Previously, we've talked about determining whether your child may be a problem eater. But what about kids who don't necessarily display problematic eating habits - we still want them to eat as healthy as possible too. As parents, we have a pretty big role in our kids' relationships with food. We can impact it drastically by saying certain things or acting certain ways. It's important to make note of our own relationships with food and how we portray food to our children because this can in turn impact their relationship with food. This early relationship with food can ultimately impact diet and weight later in life. So what can we do to help our kids form a healthy relationship with food? Read on.
Don't Try to Control How Much Your Kids Eat
According to Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and child feeding expert (guru, really) a parent decides what, when and where a child eats (except in the case of babies, who decide when to eat on their own). A child decides how much, or even if they eat at all. Kids are very good at regulating their own food intake and should never be coerced into eating more or less of anything. This means no more talking your kids into eating everything on their plate (especially if you're the one who put that food on the plate) and no restricting portion sizes. Kids appetites fluctuate greatly and they may hardly eat anything one day, but eat several helpings another day. Neither of these cases are worrisome nor do they require intervention. If your kid decides he's all done after eating a few bites, let it be. If he wants 2 extra servings, go ahead and give them to him.
Keep in mind - a kid that's taught to clean his plate will continue to do so into adulthood - well past the point that they are already full.
Don't Use Food as a Reward
I know, it's so easy (and common) to try to entice your kids to do something with the promise of their favorite food. Think "If you go potty, you'll get a candy" or "If you clean your room, we'll go for ice cream". But did you know that kids have been found in studies to be emotional eaters as young as 5 years old? And did you also know that it is more common for kids to become emotional eaters if they were given food as a reward? If kids are taught that food is a reward from a young age, they will carry that behavior into adulthood, using food to reward themselves for whatever - a form of emotional eating. The reverse is true too - the threat of withholding a certain food should not be used as a punishment or consequence (eg. if you don't finish your broccoli you can't have any dessert).
I think it is important to note that treats are fine - giving your kids their favorite foods on occasion when not tied to any sort of behavior.
Be Consistent About When You Feed Your Kids
Feed your kids on some sort of schedule. What that looks like can vary from family to family. It could include meals only, or meals plus snacks at regularly scheduled times. Kids who are allowed to graze through the day with no structure will not eat as much at meals. This could mean inadequate nutrient intake, especially if snacks are on less nutritious foods. Also, if meal/snack times are inconsistent, kids may overeat when they are given food because they don't know when they will be given the chance to eat again.
Have Your Kids Provide Input on Your Meals
What this looks like will vary with the age of your children. For young toddlers, it may mean asking for their input with meal planning and grocery shopping and having them watch you in the kitchen while you prepare meals. As they get older, they can take on more tasks when it comes to meal prep. Look for kid's cooking classes through your city's recreation department or even local grocery stores. Gardening is a great way to teach kids about how our food grows. The more kids are involved in preparing or even growing their food, the more likely they will eat it.
Eat Family Meals as Much as Possible
Ideally this would be daily, for as many meals as possible. But this isn't always realistic for busy families with crazy work schedules and multiple activities. So aim for as many family meals as you can. Try this: no devices at the table and no TV on in the background. Use meals as a time to actually talk to your family - a relaxed and fun part of your day.
Remember: You are Your Children's Biggest Role Model
We are role models to our kids in every aspect, including what we eat, how physically active we are and body image. If kids never see their parents eating vegetables, can you really expect them to? So if there are foods you want your kids to eat, you must eat them yourself, enthusiastically. Same goes for physical activity. If you want your kids to be active, get out an play too.
I think the very most important aspect of this point is in regards to body image. Of course we want our kids to be confident and have a positive image of themselves. What we say about our own, as well as other people's bodies can have a huge effect on kids. If parents are constantly talking about weight, and going on an off of diets, this can lead to the same behaviors in our kids, possibly at a young age. Be active for your health and because it's fun, not to achieve the "perfect" body. Eat a variety of healthy foods with treats in moderation to give your body the nutrition it needs - not to get to a certain number on the scale. Don't comment on people's bodies - negative or otherwise in front of your kids.
All of these things can help kids develop and maintain a healthy relationship with food. This might help they eat a healthier diet and become more physically active, both now and later in life. And who knows, it might help you do the same.