Trusting that our kids can and will make great decisions when it comes to what and how much to eat can be tricky! Especially when we're raising them in a culture that's been telling us to distrust our own eating instincts for years. Here are some positive ways to parent around foods and eating...
Keep superheroes and villains out of the kitchen
Avoid words like 'bad', 'junk,’ and ‘unhealthy’ when it comes to talking about foods and drinks. Labeling certain foods as evil triggers feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, and shame in kids, especially if you’re referring to something they really like or want to eat. The truth is ALL foods can provide some nourishment—and while we may choose to offer our kids certain foods over others, identifying the ones you avoid as ‘bad’ does way more harm than good. Another reason to avoid name-calling when it comes to food: When we do this, we inadvertently teach our kids to judge others who eat them as ‘wrong,’ ‘bad,’ or deserving of shame, too.
Nix the 'one more bite' request
When a child tells you they're finished, believe them! Children are born with an innate ability to regular their food intake based on true hunger and fullness—something we lose touch with as we age. Prompting kids to eat more (despite them feeling full) teaches them to distrust their own body and listen to outside cues instead. In the short-term it can be a ding to self-esteem (thoughts of "the feeling of fullness in my body can't be trusted" and, worse, "I'm not good at eating"). In the long-term it teaches the habit of eating past satiety and in the absence of hungry.
Cut this word from family vocab
In families where parents talk about 'weight,' kids have more disordered eating habits (such as restrictive eating and binge eating), lower self-esteem, more body dissatisfaction, and are more likely to be depressed. This is regardless of whether that child is underweight, normal weight or overweight. If you're a dad, take special note: This effect is even stronger for fathers who promote eating a certain way to lose weight or avoid gaining weight. And, the negative effects of 'weight' talk have been shown to last at least 15 years, following kids into adulthood!
Take note of your tone
When talking to kids about food, be gentle, kind, and guiding—and also be concrete and clear. Children are more likely to listen to direction when they feel respected and supported—and when they clearly understand your request. Kids are less likely to comply with requests that are critical, shaming or coercing. Worse? Such comments are known to lower self-esteem and cause overeating. For example, "Sweetheart, take one cookie only so there is enough for everyone," works much better than, "Stop pestering me. You're always begging for treats.
Does your child have a particular eating habit you hate? Or is their focus on a particular food or food group something you often worry about? While it's natural to be concerned about your child's eating habits, it's important to be curious about the 'why' behind your worry. Even infants can pick up on stress during feeding so, despite having the very best intentions, if you approach meals with negative emotions, there's a chance you're causing your child anxiety too. If you need support, talk to a pediatric nutritionist.