Here is a comprehensive list for parents to help their children create a healthy relationship with food according to Jamie Gibberman, RD, CDE:
1. Avoid labeling foods “good” or “bad”
As soon as we do this, the child then feels they are inherently bad if they choose a food from that category. Introducing the concept of choosing some foods more often because of how they help our bodies (keeping our bones and muscles strong, help us concentrate in school, help us have more energy, keep us from getting sick, etc) is age-appropriate and avoids dichotomous labeling. Foods really do exist on a continuum of healthfulness and it’s important not to be black-or-white about it.
2. Avoid setting up food struggles
One of the biggest offenders is withholding dessert until the “healthy” parts of the dinner are finished. This not only labels healthy foods as tasting terribly, but also implies they are something to be endured to get to the reward. Many parents who think their kids hate vegetables are simply a result of having being (indirectly) told that vegetables are to be suffered through. And note….if you don’t eat vegetables your child probably won’t either. So show them (not tell them) the type of eater you hope they will be.
3. Avoid using food for emotions or reward
If your child has a bad day at school, spending quality time with a grown-up – whether taking a walk, reading a book together, listening to music, or just talking – will be far more beneficial for healthy coping than going out for ice cream. When children learn that food soothes unpleasant behaviors, it sets the foundation for lifelong emotional eating. There is no problem with going out for ice cream after the last baseball game of the season, or going out for pizza on any given Saturday. The problem arises when we make those food experiences an intricately linked result of feeling sad or mad or bored.
4. Avoid superficial body/diet talk (both yours and your child’s)!
Body talk should focus on what bodies are capable of, not how they look. Occasionally telling a girl she looks pretty or a boy he looks handsome is fine. But if body talk is always focused on outward appearances, then that can set the stage for unhealthy body image. Commenting on how the body functions (Wow your arms are so strong carrying all those books to your room!) or a non-physical trait (The way you colored that picture was so creative!) instead of appearance helps shape a child’s perception of themselves into more than just what is on the outside. And parents need to be mindful not to body shame themselves in front of their children. Our children are listening. They are little sponges taking in everything around them.
Next time you have a negative body thought that you are about to express, think about who is in the room. Next time you talk about the diet you are following, the foods you “can’t eat”, or the way your jeans are snug because you haven’t been to a weight watchers meeting – think about the impact those messages will have on these little beings. You are your child’s best and most significant role model (at least at the early ages!) so set the foundation for their body confidence and healthy eating.
5. Ask that others do not comment on your child’s body either
This is particularly important when it comes to other influential adults in your lives. If you have a child that is on either extreme of the growth curves, ask that your physician not discuss your child’s weight in front of them, and that you are available for a phone call. If grandparents say things like “Wow he’s so small, doesn’t he eat anything?” or “She’s starting to look a little round, don’t you think?” a simple and firm “He/she is growing perfectly but thanks so much for your concern” should help decrease the commentary and allow your child to hear that they are the size they are supposed to be. And be mindful of the media they use – I have been known to email a TV network to ask that they remove dieting advertisements from children’s programming!
6. Deal with your food issues
Healthy eating is eating when you are hungry, stopping when you are full, choosing a variety of foods that nourish the body, knowing that you can enjoy “treat” foods without feeling guilt or shame, not crash dieting, and not using food to soothe emotions. It’s important for adults to manage their own eating issues so as not to teach them to their children. Chronic dieting, chronic restricting, following the latest fad diet, jumping from cleanse to cleanse, omitting whole food groups based on a diet, over-exercising, etc. all need to be addressed. While not overt diagnosable eating disorders, they are subclinical disordered patterns and your children are watching.
7. Avoid labeling your child a “picky” eater
Some children eat more variety, others eat less. Some children have true food texture aversions or sensitivity issues that require intervention. Some have been exposed so much to the food punishment-reward system (see #2 on this list) that they have learned to manipulate it. Some children weren’t “selective” eaters to start but after hearing themselves described in that way for so long, they now believe it and act accordingly. It is completely normal in the early food stages (ages 2-5) for them to outright refuse certain food groups or specific foods. The parent’s job is to continue to offer these foods in a neutral setting (no coercion, bribery, contingent desserts, etc.). But labeling your child any one way will almost guarantee it will persist.
Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility is one of the most effective ways to create competent eaters. In summary, parents are responsible for the “when” and “what” and “where” of eating (what time meals and snacks are, what is available for those meals, if they are eaten at home or out) and children are responsible for the “whether” and “how much”. Parents provide the food, and the child decides if they want a particular item and how much of it they will eat. A child has an innate sense of how much to eat – it’s only when adults intervene that this signal gets lost. If the child elects not to eat, it is not up to the parent to force them, bribe them, or express anger. If the child eats more or less than the parent thinks is “appropriate” – trust is placed in the child that he/she knows his/her own body well enough to make that decision. This builds long- term self-trust into the teenage years and adulthood. I highly recommend Ellyn’s facebook page, website and books when it comes to child feeding practices and for more information.