By Amanda Regan, registered dietitian and certified lactation educator-counselor at CHOC
In a culture filled with fad diets and mixed food messages, it can feel confusing to try and be healthy. Today, we find so many labels on food telling us how we should already feel about what we’re eating —good, bad, clean, or guilt -free. These mixed messages about food can feel even more confusing for young children and teens.
Those at a vulnerable age can be more susceptible to triggers, such as product labeling, that could negatively affect their relationship with food or even contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Unfortunately, eating disorders have become increasingly more prevalent among all kids of different genders, race, shapes and sizes. Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate out of any mental illness.
We as parents have an opportunity to help our children develop a positive relationship with food. A person’s relationship with food starts as young as infancy, so it’s important to make mealtimes as pleasant as possible from the very beginning. Here are some tips on how to help your child not only feel good about everything they eat, but also feel good about themselves.
Avoid putting your child on a diet
Research shows that dieting behaviors are most commonly linked to eating disorders in kids. Growing children should not be put on a diet unless it is deemed medically necessary. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, if a child is overweight, the recommendation should be to encourage a healthy lifestyle, rather than focusing on weight. Although we don’t always realize it, our children are always listening to us. So, try not to talk about weight, calories, or dieting in front of your child. Even if you, yourself, are on a diet.
Avoid attaching labels to food
Try not to think of food as either bad or good, but instead focus on nourishment for you and your child. Labeling food is a way of telling your child how they should already feel about the food they are eating, instead of letting them decide for themselves. Let your child know that all food can fit in a healthy diet, as long as the majority of their diet is a balance of all the food groups. This means that yes, even treats can have a place in a healthy diet.
Refrain from body talk
Avoid talking about appearance or body image in front of your child. Your child’s body is constantly changing and developing — especially during the adolescent years — and it can leave them feeling awkward and self-conscious. Children are sensitive to comments about body image.
Have family meals
Frequently eating meals together has been shown to prevent disordered eating behaviors such as restricting, binging and purging. Family meals provide opportunities for you to model healthy behaviors in front of your child. They have also been associated with overall improvement in dietary quality. When having family meals, try to provide the same food for everyone and avoid making separate meals.
Know your role in the feeding relationship
With food, your role job as a parent is to provide nutritious food for your child; their job is to decide how much they eat. Try not to pressure your child in any way when it comes to eating. Helping your child build a positive relationship with food involves trust. Trust in your child to finish their meal when they are full and eat more when they are hungry. Force feeding or restricting food intake can turn mealtimes into a battle ground.
For more on CHOC’s clinical nutrition program