Parents have the responsibility and privilege to intentionally make their homes a refuge from diet culture. Abandoning food rules helps foster an environment in which children can develop a positive relationship with food.
We can’t entirely protect our children from the larger culture. It is undeniable that when they head off to school, make friends, and eventually leave home as young adults, they will be exposed to diet culture. This can look many different ways, including:
- School nutrition lessons that categorize food as “good” and “bad”.
- Encountering lifestyle and celebrity magazines that promote fad diets.
- Following social media profiles that heavily photoshop their images, don’t have diverse body representation, or promote diet and “detox” products.
- Observing the disordered eating behaviors of friends – and even the friends’ parents – and following suit. While this typically starts from the desire to fit in, it eventually becomes an ingrained habit or coping mechanism. Some disordered eating patterns that are easily observable include: measuring or counting food; purging behaviors, including self-induced vomiting, over-exercising, and laxative use; active body-checking; and consistent negative or envious body image statements.
The result of this exposure is your child internalizing those messages related to the morality of food and the superiority of thin bodies. This can ultimately contribute to eating disorders or a difficult relationship with food and their body.
While this can feel very scary, there is something encouraging as well. You might not be able to prevent your child from experiencing the harshness of our world, but you can bolster them up and help them to build resiliency against it. Resilience requires two main actions: providing education and modeling behavior.
Education on what a positive relationship with food looks like—for you and your child!
A big piece of this work is unlearning; unlearning messaging related to health, beauty standards, measures of worthiness, and more.
Include children in making food choices
Those who are attempting to learn how to feed their families from an intuitive, non-diet perspective will often be directed to Ellyn Satter’s model of Division of Responsibility:
When you follow the division of responsibility in feeding (sDOR), your child will become and remain capable with eating. The division of responsibility in feeding (sDOR) encourages you to take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding and let your child determine how much and whether to eat of what you provide. The division of responsibility in feeding applies at every stage in your child’s growing-up years, from infancy through the early years through adolescence. sDOR says to feed your baby on demand, letting him determine the timing and tempo of feeding. As he develops and becomes more regular in his eating patterns, you gradually take on responsibility for when and where to feed. Most children are ready to join in with the meals-plus-snacks routine of family meals by the end of the first year or the beginning of the second year. After that, parents need to maintain the structure of family meals and sit-down snacks throughout the growing-up years. When you do your jobs with feeding, your child will do his with eating. (Ellyn Satter Institute, Division of Responsibility in Feeding)
This model of eating helps parents relax about whether their child eats “enough” or “too much.” By setting the parameters of what foods are available for any meal, parents help their children tune into their signals of hunger and fullness. Children also learn to try new foods (or not) without pressure. As with any eating model, however, parents can pass along any disordered eating habits they themselves have. If parents haven’t done the work to unlearn diet culture within themselves, how will they be able to choose what foods are available from an all-foods-fit point of view? Can we really promote a healthful relationship with food if the person in charge of providing the food has disordered eating? These are important questions, and luckily there are some professionals who use the Ellyn Satter model and also focus on guiding parents and caretakers through their own healing in regards to their relationship with food and their body.
For those of us not using this model though, it still illustrates an important point: children should be included in determining what food options are available in the house. This doesn’t mean that it’s a free-for-all, or that you as the parent are no longer in charge. Boundaries and expectations should be set, such as explaining to your child why it might not be such a great idea to eat candy and only candy all day every day. In fact, if you did allow your child to do that and did not judge them or make any off-color commentary about the behavior, they would probably stop doing it on their own after a few too many tummy aches. If this physical discomfort does not stop your child from engaging with the behavior, then it’s time to get curious. Perhaps your child is using food to cope with stressors. This might mean that it’s time to have a conversation about some of the emotional struggles your child might be facing.
In summation, how our child behaves around food isn’t about good or bad; it’s information. When we include children in the food-choice process and give them autonomy over their bodies, we are teaching them that they can trust what they need, building the capacity for a positive relationship with food and their bodies. This is a skill that reaches far beyond your child’s relationship with food.
Make unlearning diet culture a family affair
Whenever possible, everyone in the home should be on the same page in regards to the appropriate and inappropriate ways to speak about food and bodies. This holds true whether it’s commentary regarding ourselves or about others. A hard-and-fast norm for your home might look like:
- Making it a point to never offer unsolicited—or even solicited!—opinions or commentary on someone else’s food choices or body.
- Speaking about all foods in a neutral way; not moralizing food choices.
- Expressing appreciation for all kinds of body sizes and shapes.
- Discussing body shame openly; normalizing conversations about food, body, and other distressing topics.
Creating a positive relationship with food for the family and within the household is often dependent on how committed parents and caretakers are to rejecting diet culture themselves. That doesn’t mean you need to be perfect. We all have things to continually work through, and revisit, but this is what makes the real difference.
You can’t control everything that your child will encounter outside of the home. They are going to be exposed to it all. But if you can be a safe harbor, someone that they can come to when they have questions about diets and body size, when they hear things that contradict the food-freedom model that you modeled to them and they are curious, rather than harmed. This matters in whether or not your child grows up with a positive relationship with food and their bodies.
Practically, this means internalizing all of the education discussed above, and even more important, modeling it. This means discussing foods in a neutral way; being clear about the value of all bodies of all shapes and sizes; refraining from body checking or making negative body comments about you or those around you. Be the person that, when your child comes home from school after hearing one of their friends talk about the Keto diet, they feel comfortable asking you about it.
Some questions might include:
- We eat all kinds of foods in our home, why don’t they?
- Why does my friend think being fat is bad?
- Why does my friend think certain foods are bad?
You are capable of answering these questions, and you have built a foundation of food peace. You have created a space where they can be confused and ask questions, and understand that not everyone in this world operates the same way or from the same sets of values. This is the work that helps your children to stay resilient against diet culture.
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