Child Nutrition: How Healthy Eating For Kids Starts With You
“What are the main things I should focus on to help my kids have a healthy relationship with food?”
This is one of the most common questions I receive, and as a mother of 5, I totally understand why.
So many of the mamas I’m privileged to work with are overwhelmed by all the things they feel they should be doing to raise healthy, confident children.
The information overload we’re all exposed to along with the fear-mongering messages around food can make for a dangerous combination.
We’ve put so much emphasis on all the things we think we need to do, that we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.
As parents, at the end of the day, we want our kids to feel good in their bodies and confident with food.
The thing is, there is so much overwhelming information out there about raising kids, that it can all get confusing. Suddenly, a simple goal and honest desire for our children can feel out of reach, especially when the waters get muddled with all the rules or things we should or shouldn’t be doing.
On top of it, we’re faced with external pressures that easily distort messages around health, especially for kids. In a society that is heavily driven by diet culture, there’s somewhat of an urgency to “educate” kids about nutrition and food or push healthy eating “tips” for kids, as though this will somehow be the solution for raising healthy kids.
In reality, this is far from the truth. These tactics, though well-intentioned, often create confusion and unnecessary fear around food for kids.
If we have MORE nutrition and food-related information readily available at our fingertips than ever before, why are we seeing kids struggling with disordered eating at younger and younger ages?
Research has found that almost 50% of 5 year old girls wanted their bodies to look like people in films or on TV or both. Within the same study, 34% of 5 year old girls were found to intentionally restrict their food intake, with food restriction being one of the most important factors that triggered eating disorders in later years.
While there are multiple factors contributing to this issue, it may be safe to say that attention has perhaps been diverted to the less important things when it comes to feeding kids. There are much bigger issues at hand than trying to influence a child’s dietary choices with facts about nutrition or any nutrition information.
Is there anything inherently wrong about teaching nutrition to kids? Of course not.
What children need to learn and know more than anything is a better understanding of their own intuitive food regulation abilities, and this understanding can be cultivated from the very start with their parents and/or primary caregivers.
That means YOU can be empowered to help support healthy eating habits for kids, simply by preserving your children’s innate intuitive eating skills.
It’s recognizing that teaching kids about healthy eating goes beyond the food choices themselves., Getting kids to eat healthy comes from so much more than nutrition information alone. It’s centered on a positive feeding relationship that develops between a parent (YOU) and your children, as well as the confidence that comes from trusting your children's eating capabilities.
If you yourself have struggled with chronic dieting, disordered eating, or an overall complicated relationship with food and your body, this can make things challenging when it comes to feeding your own kids. At the end of the day, you may have a harder time leading your children to places you have not yet experienced for yourself.
No matter what your situation may be, there is ALWAYS hope. It starts with a shift in your priorities for yourself and your children. What follows is a renewed commitment to channel your efforts and energies into what will make the most difference in healthy eating for kids.
You have full permission to put the information clutter and distracting noise aside so that you can focus on what’s most important for raising healthy kids: Doing YOUR part with feeding and letting your kids do THEIR part with eating.
In order to do this, it means bringing things back to basics.
Learning What to Teach and When to Trust
When it comes to feeding our children and raising kids to have a healthy relationship with food, there are things they need us to TEACH them, and then there are areas where they need us to TRUST them.
The combination of teaching and trusting can give you the tools you need to create a healthy foundation from which your children grow. In addition, this framework for feeding can also help your children:
Have a decreased risk of eating disorders
Increase positive body image and self-esteem
Help your child feel comfortable around a variety of different foods
Help your children naturally grow into the bodies they are meant to have
Support your children’s innate ability to self-regulate all food
Better enjoy family mealtimes
Naturally improve your children’s dietary intake and food behaviors
These are some of the hallmarks of a positive and healthy relationship with food and body.
So you may be wondering - HOW can I implement this to help my kids reach these things?
Let’s dive in so you can feel confident in your food parenting practices to help your children feel good with food and their bodies!
Teaching Kids About Food
One component of this framework is teaching your kids about food, but let me warn you here: This may look much different than you might be thinking or anticipating.
When it comes to teaching our kids about food, this DOESN’T mean:
Teaching nutrition related facts
Telling kids which foods are healthy choices or unhealthy for them
Categorizing food as good or bad
It’s important to remember that kids don’t view food in the same way that we may perceive food; nor do they understand polarizing terms that are often used to describe food (ie: good vs. bad, healthy vs. unhealthy, etc).
I often hear the questions, “How do I talk to my kids about nutrition?”, or “How do I teach my kids about food without causing fears or anxiety?”
I think it’s important to address these questions because as a parent, you may feel it’s your duty and obligation to have these conversations with your children about food. You may feel it may be a helpful way to guide your child in making better food choices.
The good news is that you don’t NEED to teach your children all the minutiae concepts about food and nutrition education in order for them to be healthy.
That’s not what this is about.
In fact, I usually discourage parents from talking with kids about food through these terms, as these concepts can actually make food more chaotic and confusing for them, which may create the opposite effect from what you may have intended.
This means, they don’t need you to:
-Tell them how much to eat
-Tell them what foods are good or bad, or unhealthy vs. healthy
-Control what foods they should or shouldn’t eat
-Try to get them to eat more or less than they want of any of the foods you've offered
So when it comes to teaching kids about food and their bodies, what is important for them to know?
it's critical to understand that when it comes to feeding our kids, it’s less about what we need to TEACH them and more about WHERE and HOW we need to TRUST them.
Here are some of the areas you can focus on. Your children need you to teach them that:
1. Food is Reliable:
Food scarcity in its many forms can trigger feelings of deprivation, which can make a child feel preoccupied with food until she or he feels satisfied and confident that there is enough.
When you think of food scarcity, what comes to mind?
One of the most obvious forms of food scarcity is when a child might not have enough food at home or regular access to food, which can be especially true in low-income families.
However, other forms of food scarcity, which may not be as obvious, could include:
Not being allowed to eat portions needed to feel satisfied, or being told you can’t have food
Being shamed or guilted for eating certain foods or for the amount of food eaten
Weight loss/weight management tactics of dieting
Rules that implement how much a child can or cannot eat
Inconsistent access to a variety of food, including sweets and desserts
These things, even if done with good intentions, can create feelings of food scarcity and deprivation in a child, which can create a child who is obsessed with food or so preoccupied with food that it is difficult for them to focus on anything else.
This is simply their biology kicking in and body’s way of keeping them alive but unfortunately, won’t dissipate until they can trust that reliable access to food is available.
This is where you can come is as a parent to help teach your child that food is in fact, reliable and a consistent part of their future. What might this look like?
Teaching a child that food is reliable may look like:
Offering consistent, structured meals and snacks throughout the day in anticipation of a child’s hunger and food needs
Offering a variety of foods within structured meals and snacks
Allowing your children the chance to eat the amount of food they need to feel satisfied at any given meal or snack
Regularly exposing your child to food that may have previously been off limits, including desserts and sweets
Letting go of any food rules or stipulations around food that may create food deprivation, (ie: Only allowing a child to have dessert if they eat vegetables first, etc)
Food scarcity in any form can have tremendous physical and mental consequences on a growing child.
As a parent, you have the opportunity to teach your child that food is a reliable part of their future and something to which they will consistently have regular access.
2. Food is Safe
When kids are subject to rules around food or exposed to polarizing terms about food (like good vs. bad), this can seed a sense of fear about food.
If children learn to fear food or their bodies, they will start to look to external rules to help guide their food choices versus trusting in their innate abilities to self-regulate all foods.
External rules might look like dieting, and early exposure to dieting can be a predictor for eating disorders. In order to help prevent this, kids need to learn that food is SAFE, and as a parent, you can help teach this to your children in the following ways:
Use neutral language to describe food: Talk about all foods in a neutral way to help your child feel safe about trying and eating a variety of foods.
Remember that using polarizing terms, like “junk food” or healthy vs. unhealthy, can actually create confusion for a child.
Research has found that when foods are labeled as “healthy”, kids are less likely to choose to eat those foods and perceive them to be as “less pleasant”. Bottom line: hyping up food for it’s health perks can actually backfire. Stay neutral and try not to label foods.
Focus on food characteristics: If you want to help your child feel more comfortable and safe around all food, stick to the characteristics of different foods, including tastes/flavors, shapes, colors, sounds when eating, etc.
For example, you might ask your child what sound carrots or apples make when they eat them or the colors of the rainbow they can find on their plates.
This approach can help take any unnecessary pressure off them and invite their curiosity to the table.
Avoid Pressure-to-Eat Tactics: You may fall back on certain ways to get your child to eat, especially if you’re concerned that they’re not eating enough (or enough of the right foods).
But this can create unnecessary tension and stress for you and your kiddo.
Remember that as the parent, it’s your job to PROVIDE the food. It’s your child’s job to DECIDE whether or not they want to eat and HOW MUCH they want to eat from what you’ve provided.
Forcing kids to eat, including seemingly small ways like a “one-polite-bite” can backfire and cause children to have aversions towards those foods.
3. Food is Enjoyable
Children build positive experiences around food first and foremost from a positive feeding relationship with their primary caregivers.
Another place where children learn about food is at mealtimes, including through the interactions they might have with other family members. Here are some ways you can help show your children that food can be enjoyable:
Start a family mealtime tradition: Having a simple but positive mealtime tradition with your family can help kids relax at the table and look forward to gathering together. It can be something like sharing your highs and lows of the day or playing a game, like 20 questions or “Guess-which-Disney-Character-I’m thinking-of” game.
Whatever it is, make it unique and memorable to your family. The point of this is that it helps remove a lot of the mealtime stressors that kids and parents usually face around food, and it gives the family a central focal point on something positive.
Implement mealtime expectations: Family meals are more enjoyable when everyone is on the same page when it comes to mealtime expectations. If there are no boundaries or expectations, mealtime can feel more stressful and chaotic, for both you and your kids.
These can include simple things that are expected of all family members, such as no toys at the table, no crying or arguing at mealtimes, and no whining and complaining about the food. Family meals can be a great way to teach your child table manners to help make the food more enjoyable for everyone.
For example, one thing that I think is important for kids to learn is not to “yuck someone else’s yum”. Meaning, it’s not appropriate to verbally express their dislike about foods on the table that other family members might be enjoying. Instead, you might encourage your child to say, “That’s not for me right now”, or a simple, “No thank you” will suffice plenty.
Decide what is most important to helping your family enjoy meals and food together and stay consistent with implementing.
Respect Your Child’s Autonomy: Remember that your children are programmed to self-regulate and eat what they need to grow at a rate (including a healthy weight) that is best for THEM.
Once you’ve done your job of providing food, the ball is now in their court. By respecting their autonomy and trusting their intuitive eating capabilities, you are helping them make healthy food choices that are most enjoyable for THEM.
Eating and trying new food should happen on their terms within the context of regular and structured meals and snacks. One effective way for helping affirm your children’s eating abilities is to ask how they feel in responsive to eating, or for younger kids, asking: “How does your tummy feel?”
This brings the eating experiences back to their innate abilities and how different foods feel for THEM, rather than external cues.
4. Trust That They Are the Best Experts of Their Bodies
When it comes down to it, the MOST important thing you can help your children learn is this: Your kids can be trusted as the best experts of their own bodies, no matter their current size or shape.
Your kids were born with the programming to self-regulate their appetites and to eat what they need to grow at a rate that is right for THEM.
What your kids need MOST from you is to preserve their intuitive eating abilities with TRUST.
Trust that your children want to eat.
Trust that your kids WILL eat the foods and amounts they need to grow appropriately for their own bodies.
Trust that from birth, your children know how much they need to eat in order to grow in the way nature intended.
When you can approach feeding from this place of trust, you can help your kids grow up confidently in their innate intuitive eating abilities, which will benefit them throughout their lifetimes.
Keeping these big picture goals in mind can help reassure you of what’s most important when it comes to feeding our kids.
Did you notice how all the things described above have nothing to do with nutrition facts?
Wanting to teach kids about nutrition is often well-intended; however, it often just creates more noise and confusion around food, especially for kids.
You can TRUST that your children will eat what they need for their bodies from what’ve you’ve provided to grow into the persons they are meant to be.
Know that there is an abundance of grace for you and your kiddos as you navigate feeding and the parenting journey!