As if being a mom isn't hard enough, as if we aren't already tasked with teaching our kids literally everything else in the world, it's our job as parents to instil healthy eating habits that will shape their relationship with food for the rest of their lives. Oh, and to do it without giving them any weird food hang-ups or body-image issues. No pressure!
But in all seriousness, the way you talk to your kids about food and nutrition can have a lasting impact on their health. With the right approach, you can help them build a healthy body image and develop a positive relationship with food — and maybe even sidestep some of the psychological challenges that can make it so hard to lose weight as an adult.
So, here are a few helpful tips for talking to your kids about food and helping them learn healthy eating habits.
Focus on Health, Not Weight
The childhood obesity rate has tripled over the past 40 years, so it makes sense that you might stress about keeping your kids healthy — especially if you’ve struggled with your own weight.
But research suggests that focusing on weight rather than health is more likely to lead to unhealthy dieting habits down the road. So when you’re talking to your kids about nutrition, try to leave weight out of the conversation, and focus on all the ways food can help their brain and body work better.
Let Them Dictate Portion Sizes
It may be hard to believe when you just watched your kid dip spaghetti in ketchup or eat a cold hot dog, but kids actually tend to be more intuitive eaters than adults — and they’re good (sometimes annoyingly so) at stopping when they’re full.
Kids are naturally mindful, At any given meal or snack, a child might be more or less hungry than usual. Parents must learn to trust kids and their appetite so kids can, in turn, learn to trust themselves.
Don’t label foods “good” or “bad”
The only food that is categorically ‘unhealthy’ is a food a child is allergic to or one that’s been spoiled or contaminated. Nothing else needs to be judged in that way. Sure, you don’t want your toddler to eat three giant pieces of chocolate cake — but instead of telling them sugar is bad for you, explain that some foods help you grow and stay healthy, while others are just fun “sometimes” snacks.
Give Them Options
Skip the begging, bribing, pleading, and “you’re-not-leaving-this-table-until-you-take-a-bite-of-broccoli” warnings. Just put a variety of healthy foods on the table every night and let your kids serve themselves what they want.
There is no amount of cajoling that will help children try new foods in an emotionally and behaviorally healthy way. Instead, present children with a wide variety of foods from meal to meal, and they’ll ultimately learn to eat what is served.
Take “no” for an answer
Yeah, you read that right — it’s okay to let your kids turn down food. Giving your kids the power to politely say “no, thank you” actually helps them get into the habit of mindful eating and listening to their body’s hunger cues.
And as much as their picky eating may drive you nuts right now, it’s an important part of growing up. Children learn to gain autonomy by saying ‘no’ — a lot! While frustrating for us mamas, it shows solid emotional development. Eventually they’ll eat other things besides dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets — some day.
Don’t reward them with sweets
“No dessert until you finish your peas! Even though this strategy can be effective, you’re basically telling your kid yeah, veggies suck — but if you can choke them down, you’ll get the “good” stuff. Using sweets as a reward elevates the status of sweets and lowers the status of the ‘work’ food. Instead, reward them with praise: “Oh, you tried some chickpeas? That was a really healthy choice!”
Don't Talk about "Forbidden Foods"
Whether you’re cutting calories or swearing off carbs, try to avoid talking to kids about your body-image woes or what you can’t or shouldn’t eat. Just Don’t model dieting behaviours for your kids. This includes being restrictive with foods or talking about how you’re unhappy with your body. Kids need to develop a positive attitude toward food and feel good about their appetite rather than worried they’ll take a wrong step.
Don't Tell Them to Clean Their Plate
The “clean plate club” dates back to the days of WWI food rationing and it can be a crazy-hard habit to break. But if you obsess about finishing every last bite, you’re inadvertently teaching your kids to ignore their own hunger and fullness cues.
They learn to respond to external cues telling them what and how much to eat, rather than relying on their own innate ability to determine how much they need and what they are hungry for. (And if they leave food behind, you can always find creative ways to use your leftovers in tomorrow’s lunch.)
Use Body Positive Language
No matter how often you tell your kids to be happy with who they are, they’re going to mirror the way you talk about yourself — so even if you’re not at your ideal weight right now, don’t let them hear your body-shaming yourself or anyone else.
Parents need to avoid talking negatively about other people’s bodies — and their own. Kids need to learn positive attitudes toward body diversity. They need to know their worth has deep roots — and has nothing to do with appearance. (This is especially true as your kids hit those awkward preteen years that we all remember soooo fondly.)
So instead of obsessing about cutting calories and nixing sugar and losing X number of pounds, focus on teaching your kids to fuel their body with nutritious foods that help them stay strong and healthy. (And, ahem, don’t forget to follow your own advice!)
Post by: Kara Wahlgren