In this day and age of social media, your voice as mom or dad can easily get lost amid the hashtags and hype about fad diets and skinny jeans. But as parents, it’s our job to teach kids healthy eating habits to shape their relationship with food for life. The way you communicate about food can help prevent children from having weird food hang-ups or dysfunctional issues with body image. By using the right words, you can help your children develop a positive connection with food and their body image, hopefully dodging many psychological obstacles that can challenge adults.
To put you on the right track for what to say and what not to say to your kids, Dana Weiner, Director of the Nutrition Department at Sheba Medical Center, shares the following tips:
Nowadays, the rising popularity of two modern trends – grabbing meals to go and/or engaging zealously in weight loss behaviors – has made it hard to teach children to relate to food positively. With this backdrop, how can you convey to your kids an open-minded, positive approach to food?
A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in August 2013 investigated the association between parental conversations about healthful eating with the development of adolescent eating disorders. In sum, it showed that when parents discussed food, nutrition and health with their kids, the children were less likely to adopt unhelpful weight control methods, such as bingeing and purging. In contrast, when parents spoke to their children about weight, the child was more likely to diet and binge eat. Focusing on the relationship between food and health must always be the guiding light for every conversation.
Unless it causes food poisoning, no food is good or bad. It’s best to avoid making any statements that lead to a judgmental view of food. Rather, you’re better off explaining why some foods can help them grow strong, whereas other foods are just “fun” snacks to be enjoyed sometimes, as long as they are regularly balanced out with nutritious foods. Discuss the power of specific foods, and how they can energize your child’s body and mind.
Children’s taste buds are constantly changing, so it’s important to encourage them to keep trying new foods – even if they tried it when they were three years old and didn’t like it. Serve a wide variety of foods from meal to meal, and tell children they only need to take a bite or two.
There’s no such thing as a picky eater! If your child still doesn’t enjoy the food, don’t respond by saying “You’re so picky!” because labeling has a tendency to stick. Instead, listen to what they have to say about what they like or don’t like about the food, and don’t pressure them to eat it – but by all means, serve it again in a year or two. By doing this, you can help instill confidence in the child that perhaps one day he or she will like the taste.
Remember, kids often do as parents do and not as they say. A productive way to motivate into healthy eating habits and new nutritious foods is by example. When you constantly try a variety of foods, your child is much more likely to experiment, too.
When kids are responsible for deciding how much to eat, they learn more effectively how to behave when hunger strikes. Telling kids you want to see a clean dish teaches poor eating habits, encouraging them to eat past the point when they feel full. Children tend to be more naturally intuitive eaters, and they are good at knowing when to stop.
Don’t fall into the trap of rewarding your child with dessert if he or she eats up all the veggies. Also, don’t tell kids that you’ll reward their good behavior with chocolate or other treats. These strategies of bribery place too much value on food, and while they may work in the short term, “eating well” is all about the long game. You are trying to give your child a strong foundation for healthy eating habits even when you are no longer around to guide them and decide when to break out the junk food.
“Remember, your focus should be on teaching kids to infuse their body with nutritious foods that strengthen their bodies and minds, and help keep them healthy!” says Weiner. “This advice goes for parents too, because if you obsess over cutting calories or weight loss instead of eating for health, it’s impossible to communicate to your kids the correct messages about food.”