Children are like sponges – they soak in almost everything around them and then repeat the words they hear, mimic the actions they see, and even adapt to the behavioral patterns that they are around the most. Parents have one of the strongest influences on children. It is our job, as parents, to model healthy behaviors and teach our kids about food but, when we live in a world of labels, eating disorders, diets, skinny jeans, and body shaming, it can be difficult to teach kids about food. Modeling a healthy relationship with food and nutrition can be difficult for parents when we often find ourselves confused about what to eat in this toxic, diet-obsessed culture. The goal is to teach a positive, open-minded approach to food while giving kids options to choose their own food and to learn how to eat in a way that works for their bodies.

Lesson #1: Do not label food as “good” or “bad”

Oftentimes, parents will label sugary, fried, and salty foods–such as fries, donuts, cookies and Cheetos–as “bad” and fruits and vegetables as “good,” which can create a judgmental picture of food in your child’s head. Attaching moral value (i.e., good and bad) to different types of food can make children anxious about their eating habits and the food they enjoy, and can even result in behavior like sneaking food or hiding to eat something they enjoy. Create an environment where your children are free to explore all kinds of food, joyfully experiment with new tastes and textures, and build a positive relationship with food. 

Lesson #2: Give your kids options

Introduce your kids to a variety of foods, mixing old standby recipes and meals with new things to try. For children in toddlerhood on, they should be in charge of whether they eat something and how much. Putting a variety of food on the table every night and allowing kids to choose for themselves gives them a sense of independence while allowing them to discover what they like.

Lesson #3: Get them involved

Young kids love to learn, get their hands dirty, and help their parents. Cooking and baking is a great way to teach kids how a meal is made while allowing them to tap into their creative side and build positive memories and experiences of family and food. You can teach them about each ingredient throughout the process and these fun activities can inspire them to want to be involved in family meals and learn skills that will help them prepare meals throughout their lives. Another great way to get kids involved is to plant a vegetable or an herb garden with them. They can learn about each herb or vegetable while learning how plants grow.

Lesson #4: Model a healthy relationship with food

Kids will look to you to learn how to behave. And they see and absorb more than we give them credit for. Parents who are diet-obsessed can pass those hang-ups about food and their bodies onto their children. So, it’s important to be mindful of how you talk about food, nutrition, and your body in front of your kids. That means refraining from food moralizing, criticizing your own eating habits or those of others, and modeling the same joyous and adventurous attitude toward eating you hope to instill in your children. (As a bonus, this can do wonders for your own relationship with food!)

Lesson #5: Trust them to eat

The vast majority of babies are born knowing how to eat intuitively. They eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Unfortunately, this instinct can become dulled as children grow, as parents strike bargains to eat just one more pea, insist they finish their dinner even if they’re full, and refuse them food when they claim to be hungry. So, to help your child build a strong, healthy relationship with food, it’s important to trust them. As the parent, you are in charge of what, when, and where your child eats, but children should be in charge of how much and if they eat. If your child says they’re full, allow them to stop eating. And if they say they’re still hungry after dinner, allow them to have more. By showing trust in your child to feed themselves, you’re teaching them that their body’s cues are worth trusting and ensuring they don’t lose touch with those important hunger and fullness signals. 

Information cited on Ellen Satter’s Division of Responsibility

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