Teaching your child healthy eating habits can be challenging on the best of days. Children have rapidly changing tastes and all kinds of influences around them telling them what’s okay to eat and not okay to eat. They also receive lots of input from family, friends, and peers about body image and weight. These messages can be confusing, which is why it’s important for them to learn how to make nutritious choices and grow a healthy relationship with food. Here are some tips on how to accomplish this with your child.
Make Your Conversations About Health, Not Weight
Diet culture, the internet, conflicting messages, and society’s overall mixed messaging about food can be hard to navigate, especially when kids are still developing their worldviews. This is why it’s important when you talk to your child about food to make sure to teach them about the importance of nutrition without focusing on weight. With so many thoughts about what body types are healthiest, and how to manage weight in children, it can be difficult to figure out how to encourage gentle nutrition. When you talk about nutrition with your child, focus on outcomes like building strong bones, having enough energy, and other positive factors that don’t focus on weight.
Address Body Image
Children are starting to show signs of body distress and even eating disorders younger than ever before. That’s why it’s important to teach children that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and each person’s needs are different. Their bodies may not look like other people’s bodies, and that’s okay. Frequently connecting the idea of food to the idea of weight gain will only make it more likely that your child will become hyperfocused on weight gain or weight loss.
If they’re already experiencing body image issues, find out what they believe about their bodies and why, and teach them that nutrition is about overall health and how you feel in your own skin, not appearance. Then, have conversations about the purpose of food and how it helps the body operate in a healthy way—and how their nutritional needs may be different from those of others.
Don’t Label Food As “Good” or “Bad”
Parents often call certain foods like fruits and veggies “good for you” while they call other foods such as candy and desserts “bad for you.” However, studies have shown that labeling certain foods like this is unhelpful and might contribute to developing an unhealthy relationship with food. This is especially true if your child isn’t a fan of their veggies but loves the dessert course. You may find it difficult to get them to enjoy eating healthy when all they’re focused on is getting to eat sweets.
Of course, you want to teach your child to appreciate all different types of food, especially nutritious foods. The best way to do this is to model positive food behaviors by serving them meals with a wide variety of food types and allowing your child to develop their own tastes. Talk about how each type of food helps them with a certain part of their bodily function, such as protein helping their muscles grow, carbohydrates and healthy fats giving them energy for their day, and fiber helping their stomachs feel good.
To help them limit their intake of sugar, try calling less nutritious foods “sometimes foods,” and don’t use them as rewards for good behavior. Placing sweets and less healthy foods out of reach but still using them as rewards will only make your child want them more. Instead, allow your child small quantities of sweets on an occasional basis. In many cases, parents have found it helpful to place things like candy or baked goods alongside fruits. When children don’t feel like they can only access “treats” on occasion, it lessens the appeal they hold. After all, children are known for wanting what they can’t have!
Let Them Say No
Many children are picky eaters when they’re young, and that’s okay. Because their tastes are often changing, they’ll most likely start trying new things as they get older. Allowing your children to say no to foods they don’t like gives them a healthy sense of control over their personal relationship with food.
Now, it’s still a good idea to ask your child to try foods they don’t like every once in a while, thanking them whenever they do. It may take a child several tries to enjoy a particular food. But once they come to a point where they are willing to choose that food, it will be because they were given the autonomy to choose it, and not because it was not forced on them. It’s also important to consider that giving options to a child might help them become more comfortable and inclined to make healthy choices. For example, instead of only offering one kind of vegetable, offer up to five choices. That way, the child is still in control, but they ultimately still choose something nutritious.
Allowing your child to say no to certain foods may be frustrating for you, but it’s necessary for helping them develop a healthy relationship with their personal nutrition. It also allows you opportunities to be creative with how you present food to them. For instance, your child may decide they like spinach in soup, but not in a salad—that means you now have an opportunity to feed them their veggies, even if it’s not in a way you expected.
Let Your Child Decide When They’re Full
Children are better at determining their limits for eating than we give them credit for. Their bodies are more sensitive to fullness signals than adult bodies are, and therefore they will often be able to tell you themselves when they’re done eating. Don’t force them to eat everything on their plate—this is a habit leftover from the first half of the 20th century when wartime rationing and the Great Depression made food scarcer than it is today. Simply allow your child to choose when they’re done eating, and turn whatever they don’t eat into leftovers.
Model Healthy Living Yourself
The way you act around or talk about food and nutrition in front of your child matters because they will believe that the way you think about food is the right way. So be careful to model appropriate nutrition and exercise behaviors for them. The best ways to do this are to set times when the whole family can eat together and to have open discussions about food, exercise, and the benefits of balancing it all. It can also help to avoid talking about dieting in front of your child, or expressing unhappiness with the looks of your own body. Instead, try to show gratitude for nutritious and treat foods you enjoy.
In order to do this, you may need to consult with your doctor and/or a nutritionist first, especially ones who specialize in pediatric nutrition. If you don’t personally have a healthy relationship with food, it will be important for you to learn it and practice it yourself as you’re teaching your kids. If you need to talk to a doctor or nutritionist about how best to model healthy eating behaviors to your children, contact us today to schedule an appointment!