As a therapist working with individuals who are struggling as well as a parent of young children, I think a lot about how to help kids develop a healthy relationship with food. By healthy, I mean balanced, flexible, and peaceful. Here are five tips that I have found to be helpful in this aim:
Avoid categorizing foods as “good” or “bad”
Helping children develop a healthy relationship with food doesn’t require restrictions – with the exception of allergies and sensitivities, or religious and cultural guidelines, etc., no food needs to be banned. Labels such as “junk food,” “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “unhealthy,” can set the stage for people to restrict, sneak, or overly-indulge in foods they see as forbidden.
It can be helpful to rather talk about always foods and sometimes foods as a way of teaching balance. For example, fruits and vegetables are always foods while cookies and cake are sometimes foods. So, when my 3-year-old requests ice cream for lunch, I can tell him, “That’s a sometimes food. We’re going to eat some always foods for lunch and later we can have ice cream.”
Sometimes parents, with the best of intentions, will avoid having any sweets, treats, or “fun” foods in their home, and will steer children clear of these items. Unfortunately, this can actually set kids up to overindulge on the rare occasions when they do have access to these types of foods, and then feel guilty for doing so. This is a pattern that can easily continue into adulthood. Creating a never foods category is never a good idea, nor is putting children on a diet.
It can be helpful to rather talk about always foods and sometimes foods as a way of teaching balance.
Involve children in menu planning, grocery shopping, and meal preparation
When kids are involved in aspects of meal planning, shopping, and preparation, their interest in trying a wide variety of foods tends to increase. There is a sense of pride and ownership that comes with seeing a meal, dish, or baking project from start to finish.
This also creates opportunities to talk with children about what a healthy and flexible relationship with food looks like. For example, point out that a balanced plate is often colourful. Talk to children about how different foods provide nutrition in a variety of ways. Strive for trying a variety of foods, including the sometimes foods!
Be careful around constantly using food for reward or punishment
“If you don’t stop bothering your sister, you’re not getting a treat!”
How often does an exasperated parent not turn to this tactic? Or that of food as bribery or reward for completing a task?
There is no doubt that food and celebration go hand in hand across cultures, and this is certainly an enjoyable part of life. But be mindful that the promise of a treat for good behaviour or the removal of a special food as a consequence does not become the go-to strategy in your home. This can set the stage for added emotion around food and it builds unhelpful habits around restriction or overindulgence.
Build-in helpful habits with food
Speaking of habits, a significant component of one’s relationship with food is based on them. When I was growing up, breakfast always included fruit – to this day, it doesn’t feel complete without it. Over time, I have passed on this habit to my own children, which means that they don’t take issue with eating fruit as part of their breakfast. The decision making and negotiation phase is not necessary as it has simply become a habit.
It is also helpful to build in habits with “fun” foods such as snacks and desserts so that children know they are coming and do not constantly ask for them. For example, they can expect a fun food as part of their lunch as well as dessert after supper several nights per week. Here are some other ideas for helpful habits with food:
- Lunch and supper always include vegetables
- A glass of water before juice, pop, or chocolate milk
- Raw veggies as an appetizer while waiting for supper to be prepared
- Try at least one bite of the item on your plate that you don’t think you’ll like
Strive to be a positive role model
We all have a relationship with food that began in childhood and has been influenced by our experiences and by familial and cultural messages throughout our lives. The spectrum can range from a relaxed and balanced relationship with food to complete preoccupation and disordered eating patterns.
Unfortunately, weight has become one of the primary measures of health in our society. As such, many people go on diets to lose or maintain their weight, causing a range of negative physical and psychological consequences. In addition, comments such as “I really shouldn’t eat that…,” “I was bad today, I ate…,” or “I’m having a cheat day” are commonplace.
As adults, we can endeavour to eat the way we feed our children:
- Ensure we eat regular meals and snacks
- But also listen to our own needs and eat when we are hungry
- Welcome desserts or treats after our bodies are nourished and sometimes just for fun
Letting go of previous ways of thinking (which may involve some outside help!) and striving instead for a peaceful and balanced relationship with food not only improves one’s own quality of life; it has an immeasurable impact on the children in one’s care.
Incorporating these five tips will greatly increase the opportunity for kids to develop a balanced, flexible, and peaceful relationship with food. What from your childhood has influenced your relationship with food? What would you like to integrate with the children in your life so they might develop a healthy relationship with food that will stay with them throughout their lives?
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