How to Help Your Child Build a Healthier Relationship with Food
Our connections to food and eating begin at a very young age and often start from watching our parents. These techniques will help you instill good habits for a lifetime of healthy eating.
Habits start young, and that includes healthy eating. But while you're already packing healthy lunches and trying to encourage kids to make healthy snack choices, are you really doing everything you can to ensure that they develop a healthy relationship with food?
These expert-approved tips will help you guide your kids to building good eating habits for life.
1. Model good behaviors.
According to Nealy Fischer, founder of The Flexible Chef, your kids' relationships with food are directly linked to yours.
"The behaviors that we model are far more effective than the behaviors that we teach," she says. "If you want to get them to eat vegetables, or you want to get them to love salad, then they'd better see you eating it."
And it's not just important to model eating healthy foods, but also to model healthy indulgences — without the guilt.
"Have the French fries with them without them feeling like you're not eating that because you're somehow on a new diet," she says. Showing kids that one can have balance without guilt is essential to them developing a good relationship with food in the future.
2. Watch your language.
When it comes to modeling good behaviors, the buck doesn't stop with what you put on your plate, according to Elise Museles, a certified eating psychology and nutrition expert.
"If you're walking past the mirror, and you're like, 'Ugh, these thighs,' your daughter is going to hear that, and she's going to pick up on it," she says.
"If I ever hear myself saying something like, 'Do I look fat in this?' or like, 'How does this look?' I catch myself," she says, noting that it's important not to draw too much of a connection between your body type and what you should or should not eat. After all, anyone who was a bit overweight growing up certainly has memories of some (probably, hopefully) well-meaning adult who asked them if they "really needed" that extra cookie.
While it would be silly to claim there's no connection between what we eat and how our body looks and feels, that sort of language can be really detrimental to a child's self-esteem.
"My mom would decline dessert for me," recalls Fisher. "The host would be serving a piece of chocolate cake, and my mom would say, 'Nealy won't have any, thank you.'"
That isn't to say that body talk should be off-limits, but consider how you can frame it so that it's helpful rather than hurtful.
"Teach kids to appreciate things about their body," says Museles. "Like, 'Wow your legs are so strong!' or 'Five goals today at soccer, and ran that field the whole time, that's amazing!' Really focusing on what their bodies are doing and having that respect for your body is an important thing to instill, without it being anything about looks."
3. Be light-hearted when giving lessons.
It's important not to put undue pressure on kids when it comes to food, but remember, too, that you do have knowledge to impart. Just consider how — and, particularly, when — those lessons are appropriate.
Fisher takes advantage of when the child broaches the topic to discuss things like recognizing when you're full.
"I think you have to be careful that it doesn't become like an annoying parenting lesson," she says. "There's a way to do it that I think is very effective, where they can own the topics."
One example, she notes, is an evening where her son was eating an ice cream for dessert.
"He commented on how, 'It's so yummy, but my tummy is getting full,' and I'll say, 'You know what, honey, if your tummy is getting full, don't stuff yourself. Let's save the rest of the ice cream for tomorrow. You don't have to throw it away. Let's just save it.'"
From there, she says, she'll launch into a quick conversation about why it's not good for you to eat until you're too full.
"I keep it casual," she says, "because if it becomes a conversation, I feel like that's when the reverse effect can happen."
Museles also recommends not being too restrictive, as this can lead to children overindulging out of spite or a desire to rebel.
"I kept candy in the house," she says, "because I feel like if you're too restrictive, those are the kids that go to a friend's house and just go crazy."
By giving kids a bit of space to make choices — and above all, allowing them to get in touch with their bodies — you give children the power.
"I think the bottom line is really about teaching them to feel that connection to their body," Museles says.
4. Prepare kids for other households.
Teaching kids to be in touch with their bodies is great at home, but what about if they end up at a friend's house whose parents are members of the "clean your plate" club?
"I think it's really such a great conversation to have," Museles says. "How do you be respectful of other people, but also of yourself?"
She recommends teaching kids to thread a compliment in with their refusal of more.
"Something like, 'This is such a good meal, I'm actually full right now, thank you so much!'"
Above all, she says, it's important to instill in children that they can respect those who made the food for them, all the while also respecting how they are feeling.
5. Make it fun.
Turning healthy eating into a fun adventure isn't difficult, and Museles has a few ideas.
"Getting the kids involved is huge, so that they feel a connection to their food," she says, suggesting that you allow kids to pick a color to focus on each day or week, or making creative, hands-on recipes like watermelon pizza, apple frogs, layered yogurt-berry parfaits, or a lion-shaped veggie tray.
"I've never once been a short-order chef for my kids," she says. "I just put out all the foods, and you can mix and match it any way you want. If you don't want this, don't have it."
As long as there's a rich selection, don't worry too much about whether they're eating everything you put on the table. Taking the pressure off yourself when it comes to encouraging healthy eating will also make it a less stressful situation for children.
After all, says Museles, "They'll eat eventually!"