It is never too early to begin having conversations about healthy eating with your children. Young children’s minds absorb information like a sponge; this characteristic can be both positive and negative. As a parent, you have considerable influence over your children, therefore, it is your job to show what healthy behaviors look like. However, in today’s world full of labels, fad diets, and body shaming, this task proves more difficult than ever before. The goal is to be able to teach your children a positive, unbiased outlook when it comes to food and nutrition, while also giving your children options to make their own food choices and to learn the important role of nutrition in their bodies.
Model healthy eating habits
Parental feeding behaviors prove to have a significant influence on children’s food preferences (1). Exposing children to healthy foods through positive modeling can look like viewing food as a source of nourishment for the body as opposed to a way to lose weight. Modeling healthy eating habits can also make a big difference in improving children’s relationship with food. Conversations about how carbohydrates give the energy they need to focus during school or to play a sport are good ways to begin talking positively about food and nutrition.
Use body positive language
In the technology-driven world we live in, the media can have a significant impact on your child’s body image (1). Parents can begin to have healthy conversations about body image before the media negatively impacts your child. You can start by acknowledging that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Use body-positive language while talking about this subject as opposed to body shaming language. This language looks like talking positively about yourself and others; emphasize that you eat healthy foods because you like them and not to gain a certain body shape. Negatively talking about other people’s bodies can impact your children as well. Using this positive language when it comes to body image can set the tone for how they speak about themselves and others.
Do not label food as “good” or “bad”
It is very common to hear the word “bad” associated with high sugar, fat, and salty foods and “good” with fruits and vegetables. This language can create a divide between foods in your child’s head making it confusing to distinguish which foods to eat. Children overindulging in sweets or chips is not ideal, but it is imperative to explain the difference between foods they have daily that nourish their body and fun foods that they have from time to time. A good way to create a balance between these foods is to include dessert with their meal. Overly restricting these types of foods can lead children to fixate on them more but serving it with their meal can make them less “special” and help them learn balance.
Keep your diet to yourself
A diet can mean a lot of things to different people. Whether it’s restricting your carbohydrates or cutting out fats, try not to share this with your children. This action of choosing not to talk about your personal dietary choices (even if you are successful with losing weight in a healthy way) can be beneficial to your children in a major way. Phrases such as “carbs make you fat” or “eating after 8 PM is bad” can create a negative picture about certain foods or actions in your child’s mind. A study conducted in 2013 demonstrates how parents engaging in conversations focused on weight or size correlates with an increase in risk for adolescent disordered eating behaviors, conversely conversations about healthful eating behaviors show a protective effect against disordered eating behaviors (1). Focusing on having conversations about healthy eating and ones not related to diets may have a lasting positive effect on your children.
Do not pressure them to finish their food
As a parent, your job is to provide healthy and nutritious foods, in age-appropriate portion sizes. Your child should be the one who decides what foods and how much they want to eat. Children are naturally in tune with their hunger and fullness cues; pressuring them to eat more than what their body is telling them may lead to food avoidance or overeating (2). Encouraging your child to exert their independence at mealtimes can improve your child’s competence in choosing and eating meals (2). Learn to trust your child’s body cues even if you do not agree with what or how much they ate; they know their bodies best.
- Berge, J., Maclehose, R., Loth, K., Eisenberg, M., Bucchianeri, M., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2013, August 1). Parent conversations about healthful eating and weight: Associations with adolescent disordered eating behaviors. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3737359/
- Scaglioni, S., De Cosmi, V., Ciappolino, V., Parazzini, F., Brambilla, P., & Agostoni, C. (2018, May 31). Factors Influencing Children’s Eating Behaviours. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6024598/