During my decade of working with children in schools, and based on my own personal experience raising two children, I have seen firsthand how influenced children are by the actions, decisions, and attitudes of their parents. Most of us have heard the expression, “kids are sponges.” The statement is even more true than some of you might even realize. Every little thing you say or do, how you interact with others, how you respond to stress or anxiety, etc… your children are always watching, always absorbing, and very often modeling what they see from us, the grownups. Nowhere is this fact more important than in our relationships with food and exercise. Whether we are overtly or subtly body shaming ourselves, weighing our foods, or talking about our latest diet, the messages are reaching our children loud and clear: Our bodies need to change, food is something to fear, and we have to stress and work like crazy to fight to lose weight because (no matter what we look like or how we feel) we are just not good enough. Is this really the philosophy we want our children to live by? ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!
And yet despite how important food is to our lives, this is an area that many parents – even the most positive and loving – just don’t think about. Many parents provide incredible guidance and support when it comes to social/interpersonal relationships, academics, athletics, and faith, but when it comes to food and body image, they either never bother to give it a second thought, or don’t realize the messages that they are sending. The result is that many parents end up (inadvertently) setting their children down a path of food negativity and struggle that often lasts a lifetime. It’s no wonder that over 80% of the population struggles with some form of disordered eating or eating disorders. After all, they are simply modeling what they heard and what they saw from the grownups in their life during their formative years.
When I think about my own children I do not want them to fear food. I want them to enjoy food. I want them to trust themselves. I don’t want them constantly worrying about food or worrying about missing a trip to the gym. And most importantly, I want them to be happy and feel good about themselves.
Here are some tips that can help you raise your child to have a healthy relationship with food:
1. Trust that your child is capable of self-regulation. We often put pressure on children to finish what is on their plate or eat their vegetables. I, like many of you, I was raised in a household where I heard the expression, “No dessert until you eat your vegetables.” For many years, I thought that was not only a normal expression, but one that promoted healthy eating habits. However, the more I’ve studied this topic, the more I’ve come to realize that the unintended consequence of these types of messages and rules is that you are actually telling your child that they cannot trust themselves. Rather than listen to their own body to determine hunger, fullness, and satisfaction, they connect these feelings to external cues (i.e. they have been “healthy” and they “deserve” dessert only after eating broccoli). Remember we are born as intuitive eaters. Depending on your child’s age you can help them by asking them questions, such as: “Is your tummy hungry?” or “Is your tummy a little or very hungry?” Of course, your children still need guidance in terms of their options, but try to be mindful with the language you use and try to avoid imposing artificial rules that define food as “good” versus “bad.”
2. Eat with them, don’t just feed them. This is a wonderful way to model eating a variety of foods and self regulating hunger and fullness. Having regular meals and snacks available is helpful as well (3 meals and 2-3 snacks/day).
3. Eat at the table. This is not always easy, but make an effort. As much as you can, try to avoid eating on the go, in the stroller, or in front of the TV. Children who spend all day snacking and grazing won’t have the opportunity to feel fullness, and also won’t be mindful of their internal cues. When sitting down together and eating at the table, you might also try eating “family style.” That way, your children will know there is more food available and will be given an opportunity to regulate their own portion sizes.
4. Set boundaries, while avoiding rigid rules. The Division of Responsibility was coined by Ellyn Satter, a dietician and feeding therapist. The Division of Responsibility refers to when the parents decide the what and where of feeding by purchasing food, preparing food and offering the food at the dinner meal. The child then decides how much and of what foods they are going to eat. A child should be allowed to eat as much as they want to be satisfied at the meal, knowing they won’t have a chance to eat again until the next scheduled snack or meal. Because children are born to be intuitive eaters, you’ll find that they will regulate themselves. As I have seen by employing this method with my own daughter, some days she’ll eat a large portion and some days a small portion. But in the end, she will eat what her body needs.
5. Stop food bashing or body shaming: This is a point I can’t overemphasize. Do NOT comment about your weight or anyone else’s weight in front of your children, and especially avoid criticizing yourself or others based on weight. Remember that every time you say “I’m fat” or “I need to lose weight” or “My butt looks big in this [fill in the blank],” your child is absorbing that self-directed negativity and eventually your reality will become their reality (along with all that insecurity and negativity). Work on yourself and learn to love yourself. But no matter what stage you are in your journey, don’t put the weight of your struggle on your children’s shoulders. Above all else, be mindful of what you say and do in front of your children.
These are just a few tips. I am very passionate about this topic, so I will be revisiting it in the future. If you are interested in learning more, visit my website or feel free to contact me directly by clicking on the link below.