In honor of National Children’s Health Day, let’s take a look at food and family. Here are tips for promoting a positive relationship with food in children.
There’s no doubt about it: parents want to raise happy, healthy children. Our culture, however, makes it a challenge to help children have a positive relationship with food. Between pervasive diet advertisements and the common food moralizing that we hear, it can be difficult to teach our children to view food in a neutral way. Our own experiences with food and body image also heavily impact how we interact with food around children, making even our own actions and behavior subject to scrutiny and potentially damaging to our children’s relationship with food.
So how can we be sure that our children grow up with a positive or neutral relationship with food? What can we as parents do to build resiliency against the diet culture that our children will inevitably encounter in the world? And how can we as parents do our own work to ensure that the cycle of diet culture ends with us?
Model a Positive Relationship With Food
I distinctly remember my mom embarking on a restrictive diet and vigorous exercise program when I was in grade school. I picked up on her worry about her weight, which hit me especially hard as a child who was consistently larger than many of my peers. I internalized her message that having a larger body was wrong and something to be ashamed of and managed. This impacted my relationship with food and my body well into adulthood.
To be fair to my mom, she was doing the best she could with the information she had. Her mother had worried about my mom’s appearance. The early 1980s were the heyday of aerobics, thanks to Jane Fonda. Her ideas around body image and food were influenced by her family and our culture’s emphasis on a body of a certain size and shape.
For parents today, more resources and role models are available to help develop a healthy relationship with food. Children model what they see and hear. Parents who struggle with having a healthy relationship with food and their bodies might find it difficult to model that for their children, and that’s okay. Although body positivity is great, many of us start with body neutrality and not seeing our bodies as an enemy. It’s a perfectly fine place to start.
The important thing to remember is that just as you can transmit body negativity, you can also transmit body neutrality. Even without speaking, how you regard your body will influence your child’s perceptions about “good” bodies, and how their own bodies compare to this standard. By doing our own internal work, we set the tone for the household: all bodies are good bodies, even if we don’t feel that way all of the time.
The following tips are also places where you as a parent can improve and dismantle your own relationship with food.
Avoid Using Food as a Reward or Punishment
“You can’t have dessert until you finish your dinner.”
“If you behave you can have a cookie.”
Using food as a reward or punishment is tempting. The problem with using food in this way is that certain foods are elevated, while other foods become a chore. Children see the reward foods as more desirable and the chore foods as something to be avoided. Non-food rewards like special activities or a day out with a parent can be just as effective.
This also avoids putting foods into “good” and “bad” categories, a moralizing that often carries over into a child’s relationship with food and can have a huge influence on the foods they feel safe eating.
Let Go of Finishing the Plate
Many of us grew up with the idea that we always had to finish our plates at family mealtimes. The problem with that, though, is that children learn to ignore their internal signals of fullness. Instead of being able to explore and enjoy the foods in front of them, children feel like they need to eat everything on their plate, often to get to dessert.
It can be scary to let go of how much children eat. Children are inherent intuitive eaters, though. They know when they are hungry and when they are full. They might gravitate toward some foods more than others, and in that case you can explore more foods together.
Note: Although some picky eating is common, extremely picky eating that persists for several months or more could be a sign of disordered eating. Parents who have concerns about their child’s eating patterns should consult a pediatrician or another health professional.
Prioritize Family Meals
Family meals are a protective factor against disordered eating, according to a 2017 review of research. A protective factor is something that helps lower the risk of developing an eating disorder. Planning family meals with busy schedules can feel impossible, and some days it might be. Try to eat together as often as possible, though. Take the time to enjoy each other’s company, try new foods, and even cook together.
Family meals are essential for several reasons: it normalizes eating and eating together, it’s an opportunity to model intuitive eating, and it builds family relationships. Even ordering food to enjoy together can be a positive family experience.
Be Weight Neutral With Children
A 15-year study of adolescents showed that weight-based teasing and bullying impacted people well into adulthood. Teasing and bullying from family members was just as hurtful, if not more so, than teasing from peers. Children and teens in higher-weight bodies may struggle with self-esteem and depression due to that teasing.
Rather than focusing on a child’s size, which can (and will) change over time, try to be neutral. Note the diversity of bodies and how they naturally come in different shapes and sizes. Encourage children to eat a variety of foods, and encourage them to do physical activities that bring them joy. Martial arts, dancing, basketball, and more can all be fun activities, and children will naturally gravitate to what’s fun for them.
Using these strategies might feel unnatural at first. With time, though, parents and children can enjoy food and activities together, finding the value in building a positive relationship with food.