taking away dessert because of bad behavior, stop. Food given as a reward (or withheld as punishment) leads kids to connect certain food to emotions, seeing them as good or bad. It also lets them know that some foods are more desirable than others, and that they should expect certain foods when they do something well. This undermines the healthy relationship with food you're trying to build. Try rewarding kids with stickers or small toys, play dates with friends, quality time with you, or a fun outing they enjoy. Of course, that doesn't mean you have to stop celebrating special occasions, such as birthdays and holidays, with treats!
5. Set a Good Example
Kids are constantly watching and learning from us as parents, and they'll pick up on the way we speak about our bodies and other peoples' bodies. If they see mom poking and pinching her belly in the mirror, guess what they're going to do? Avoid talking negatively about your own body and about others. Instead, actively celebrate what our bodies can do, pointing out how strong arms let you pick up your child and swing her around, or her hands help her pet her dog.
6. Eat Meals Together
Just like kids will pick up on our attitudes toward our bodies, they will also observe and imitate our behaviors toward food. Give your child every opportunity to see how the family enjoys a meal together without guilt or anxiety, how it is a time for conversation and enjoy each others' company. Make family mealtimes fun and relaxing. Let your kids see you enjoy nutritious foods like fruit for a snack some days, while equally enjoying a piece of cake at a birthday party. If you are relaxed around food, your child will be more relaxed around food as well.
7. Let Kids Participate In Food Prep
Expose your kids to a variety of foods, not just on the plate, but throughout the day. Bring them to the grocery store with you to see and pick out different foods. Let them choose part of dinner ("should we have sweet potatoes or regular potatoes tonight?") and stand at the counter and help you prepare it. Involving kids in the whole process gives them a sense of control and independence, while also learning about different foods. They'll also be more likely to eat something they helped prepare! (I love this Kitchen Helper for little ones. We've been using it daily with my toddler - she pushes it over to the counter to 'stir stir stir'.)
Bottom line: Fostering a good relationship with food and body in our kids is one of the most important things we can do to arm them against a culture that values thinness and eating the least over everything else. It can set a lifelong foundation for healthy habits and eating without fear or guilt. Isn't that what we all want for our kids? I know it's what I want for my girls!