How to help your children develop a positive relationship with food
What did you learn about food growing up? Were you raised in a household with a parent that was always on a diet and worrying about their weight? Did you grow up thinking ice-cream and sweet foods were a treat or reward for doing well at school? Perhaps you learnt that certain foods are "good" and others are "bad" because they make you put on weight?
Something that I notice when helping individuals to rebuild their relationship with food is that our view of food is often formed very early on in our lives. Someone that has grown up with a parent that is always on a diet, may then always worry about their weight and food choices well into adulthood. Someone that has grown up feeling that sweet food is something that can make them feel better when they are sad - may still as an adult turn to sugar as coping mechanism. Of course school influences, friends, university, media-outlets and other factors all play a role in the relationship with food that we form - and the upbringing from our parents isn't the sole factor shaping how we feel about food. Yet knowing that our childhood experiences with food can have a significant impact on how we view food in adulthood, how can a parent help their children to build a positive relationship with food?
Here are some tips for all of you parents and caregivers on helping your children to build a positive relationship with food:
1. Keep the conversation away from weight and calories
Many of the people that I work with have grown up in households where weight was often a topic of conversation. If someone lost weight then this was praised and if someone gained weight then this was frowned upon. This narrative around and focus on weight can however be very destructive for an individual's relationship with food. Food can then only be looked at through the lens of weight i.e. will this food make me put on weight - rather than as the source of nourishment. Inviting children to focus on their calorie consumption can also make them more prone to obsessive thoughts about food and to developing eating disorders. It is safest to keep the conversations away from weight and calories and instead talk about food in terms of its health-promoting properties.
2. Encourage variety
AFRID (or avoidant food restrictive intake disorder) is an eating disorder that often develops from childhood and involves an individual having a fear of eating certain foods due to their taste, texture or smell. It often involves an individual only eating beige or "safe"/bland foods and often having a fear of eating many fruits, vegetables and other food groups. A way to prevent this condition from arising in your children is to ensure that they are encouraged to try and eat a variety of different foods - even those that they don't particularly like initially. Don't stop encouraging them to eat foods because they don't like them at first - keep encouraging them to try different things as their taste buds can change as they get older. Of course the best way to do this is to role model this positive behaviour by having lots of variety in your diet too.
3. Don't be on restrictive diets yourself or talk about dieting
Children don't just pick up what you tell them - they pick up a lot of what you show them through your behaviours too. Subconsciously a child will normalise whatever it is that they see you doing. If you are therefore always on a diet, always feeling guilty about eating foods, always restricting your food intake or always over-eating/binge-eating on unhealthy foods - this is then normalising that behaviour for your children. Individuals that go on diets are much more likely to develop an eating disorder than individuals that have not been on restrictive diets - so it is a good idea to not be dieting yourself as your children can pick up on and start to normalise this behaviour.
4. Eat the rainbow and get your kids involved
Make it normal to have lots of nutritious foods around and to prepare and eat delicious meals made from as many colourful veggies and fruits as possible. When you eat and enjoy eating nourishing food - your children will again normalise this behaviour and want to do the same. Getting children involved in the process of preparing food can also be a great way to get them excited about eating meals prepared from fresh ingredients. Encouraging them to try and eat as many colourful fresh foods throughout the week can be a great way to get them excited about eating a range of things - e.g. you can ask them whether they have eaten some red foods (peppers, tomatoes), orange foods (peaches, oranges, carrots), yellow foods (bananas, peppers), green foods (spinach, avocado), blue foods (blueberries), pink/purple foods (raspberries, plums) as this can get them really visually engaged in the challenge of eating a variety of nutrient-dense and colourful fruits and veggies each week.
5. Don't make sweet foods a "reward" or a "way to make things better"
Food is often used by many people as a coping mechanism - it is something that they turn to when they are stressed, sad, down, tired or even happy (to celebrate). Yet use of food in this way can be unhelpful if it develops into a regular pattern of behaviour. If your child is crying and upset - it may be tempting to give them something sweet to soothe them. If your child is happy and has done well at school - it may also be tempting to give them something sweet to celebrate. However by doing so - you may be reinforcing the use of food as a coping mechanism. It is much more helpful for your child long-term to make them feel better when they are sad, by giving them a hug or talking to them about how they feel. It is much more helpful to celebrate your child's success with a nice day out, a walk together or maybe even a delicious, home-cooked and nourishing meal.
6. Talk about food in positive terms
How you talk about food can have a significant impact on your children. If you talk about foods as "bad" or "naughty" or communicate to your children that certain foods have to be avoided because of their weight - this can set up the narrative that they have in their minds around food. To help your children, talk about food in positive terms - it is something to be "savoured" and "enjoyed" - it is something that can "nourish" your body and be a form of "self-care". The language you use to talk about food can become the language that your child also uses to talk to themselves about food in the future.
7. Set a meal structure
A lot of our food related behaviours are habits that just run on autopilot. So if we are in the habit of just snacking throughout the day and evening - we will often just keep doing this without thinking about it much. However if we are in the habit of just eating 3 meals a day and not really eating in between - then again we will often just do this without it taking any effort. It can really help your children to set a good structure for their meals and to stick to this - so that they start building positive habits around food and meal times.
8. Encourage mindful eating
So often we just eat mindlessly whilst working or in front of the TV. However you can encourage your children to begin eating mindfully from a young age by making meals an experience that are there to be enjoyed. As often as possible - eat with your children - so that the meal-time is a time for bonding and sharing stories/experiences. Try to also encourage your children to just eat without doing anything else (e.g. so they aren't watching TV whilst eating or trying to get homework done) - this way the focus is really on the food and savouring and enjoying the meal in front of them. You can also encourage your children to begin to tune in to their body's natural hunger cues - when do they feel hungry and when are they full and satisfied?
9. Role model positive food behaviours
Most important to your children's relationship with food however is your relationship with food. Probably the best thing you can do for your children is to heal your own relationship with food. Children subconsciously pick up on the language and behaviours around them. By ensuring you don't feel guilty when eating foods, that you don't turn to food as a coping mechanism, that you can enjoy and savour nourishing meals mindfully, that you eat food as a way of self-care for your precious body - you are showing your children how they can have a positive relationship with food too.
“The greatest gift you can give your daughter is do everything you can to heal your own relationship with food.” - Marc David