How to Instill a Healthy Food Relationship For Your Child

5/18/2023 | Kelsey Sandlin, RDN, COPC Pediatric Nutrition

Pediatricians and parents across America are worried about increased rates of childhood obesity and the associated health risks. However, research shows that interventions such as food restriction and dieting can make obesity rates worse. It can also increase the risk of eating disorders. 

So how can we raise children to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies?

Be mindful of shaming language around food and body size

Avoid saying “I look fat in this dress, I need to work out”, or “She needs to lay off the french fries”. You are a role model for your child. If he or she hears you judging yourself or others, they will likely do the same. Children who believe they have weight problems may develop an unhealthy body image, low self-esteem, or disordered eating. 

Additionally, avoid saying food is “good” or “bad”, “clean” or “junk”. When we label food as good or bad, your child may feel guilt and shame if they eat the so-called “bad” food. Further, using the term “clean eating” insinuates that other foods are dirty. Teach your kids that food has nothing to do with how “good” or “bad” a person you are. ALL foods can fit within a healthy diet.

Neutralize sweet foods 

Discuss sweets as if they are on a level playing field. Avoid using treats as a reward, punishment, or bribe. This teaches your child that food is on a hierarchy. Children who are rewarded with food have the potential to become emotional eaters as adults. Normalize sweets and treats by serving them alongside meals and without strings attached.

Family meals are a time for connection 

Allow food to be a source of nourishment and joy in the home. Teach kids to respect food and talk about where it came from. Let your child see you enjoy a variety of foods. Research shows that children who eat meals with their parents have better social, emotional, and academic skills. 

Offer variety

Sustain your child’s energy levels by offering a variety of foods within the five food groups: protein, starch, dairy, fruit, and vegetable. These foods contain varying levels of macronutrients which help your child feel full and satisfied. As a general guideline, offer at least 3 food groups at meals and at least 2 food groups at snacks. Don’t be discouraged if your child refuses certain foods from time to time. 

Foster their intuitive eating skills

Remember to practice the division of responsibility of feeding method; parents should take charge of what, where, and when food is offered, and children are responsible for how much or whether they eat. Trusting your child’s appetite is key to honoring their internal cues of hunger and fullness. The opposite of this, which is dictating how much your child needs to eat before leaving the table, may lead to under or over-eating later in life. 

If you or your pediatrician are worried about your child’s relationship to food, it can be more helpful to focus on positive changes for the entire family rather than singling one kid out. Overall, children have more success when their families make lifestyle changes alongside them. If you need additional guidance on making positive nutrition changes, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a Registered Dietitian.

For more resources on Pediatric Nutrition be sure to visit our Pediatric Nutrition webpage:

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