Help Your Child Have a Healthy Relationship with Food
How to Help Your Child Have a Healthy Relationship with Food by Barbara Spanjers
If you were to poll moms, most of them would say that what they ultimately want is for their children to be healthy and happy. Nutrition and exercise are definitely among the most popular ways to help adults and children take steps for better health. Even First Lady Michelle Obama is a passionate proponent for increasing exercise and nutrition for our children.
But there’s a Trojan Horse of sorts lurking in all of the discussion over healthy eating. Although the intentions are good, when we talk to our kids about “red light” foods and the dangers of weight gain,* we set them up to have an unhealthy relationship with food. If you’ve never thought about the idea of having a relationship with food, here’s a comparison. If nutrition is about what to eat, then your relationship with food is about the how.
Read tips on how to have a healthy relationship with food from @BarbaraSpanjers #healthymom #healthykids
It is not that nutrition is not important, because it is. But keep the big picture of life in mind. An overall nutritious diet is one that is balanced over the long run. This big-picture approach means you don’t need to micro-manage your child’s eating on a daily basis. Even very young children have an innate ability to know how much to feed themselves over time. Some days they might only eat pink foods, but it will balance out in the long run.
Additionally, nutrition is just one part of health. Our emotional well being is also crucial. This is the Trojan Horse I mentioned at the beginning: an overemphasis on healthy eating and/or weight can easily create stress. It often decreases self-esteem and can contribute to anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. The average age of a first diet for girls is nine years old. That’s not okay by me, and I hope it isn’t with you, either.
The average age of a first diet for girls is 9 yrs old @BarbaraSpanjers Learn how to keep yours from being part of this stat!
Here are a few questions to help you get a feel for your own relationship with food:
- Do you ever feel guilty after eating certain foods?
- Do you exercise mainly to work off what you eat?
- Do you have certain trigger foods that entice you to the point where you can’t have them around you? (I’m looking at you, cupcake.)
- Do you diet or “watch” what you eat?
Answering any of those questions with a “yes” may indicate that your own relationship with food is anxious. Our attitudes easily get passed along to our children. Children are watching us, even when we aren’t aware of it. With that in mind, here are a few things you can do to foster a healthy relationship with food for your children.
How to foster a healthy relationship with food for your children:
- Don’t monitor portions. “Portion control” is a diet in disguise. Part of our work with kids is to help them learn to be aware of their own levels of hunger and fullness. This allows them to self-regulate around food. Weighing, measuring, or nagging about portions teaches kids not to trust their own bodies. It also sets up a power struggle.
- Don’t make dessert a reward. When you offer dessert as the “reward” for eating broccoli, two things happen. 1) sugary foods become associated with reward and comfort; and 2) the rest of the meal becomes a necessary evil on the way to ice cream. Elevating dessert to something for which you must endure vegetables doesn’t help anyone. It makes dessert seem extra-special, and vegetables extra-icky.
- But – don’t NOT offer dessert. You don’t need to offer dessert daily, but treating sweets as just another food keeps it out of the realm of binge-worthy. Judging foods as “good” or “bad” often sets us up to feel guilty when we eat a “bad” food, like French fries. The ensuing feelings of guilt and shame can lead to more eating, sneak-eating, and even bingeing. Author Ellyn Satter even suggests serving a portion of dessert with the meal so each person can eat it as they wish.
- Be a good role model. One of the most important things you can do to help your child is to nurture a healthy relationship with food yourself. Model nonjudgmental attitudes about eating and your body, because much of disordered eating stems from body dissatisfaction. Give compliments about things unrelated to appearance, like “You really ran fast in the soccer game today!” Here’s a bonus example for you overachievers: Praise your child’s efforts rather than innate talents. For example, tell your child, “You studied so hard and it paid off in your test score,” rather than, “You’re so smart.” It might seem subtle, but praising your child for what she does lets her know that she is capable of that and so much more.
* Surprisingly, there is very little evidence supporting the idea that weight causes health problems. However, habits that support health, such as exercise, may also affect our weight.
Recommended reading: Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook by Ellyn Satter
About Barbara Spanjers
Barbara Spanjers of Cake Is Magical Wellness is a therapist and wellness coach who helps women feel peaceful and at ease around food and in their bodies. With a diverse background including media studies and psychotherapy, she is uniquely qualified to help you counteract the negative cultural and media messages that say you need to be fixed. Barb fears no food (except maybe beets) and loves helping you do the same.
NO Guilt Master Class
Enjoy a FREE Master Class with Barbara Spanjers on Monday, April 18th at 7 PM EST to learn how to eat the foods you love without guilt!
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