I want my children to have a healthy relationship with food, because for a long time, I didn’t.
If you know me well, you’d probably find this fact surprising, because now, I really love food.
I love cooking and entertaining. I love the social aspect of food and how it brings people together. I love traveling to new places and trying new dishes. I love the tradition of food — how certain recipes are passed down from generation to generation and how certain tastes can bring you back to a time and place.
For a long time, I tied a lot of negative emotions to all of the above experiences. I had (and sometimes still do) an internal dialogue that constantly took away from my ability to enjoy the party, the vacation, the (insert event).
When I say I want my kids to have a healthy relationship with food, I do not mean I want them to eat healthy. Of course, I’d be happy if they ate a nutrient-dense, well-balanced diet and if they kept the sugary treats to a minimum, but that choice is not mine to make. I want them to practice mindfulness when it comes to food. I want them to detach food from emotion and learn how it fuels their bodies and makes them feel physically.
I want their minds to be free from the constant calculation, the restriction, and oftentimes, the guilt. Sadly, I know this will be more challenging for my daughter than my son, but I’m determined to push the messages are out there for both of them to receive.
So, how can I write a different story for my children? How can I teach them to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full? How can I get them to understand that food is meant for BOTH pleasure and necessity? How can I encourage them to eat the bowl of colorful veggies, and then, if they want, to enjoy a cupcake without shame?
This is my plan.
Practice Intuitive Eating from the Start
Intuitive eating encourages a mindful relationship with food, rather than one of restriction. No food is off-limits and there are no rules about what can be enjoyed and when.
Instead, intuitive eating places an emphasis on reflection, learning to understand your own hunger and fullness cues, and being in-tune with how certain foods make you feel. Sounds like a lot for a child to grasp, right?
The earlier you start teaching intuitive eating, the more second nature it will be to your child. At meal time, ask them questions about what they’re eating like, “How do these grapes make your tummy feel?” “What do you like about these carrots? – The bright orange color? The crunchy sound they make?” Refrain from force-feeding. If you put an item on their plate and they’re not into it, move the focus onto something they do like.
You can keep exposing them to various foods, but always let them be the driver at mealtime. If they say they’re hungry, provide more food. If they say they’re full, allow them to be finished without encouraging them to eat more.
Teach That Everything is OK in Moderation
There is a place for everything in our diets — yes, everything.
The more we set rules for our children by saying things like, “You can’t eat that cookie, it has too much sugar,” the higher the chance that they’ll develop a negative relationship with that food.
Instead strive for balance — offer a variety of foods and allow for every type of food to be consumed in moderation.
Steer Clear of “Good” vs. “Bad” Labels
Most of us do this one without even thinking about it — your version of “good” might vary from my version, but unfortunately, society tells us that every food falls into one of the two categories. As tempting as it is to encourage our children to eat carrots and broccoli because they are “good,” and to steer clear from eating too much ice cream because it’s “bad,” we’re just further complicating their relationship with food for the future.
Instinctively, the more we label food as “bad,” the more we want it. When we give into those desires, we feel as though we’ve failed. Instead of teaching children deprivation or restriction of any one food group, let’s focus on all of the amazing things food can do for them – like make them stronger, think clearer, run faster, etc.
The more you practice this narrative from an early age, the easier and more typical it will become.
Engage Them in the Shopping & Cooking
All mothers can agree: it’s easier to grocery shop without your children in tow, but if you’re striving to help develop a healthy relationship with food, shopping is a part of the equation.
Involving kids in the planning and preparation gives them a sense of control over what they’re eating. You can do this by letting them choose some of the meals being served each week, allowing them to pick the produce at the grocery store, or mixing/adding ingredients during meal prep.
Don’t Punish or Reward with Food
“If you eat your broccoli you can have a cookie.”
That simple sentence turns broccoli into a punishment and a cookie into the reward — and this concept goes beyond statements like this.
Perhaps your child gets a lollipop every time they go to the laundromat or get a haircut. Maybe if your child acts out or fails to clean their room, you take away their nightly dessert. All of these behaviors negate the healthy relationship with food you’re striving for. Instead of rewarding with food, praise good behavior with a special trip to their favorite place, a coloring book, or some stickers.
If someone else gives them a treat, encourage them to save it for when their tummy really wants it, rather than eating it on the spot.
Lead by Example
It comes down to this: we simply cannot ask our children to do as we say and not as we do.
The things we say matter, but what they see us doing matters more. If we’re not making great choices when it comes to food, they won’t either. If we’re restricting certain foods, they’ll learn to the do the same.
Model a healthy food relationship for your children by eating a variety of foods in front of them. Sit down and eat meals together and talk about your own hunger cues and how certain foods might make you feel. Head out for dessert as a family and allow them to see you enjoying a sweet treat, guilt-free.
This next part is often the hardest — especially if you’re still struggling with your own relationship with food. Try not talk about diets, needing to exercise more as a result of food you’ve eaten, or your own food restrictions in front of your kids. I think we can all agree that all of these ideologies, whether we absorbed them from our families or societal implications, have lived within us for too long. As adults, we fight hard to overcome these expectations and stressors regarding food.
Let’s make it different for our kids.