We all have a very personal relationship with food. We have to! We need it daily to survive, it is highlighted culturally, it is at the center of family traditions, and so much more. Having a healthy relationship with food starts with how food was talked about, and what was given to us, growing up. Some families may need quick and convenient options, some may spend a lot of their time preparing meals in the kitchen, and many a little mixture of both with each season of life. The conversations that happen regarding food and nutrition can prepare our kids for a lifetime of healthy choices and positivity around eating. Here are some ways to start the conversation at home:
- Educate: Teach kids about the benefits of healthy eating! Statements like, “Oranges help fight colds!” or “Leafy greens are so good for your heart!” encourage kids to take care of their bodies and understand the importance of eating a variety of foods. By educating kids on the benefits associated with eating many different types and colors of food, you can create an excitement around choosing foods that are going to best nourish and care for their bodies.
- Don’t Label Foods: Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” places a value on the food and the behavior of eating that food that can negatively impact a child’s relationship with eating. Teaching children that ‘food is simply food’, along with the health benefits of eating different types of food, and allowing them choices when eating, creates a willingness to try new things and take responsibility for the choices they are making.
- Give Options: There are just some foods that a child simply may not like, and that’s okay! Providing healthy options for kids to choose from, and allowing them to say no, continues to grow a healthy relationship with food, understanding that they have control over what they eat.
- Trust: So much of helping children to develop a healthy relationship with food involves giving up control and trusting your child to make choices based on what you’ve taught them. Allowing kids to ask for more food or say they are full before their plates are cleared are ways to demonstrate trust and give kids control. Your job is to provide healthy options, their job is to listen to their bodies and choose what and how much they eat.
- Teach Them to Trust Their Bodies: As kids grow, they are influenced by everything around them. Advertisements and social media tell them what they “should” be eating, to count calories, and offer conflicting viewpoints on countless diets. Teaching your kids at an early age to trust their bodies can help them avoid “diet-culture” as they grow older. Their bodies will naturally tell them when they are hungry or when they don’t want to eat. Kids often have a better sense of what they are hungry for than you think, and the healthy options they pick when they have control may surprise you.*
6. Focus on Health, not Body Image: When talking about foods, focus on the health aspect of the foods selected, and not how they may make your body look. Try not to criticize your body in front of your kids, or worry that foods may cause you to look a certain way. These are all habits that kids may mimic, and the last thing we want is our kids having poor body image at such a young age. Focus on all the cool things their bodies allow them to do, like run, swim, talk, jump, and play sports. Focus on how food supports these activities. Teach kids that their bodies are amazing, and continue to water that seed throughout their lives.
- Involve Them: Involving your kids in the kitchen allows them to have control and enjoy the entire process. Kids are so much more likely to eat something they are proud to have made. Let them help! Encourage them to help chop fruits and veggies (at an age-appropriate rate) and taste the ingredients along the way. This creates a positive atmosphere of experimentation and joy around food.
Kids are exposed to so much talk around food that can easily create anxiety about what to eat, how much, and when. The home is the perfect time to teach the simplest way of nourishing our bodies: find a variety of fresh and nutritious foods that they love, teach them to listen to their bodies and encourage positivity around food and body image. No need to overcomplicate it, your kids won’t!
*A note on hyper-palatable foods: When teaching your kids to trust their bodies, it is also important to consider how hyper-palatable foods impact their bodies’ ability to tell them what they need. Hyper-palatable foods are those typically high in a combination of salt, sugar, or fat (think Doritos, bacon, donuts, etc.). These foods release happy hormones, like dopamine, and tend to disrupt the signals that tell your kids when they are hungry or full. The “I’m full” signal is muffled by the “I want more” signal produced by dopamine.
With hyper-palatable foods it is important to help your kids learn to savor and enjoy but be aware of how much they are eating. A couple great ways of doing this are by taking an appropriate serving and putting the rest away (don’t eat out of the chip bag) and pairing these foods with options that will provide nutrients. For example, instead of just giving a donut as a treat, consider giving a donut, alongside some fruit or nuts. Then, if they are still hungry, offering second-servings of the nutrient-dense options.