Are Your Mealtime Messages Nurturing a Healthy Eater?
“Your job as a parent is not to make your child's way smooth, but rather to help her develop inner resources so she can cope.”
― Ellyn Satter
We have all grown up learning about the power of words and the potential impact our conversations can have on others. Perhaps this becomes even more real when you have kids. I know for me, I realized that the messages I am communicating, both verbally and non-verbally, have a tremendous impact on how my children experience the world around them.
As a mama and registered dietitian that focuses on family nutrition, I have definitely observed how the way we communicate as parents, specifically about food and body, can shape how our children eat and view their bodies.
Messages That Nurture a Healthy Eater
When it comes to how your child eats, do you find yourself making comments about their food choices or how they are eating? What does your language about food communicate to your children?
As parents, we are constantly bombarded with negative messages about food, dieting, and our bodies. Unknowingly, these messages can permeate how we think and talk about food, even Influencing how we converse around and with our kids.
It is important to understand that whether we realize it or not, we are sending messages to our children about food and their bodies, directly or indirectly. As children are shaping and forming their opinions from the people they are surrounded by, it is helpful to examine what messages you may be sending your own child, both verbally and non-verbally.
For example, consider the following mealtime situations:
- Your child is having a hard time eating dinner and is especially avoiding vegetables. You coerce them to eat and tell them they cannot leave the table until they take at least two bites of veggies. You may even bribe or threaten them with dessert, telling them they cannot have any ice cream unless they eat their vegetables.
- Your child loves to eat and regularly enjoys the meals that you cook. At the last doctor’s visit, the pediatrician mentioned tactics on “preventing childhood obesity”, and you have started to worry about your child’s weight. Your child happily helps herself to a second serving of the main course, but not without you giving them, “the look”.
- You are going out to eat as a family, and your child may select an item that is high in fat and sugar. You consider this an “unhealthy” choice and ask, “Are you sure you really want that?”
- You are worried that your child may be eating excess calories, so you keep certain foods and/or snacks out of sight or reach.You might impose arbitrary limits, such as certain portion sizes your child is allowed to eat or number of helpings
- You might describe food in “black and white” terms, such as noting to your child that fruits and vegetables are “better” for them and should be chosen over “unhealthy” or “bad” foods, like desserts, sweets, etc.
- You may overly praise your child for cleaning their plate or eating all of their vegetables, telling them how “good” they are for doing so.
These are just some potential examples that could communicate negative messages about food and your child’s overall eating competence.
Examining Your Food Beliefs
If in reflecting on your own mealtime messages, you have found yourself falling into some of these scenarios, the most important thing you can do as a parent is give yourself an abundance of GRACE.
We parent from a place of good intentions, and especially when it comes to our children, we only want to raise healthy, competent eaters. I resonate with this completely. So realize that you are not a bad parent if you struggle with meal time battles and let go of any mom guilt that you might be experiencing if you feel like eating patterns in your household are in disarray. Guilt, shame, and regret will only hold you back.
The best thing you can do is honestly reflect on your own experiences and learn what you would like to do differently to create positive changes. This involves examining your own beliefs about food and your body. How we communicate with our children and the messages we share about food and our body often stem from deep beliefs we house within ourselves.
Are you comfortable in your own body? Do you worry about your weight, food choices, or engage in dieting? If so, this may manifest in the way that you converse about food to your children, both in conversation and in body language.
Keeping Mealtimes Neutral
A practical way to nurture healthy eaters in your family is by keeping mealtimes as neutral as possible. I encourage families to proactively take a neutral stance toward food and center mealtimes around family fellowship and topics of conversation that build relationships.
This will ultimately help your child develop a healthy relationship with food by:
- Helping them feel good about eating
- Encouraging them to feel relaxed about eating all kinds of foods
- Managing how much they need to eat without worrying whether it is too much or too little
- Avoiding restricting and/or overeating
This will also help take away any unnecessary pressure you may be experiencing as you learn to trust your child’s ability to eat the amount they need to grow appropriately, regulate their intake.
If you have found yourself needing help or support when it comes to child feeding and/or raising a healthy eater, know that there are many resources available. Connect with me today to learn how we can work together on a comprehensive feeding strategy that will support your entire family and bring joy back to mealtimes.