When thinking about how to encourage your children to eat healthier, the focus is usually on what they are eating. Are they eating too many sweets? Are they eating fruits and vegetables? Do they get enough protein?
But too often we miss the bigger picture.
Your role as a parent is much more important than just serving the right kinds of food. Your job is to help your children foster a healthy relationship with food.
Many Americans today do not have a healthy approach to eating, leading to serious medical and mental health concerns, such as obesity or eating disorders. Others of us just have a poor relationship with the food we eat. How do we avoid passing these pitfalls onto our children? How can we help them establish a life-long relationship with food that is positive, healthy, and sustainable? Believe it or not, these lessons can start as soon as your children first begin eating or can be learned as older children. The following tips can help you teach your child how to positively engage with food, setting them up for healthy eating habits throughout their lives.
1. Food is not bad
No food is bad food. Ice cream, chocolate, you name it. None of it is bad…it’s food. If we label food as bad, what does that say about us when we eat these “bad” foods? Our children should not be expected to eat a perfect diet. Yes, the goal should be for your child to eat a healthy diet, but there are always celebrations, birthday parties, or random days when junk food comes out. Labeling food as “good” or “bad” sets your children up for failure when they do eat these foods, as they inevitably will.
2. Encourage enjoyment of sweets/treats
Sweets and treats should be enjoyed in moderation. But when your children do have the opportunity to eat special food, encourage them to enjoy the experience and avoid any associated guilt. When my children come home from a birthday party and happily report the vastness of their sugar binge, I may cringe inside, but I respond, “I hope you enjoyed it,” “I bet it was delicious,” or “what a special treat.” When I’m with them and there is a special dessert, I encourage them to savor what they have; take small bites and chew slowly. It is easy to hastily shovel in dessert and ask for seconds. Help them enjoy different aspects of what they are eating. Ask them what flavors they taste or what textures they feel on their tongue. Teaching them to become connoisseurs can add to their enjoyment of food and help them feel satisfied with the portion they receive.
3. Be a role model for food exploration
If you want your children to try new foods, model this behavior! Most of us have at least one food that that is not a favorite. For me it’s eggplant. I eat almost every other vegetable at the store. Although it is tempting for me to never prepare eggplant, I try to incorporate it into our family meals every so often. This shows my children that there are foods that I do not love, but am willing to try a few bites. My expectation of them is the same one that I have for myself.
4. Teach your children to eat until they are full, not stuffed
When eating, there is a time delay between when our stomachs are full and when our brain tells us that we feel full. During this lag time, we continue to eat, which may lead to becoming overstuffed. Helping children decipher when to stop eating is an important and difficult lesson, but tapping into that innate sense of satiation is a crucial step for lifelong health. Many of us as adults may struggle with this ourselves and it is especially difficult when there is a delicious meal on the table. Talk with your children about finishing a meal when they are comfortably full as opposed to stopping when stuffed. These are two very different feelings. At meals, encourage your children to monitor how their tummies feel and determine if they are full enough. If there is really a favorite food on the table, let them know they can have the left-overs for lunch the next day and continue to savor their favorite foods.
5. Don’t use food as rewards, punishments, or as a method of stopping poor behavior
Food has three main functions: nutrition, social engagement, and emotional input. We need a certain amount of nutrients to survive, so we eat. We eat as a method of socially interacting with family and friends or during special occasions and holidays. Food also provides emotional input…we enjoy eating good food. Withholding food for poor behavior or offering it for good behavior places an importance on food that muddies the purpose of it. This includes pulling out snack food when a child is crying to stop a tantrum or provided as an activity to avoid boredom. In the short-term it may work to calm behaviors, but in the long-term, it incorrectly casts food in a role that is inappropriate.
Disclaimer: I do make a few exceptions to this rule. For example, sometimes, during the initiation of toilet training, a small treat can successfully motivate a child to use the potty. But it should be time-limited and faded out as soon as possible.
6. Get help and support if you need it
If you have an unhealthy relationship to food, get the support that you need so that you can feel confident in helping your children establish a healthy relationship with food. This is not easy, but helping yourself first will better equip you to help and support your children. Once you can complete the steps listed above, your children will more easily follow in your footsteps to a healthy outlook regarding mealtimes.