Before you had kids, did you ever tell yourself that you were going to do this thing right? You were going to be the most awesome parent your kids could ever ask for. And then, the closer you got to your due date, adoption date, take-home date…the stress began to build. How in the world are you going to live up to that promise you made for yourself to make sure your kid gets it all from you as a parent.
The moment I gave birth to my first daughter I realized I wanted her back in there– put her back in the womb where I could protect her and feed her all the right foods and make sure she didn’t bump her head, scrape her knee, whatever!
I remember hearing this awesome phrase. Although I can’t be sure, I believe Kate Hudson got this advice from her mom, Goldie Hawn. It goes something like this:
Our job as parents is not to control our children, but to be witness to their lives.
This phrase has really stuck with me. It’s not my job to control everything my children do, but to help them build the tools they need to live their life. And hopefully I help them well so that I can witness them being happy and living full lives.
This is one of the many reasons that I find it so important to teach my children to have a healthy relationship with food, not just feed them the healthy foods I think they should be eating. If they are able to develop that healthy relationship in childhood, then they will be able to maintain their health long after I directly influence them. They will have the power make their own decisions about what is right for them.
Food and Health
Food is one of the most impactful things we have in our lives. Food affects not only our physique, but our physical and mental well being. Improper diet has been linked to higher rates of depression and other mood disorders. Obesity has become a worldwide issue, reducing life-expectancy and putting people at risk for obesity-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. (Although obesity and diabetes are not exclusive.)
Eating disorders in the form of restriction, purging, and over-consuming are a real problem for youth. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 28.8 million Americans will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. 28-74% of the risk for developing an eating disorder is through genetic heritability.
What do eating disorders have to do with toddlers? Hopefully not much yet at this early age, but this is when children are forming relationships with their world. They’re developing their brains as they explore their world, build language skills, and create relationships.
With so much going on that will help shape the rest of their lives, building a healthy relationship with food should be a key component of their exploration.
What Does it Mean to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food
Ever had a controlling boyfriend or girlfriend? They checked on your every move. When you weren’t with them you were uneasy just thinking about them? Yet, you felt like you just had to see them, but when you did see them you were filled with regret for continuing to see them? Their bad energy made you feel sapped of energy?
A bad food relationship can be the same way. It plagues everything you do. You’re just sitting there, thinking of your next meal because the one you just had makes you feel lethargic and heavy. Or maybe, you’re starving yourself even though you can feel your stomach growling and your energy disappearing. You feel regret every time you reach for the candy bar instead of the salad. You continue your “cheat day” into a “cheat week” and into a “cheat month.” You get the picture. A bad relationship with food is one that makes you feel self-hatred because of the way the food makes you feel or look. And it’s not necessarily because it does instantly make you gain those 5 lbs, but it’s because those foods have been labeled as “taboo” or bad.
A healthy relationship makes you feel like you can take on the world (well during the good times.) And during the bad times, it’s still there, guiding you through. A healthy relationship helps you feel confident and sexy, even if you didn’t get to take your shower that morning.
Food can give you the energy to take on your tasks for the day. That pint of ice cream can see you through the bad times but at the same time, you don’t depend on it. That salad you ate can make you feel sexy because gosh darn it, you just ate enough greens to sprout ears and a fluffy tail. Playboy, here I come!
All jokes aside, a healthy relationship with food, according to Sondra Kronberg of the National Eating Disorders Association states that a healthy food relationship is one that: “includes relaxed eating, choosing preferences over positions, and practicing balance and flexibility in your eating.”
- Relaxed eating: A person’s ability to eat without regrets for needs such as hunger, social interaction, and emotion. You eat to nourish your body and on occasion, you eat for pleasure without feeling horrible about it afterward.
- Preference over position: You have your favorite foods that you like to eat. However, you’re willing to adapt to different environments and situations and eat different foods.
- Balance: Being able and willing to eat from all food groups (fat, protein, carbohydrate). You are also able to eat for pleasure as well as for function. Avoid “diets” and restrictions. You can comfortably eat all food groups in moderation. (Not saying you can’t be vegan or pescetarian, or whatever you identify as, just emphasizing the balance of fat, protein, and carbohydrates.)
- Flexibility: Not making strict rules about food. “Junk” food isn’t “junk” every time. Sometimes you get to eat it and it’s not “junk” because it makes you happy. “Healthy” food isn’t the only food you eat, and “junk” food isn’t all you eat either. You eat a healthy balance of both.
Basically, to have a healthy relationship with food, moderation really is key. A person should feel comfortable with a wide-ranging diet that encompasses all food groups and they shouldn’t focus too much on certain foods.
How to Help Your Child Build a Healthy Relationship With Food
1. Take your child shopping with you.
A great way to teach your child about balance and eating from all groups is bringing them with you to the store. Focus on buying whole foods that are recognizable in their true form. Processed foods are much harder to identify as fats, carbohydrates, and proteins–especially for small children who are just learning about foods. It’s much easier to identify fruit that’s whole than the mush that’s sandwiched between two rolls of granola.
Food in it’s whole form is colorful too! And what a better way to show a young child food diversity than by showing them different colors. Talk to your child about getting a good variety of colors for each meal.
With COVID, shopping can be much harder. Especially with small children who touch and taste everything. I either order my groceries for delivery or pick up now.
Have your children help you unpack the grocery bags. This not only shows them the variety of things you purchased, but teaches them where foods are stored in your kitchen. As they grow up, they will know where to grab their favorite healthy snacks.
2. Grow Some of Your Own Food
Growing your own food can provide tremendous learning opportunities for your child.
Your child learns what is necessary to grow food. They learn that in order for something to grow and live it needs nourishment and care. This teaches them that not only does a plant need those essential elements, but hopefully by helping that plant grow larger and stronger, they can learn to apply it to themselves. They need the right foods and the right nutrients to grow and become stronger.
Growing their own food shows the work it takes to make food. By understanding that it takes time and work to grow food, they are more likely to eat that food. This will give them a sense of pride. “I made this,” may go a long way in encouraging a picky eater to eat something.
3. Don’t Emphasize Body Image with Food, Emphasize Health
Teaching your child to love their body is one of the most important things you can do for them as a parent. By emphasizing food as nourishment for health, a child can understand that healthy food can help them feel their best and be their strongest. Strong and healthy bodies are beautiful bodies. Strong bodies help them play on the playground and run with their friends. Strong bodies help them learn new things and explore new adventures. Their bodies make them unique and strong in their own way, they should nourish that strength.
A really difficult aspect of emphasizing health as opposed to body image is examining your own dialogue about body image. This is really hard for me. I have struggled with an eating disorder most of my life and am often extremely critical of my own appearance. Yes, my body looks great after these two babies came out but there are definite things I wish were a little tighter, smaller, and less dimply. I have to remember not to show these insecurities to my children. When having playdates with other moms I have to remember to talk about how amazed I am that I gave birth to two little humans, not that my stomach is destroyed by extra skin and I wish I could just stop eating and lose those few extra pounds. I have to remember they’re watching me as I step on the scale or look in the mirror.
The moment I realized just how much my actions affected my children was when my 2-year-old daughter stepped on the scale, pinched her stomach, and shook her head. That was my wake-up call. Just remember, your children might not know what they mean, but they are watching and learning what are acceptable or normalized behaviors. Model the confidence you hope your children will have.
4. Help Your Child Interpret Media
COVID lockdowns have unfortunately given us plenty of time to catch up on movies. I hadn’t really paid attention to Disney movies since I was a child. But now that I have seen a few with my daughters, I’m slightly horrified at the body images they portray. This is especially true with Jasmine in Alladin. Her waist is extremely tiny to give her a curvy, petite hourglass. As my daughters age and watch movies, I hope to show them movies with strong female leads. I want to emphasize that although they are physically beautiful, their strength of character is what makes them stand out from the other female characters.
5. Teach Your Child to Pay Attention to Hunger and Fullness Cues
Judith E. Brown authored a book titled Nutrition Through the Life Cycle. This textbook is an incredible resource for understanding dietary needs throughout a person’s lifetime. In this text, Judith discusses how toddlers have the “innate ability to control energy intake,”(280). This means that if left to decide how much of each meal to eat, toddlers (without any special conditions) will naturally eat the correct amount of calories.
Some days it feels as though my toddlers are surviving on air and then next they’re eating everything I put in front of them. They are naturally balancing their caloric intake over the course of several days.
However, Brown does point out that while toddlers can naturally consume enough calories, they are not born with the ability to automatically select a healthy, well-balanced diet. This is where the parent comes in. By offering healthy choices, a toddler will consume the calories they need to grow and will be learning healthy habits and tastes. The more toddlers are introduced to balanced healthy meals as children, the more likely they are to choose those healthy meals throughout their lifetimes (Brown, 281).
With this in mind, it is important not to encourage your child to “finish their plate” so they can have a reward of dessert. This essentially encourages them to ignore their body’s cue of being full. Not learning to ignore this cue will ensure that the child doesn’t overeat regularly.
6. Model Healthy Food Habits in Your Own Diet
Leann Birch has extensively studied food preference development. In studying this, it was found that children often eat foods that they feel comfortable with or foods that are familiar to them. By eating healthy in your own diet, children become more familiar with healthy foods and are more likely to want to eat them.
By eating healthy food yourself, you are normalizing the behavior without attaching labels to the food. If a child learns that most of the time healthy foods are what they eat, then they will understand that indulgent foods are for special times without attaching guilt to those items.
7. Don’t Completely Restrict Specific Foods
Completely restricting a food creates a negative connotation with that food. That negative association with that food can lead to feelings of guilt and extra interest in that particular food. Have you ever told your toddler not to do something, and they instantly try to figure out a way to do it without you noticing, or they test to see what will happen if they do do it?
If your child is able to explore a food without negative feelings, they are able to create a healthier relationship with it. While the food shouldn’t be completely restricted, it should be limited if it doesn’t add nutrition to their balanced diet. By limiting it but allowing them to have it when it comes up, they will understand that it is a food for specific times. Their balanced diet is their normal and still contains their favorite foods.
National Eating Disorders Association, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
Nutrition Through the Life Cycle, Judith E. Brown, Published by Cengage Learning
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