How Can I Make Sure My Kid Has a Healthy Relationship With Food?
Start by looking at your own beliefs and behaviours.
Feeding kids can be hard — for all the usual reasons (you’re tired and overworked, the kids are learning and growing and go through super picky stages), but it can be even harder if you, as a parent, have unresolved or negative associations about food and eating in general.
Research has shown us that parents play a huge role in shaping body image in their kids, both by how they talk to their kids, but also by engaging in negative self-talk. We also know that kids can be quite susceptible to messages about weight. A study conducted by the National Initiative for Eating Disorders found that between 12 to 30 percent of girls and 9 to 25 percent of boys aged 10-14 had dieted to lose weight, and the incidence of eating disorders in kids is estimated to be 2 to 4 times greater than that of Type 2 Diabetes.
Many people may never even realize the extent of issues they have with food and eating, if it wasn’t for having kids. Children are the ultimate mirror; they reflect our own issues, show us what we can shine at, and on the flip side, reveal our darkest attributes. In the best scenario, they force our hand, allowing us to acknowledge and trade the limiting or negative beliefs we were raised with for new, updated and body-positive realizations that will better serve them.
Here are some strategies to use to avoid passing on unwanted legacy of negative food and body concepts to your kids:
(Related: How the Pandemic Finally Made Me Confront My Eating Disorder)
Acknowledge your own negative thoughts
The most important thing you can do as a parent to affect positive change, is to acknowledge what negative thoughts, patterns, and beliefs around food you experienced as a child. If you remember hearing things like, “Watch what you eat,,” or, “You aren’t having another cookie are you?” or, “No one will marry you if you’re fat”, you’re not alone. Acknowledging how those thoughts about food and body made you feel is an important step, even if it’s painful. Without this, you may not understand or even realize the negative concepts you are passing to your child. It can be hard to relive memories like this, even if your parents had the best intentions — so consider enlisting a therapist to help work through it. Ultimately, we cannot change and shift what we do not acknowledge.
If you don’t have something nice to say (to yourself), say nothing at all
The road to body acceptance can be long; while you’re on it, keep in mind that making negative comments about your own body impacts your child’s relationship with theirs. Don’t make disparaging comments about “having a big tummy,” or “needing to do a cleanse.” It may seem strange to an adult, but this soundtrack of self-hatred records on your child’s mental hard drive. Hearing a parent talk about dieting, needing to restrict food, foods being “good and bad”, extreme sugar restrictions and negative self-talk (e.g., “I need to get this weight off before summer”) are all linked to negative food and body relationships, and can possibly result in disordered eating patterns later in life. So if you have these thoughts about yourself, spare your kids from hearing them — then, think about how to have some compassion for yourself, and quiet the thoughts for good.
Do an audit
Make a list of your favourite foods, and the foods you “worry about”. Do you mentally label foods “good” or “bad”? Do you and your partner have different opinions and beliefs about high-calorie or high-energy foods and when or even if they should be in the house? All foods can fit into a balanced pattern if you choose. Even cotton candy — pure, sugary joy — can have a place in your diet (who doesn’t have fun memories linked to cotton candy?!).
Foods that are high in sugar, fat, salt (or all three) are often thought of as forbidden, or foods that were considered bad, or only for rewards. Start to look at those patterns and make sure you aren’t subconsciously mimicking them with your kids. If you were told bread or desserts of high-fat foods like cheese were “bad”, do an audit about how you handle the shopping, meals and snacks in your house, to see if those beliefs continue to hold. Same with gender-specific portion-control – if you experienced it growing up, there’s a chance you’re subconsciously engaging in it with your own kids. If some foods or items were off-limits, acknowledge it, and see if change the way you think about them.
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Include all foods in your family diet
Having a regular schedule that includes some of these “forbidden” foods is a great way to neutralize their negative association. If carbs were cast as the enemy, have weekly pizza and pasta nights. If dessert was used as a bribe or reward, neutralize that idea by having dessert with a meal a couple of nights a week. The key is to nestle these foods within a whole food diet. Normalizing them removes their emotional power. Remember, children benefit immensely from knowing what to expect, so keep a regular schedule for whole food meals and snacks. The more food is regularly offered, including high-energy foods, the more you and your kids can respond with your bodies, and not your emotions, to the need for food.
Eat together as often as possible
Numerous studies show the protective benefit of eating together as a family. For children there is a dual effect; you get to rehash the day and talk about any issues that may have been frustrating, discouraging, hard or difficult for your child, and you get to role-model healthy eating behaviours. As a child, the low-pressure opportunity to express these emotions is linked to lower high-risk behaviours as teenagers and high-self-esteem concepts for young kids
Eating together is also a chance for children to feel a sense of connection and community around food, instead of seeing it in a singular way. This connection around food, without pressure or expectation, is so important to increase self-worth and decrease anxiety in children as they grow.
Exercise for fun and pleasure, not to “burn calories” or “eat unlimited food”
Lastly, disconnect the idea that food and exercise need to be forever linked. Food is meant for nourishment. Encourage your children to fuel themselves to pursue their interests and passions. Exercise should be fun and invigorating, not a way to “burn calories” and get rid of extra food.
Conquering our own fears and limitations is what we are faced with as parents. The more we can do to challenge and change thoughts and patterns about food and our relationship to our bodies, the better. Soundtracks in our mind can be re-recorded to support our children as we learn and grown and do deep work to resolve these issues. You can unlearn anything! Children do not automatically think of foods a “good or bad”, they are taught these ideas. You can raise healthy eaters who enjoy nourishing food, and fun, decadent foods too. The first step is acknowledging what needs to change.
Nishta Saxena is a Registered Dietician and nutrition educator based in Toronto.
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