HOW TO TEACH CHILDREN ABOUT HEALTHY EATING, WITHOUT FOOD SHAMING
Even the most well-meaning comments can have a big impact on a child’s body image and long-term relationship with food.
By Erica Sweeney
- Modeling healthy eating habits can help shape your kids’ eating behaviors and relationships with food.
- Involve your children in food shopping and cooking from an early age to expose them to fruits and vegetables.
- Having positive conversations about different eating lifestyles — like veganism, gluten-free or others — can teach kids not to feel shame around food.
- Avoid using food as a reward, bribe or punishment.
- Don’t focus on weight or dieting during conversations about healthy eating.
- Occasionally incorporating less-than-healthy foods into meal plans is O.K. Don’t stress if your kids won’t eat certain things.
Caitlyn Hitt grew up in a household with “food issues,” where her family frequently talked about weight and dieting. She was urged not to eat certain foods because of how they might impact her appearance, she said, and had diets pushed on her at a young age. Hitt said that the experience gave her a complex about her weight and made her see certain foods as bad.
Now, as a mother of a 6-year-old boy, Noah, Hitt is conscious of how she discusses food and eating around him. She emphasizes balanced eating, where no foods are good or bad, and encourages Noah to try new foods.
“I feel like you’re always toeing the line of pushing the wrong message, so we emphasize that fruits and vegetables and protein are good for your body,” said Hitt, 27, a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. “But I don’t like to harp on it too much, like, ‘You should be eating that’ or, ‘This is bad for you.’”
As Hitt’s story illustrates, there’s a delicate balance between talking to children about healthy eating and instilling unhealthy relationships with food. With childhood obesity on the rise, it’s normal for parents to naturally want their children to embrace healthy lifestyles. But even the most well-meaning comments can have a big impact on children’s body image and long-term relationships with food.
To compile this guide, I spoke with a nutritionist, a pediatrician and two nutrition and family health researchers, who have offered tips on how to foster healthy eating habits without inspiring disordered eating or food shaming.
WHAT TO DO
Model healthy eating habits, as best you can.
Kids eat healthier when their parents do, said Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., an author and researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. So exposing them to healthy food choices and being a positive role model — such as by viewing food as “a source of joy and nourishment” rather than as an enemy, said Dr. Neumark-Sztainer — can go a long way in improving their body image and their relationship with food.
Whitney Linsenmeyer, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, works with college students who have eating disorders as part of her role as an assistant professor at Saint Louis University. Dr. Linsenmeyer said that she sees firsthand how parents’ unhealthy relationships with food can get passed down to their children. She mentioned a patient with anorexia nervosa who remembered that, during her childhood and teenage years, her mother struggled with her own weight and obsessed over which foods have too much fat. While the patient didn’t necessarily attribute her mother’s comments to her eating disorder, Dr. Linsenmeyer said that, in her opinion, the mom’s influence played a role, as patients sometimes may not recognize comments as harmful if they occurred during childhood.
If you personally worry about your weight, or if you tend to embrace fad diets — which can promote short-term, unhealthy weight loss by glorifying or demonizing certain foods rather than focusing on balanced eating, said Dr. Linsenmeyer — it can be challenging to model healthy habits for your children. Avoid restricting foods or going on fad diets, such as Keto or Whole30, and making weight-related comments, such as saying, “I can’t believe I ate this; I blew my diet,” advised Dr. Neumark-Sztainer.
Dr. Natalie Muth, M.D., a pediatrician based in Carlsbad, Calif., and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that MyPlate, a website maintained by the United States Department of Agriculture which outlines the agency’s dietary guidelines, can help parents plan healthy, balanced meals. It recommends that meals include lots of fruits and vegetables, with some whole grains and protein. The guidelines can be adjusted to accommodate different eating lifestyles, like gluten-free or vegetarian, she said.
Eat together as a family as often as possible.
It’s never too early to start healthy-eating conversations with your children, and continuing that dialogue at every stage of their development can help foster lifelong healthy habits, said Dr. Muth. You can put this into practice by eating together as a family as often as possible, and by involving kids in food shopping and cooking to expose them to fruits and vegetables at an early age.
As children get older, studies suggest that families who eat together at mealtimes tend to have higher-quality diets with more fruits and vegetables and less fast food and sugary beverages.
To help expand even your pickiest eater’s palate, Dr. Muth suggested serving everyone the same foods at mealtimes. If your child still turns up her nose at a certain item, don’t worry. It may take several tries before she eats it.
Alexis Petersen, 37, a content marketing director in Ann Arbor, Mich., said that when she grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, she ate most of her meals in front of the television. Now, she focuses on “joyful mealtimes” with her children — who are 7 and 3 — and serves everyone the same foods, allowing them to eat as little or as much of what’s on their plates as they want. Petersen’s son is a picky eater, so she relies on familiar dishes, like tacos, and introduces new fillings to encourage him to try new things. This approach has been mostly successful, she said.
Don’t ‘yuck’ someone else’s ‘yum.’
Keeping all conversations around food positive and avoiding making negative comments about their child’s or anyone else’s appearance or eating patterns can help strengthen your child’s relationship with food, said Dr. Muth. Kids may internalize negative remarks and, in turn, may food shame others or develop unhealthy eating habits or disordered eating.
“I encourage parents, whatever choices they’ve made around being healthy — whatever that means to them — or around certain meal patterns, to try to be positive about it,” Dr. Muth said.
Positive conversations should center on “eating real food, as much as you can, having lots of fruits and vegetables and listening to your body’s cues for hunger and fullness,” she said, adding that there should be no “forbidden” foods.
Hitt teaches her son “not to yuck someone’s yum,” she said, and to avoid commenting on what others eat. Another rule: He has to try something before saying he doesn’t like it. She said he’s fairly open to trying most things, but vegetables are a struggle.
Treats are O.K., but don’t use food as an incentive or a penalty.
Dr. Muth discourages parents from using foods as bribes, rewards or punishments. This may have the unintended effect of assigning different values to foods — positioning some as “good,” or more craveable, and others as “bad,” or unhealthy, when moderation should be encouraged.
It’s also a good idea to regularly include less-than-healthy foods, like desserts, in meal plans, said Dr. Muth, so that your children don’t see them as something they “have to earn” or that are “forbidden.” If you’re too restrictive, said Dr. Muth, they’ll be more tempted to sneak off-limits foods later.
“What we really want is to help our children develop an intuitive sense” of what’s good for them, Dr. Neumark-Sztainer added.
Never bring weight into healthy-eating conversations.
Weight-focused conversations with younger kids can manifest later as low self-esteem, unhealthy body image and disordered eating during adolescence, when children are most susceptible to these health conditions, said Jerica Berge, Ph.D., an associate professor and vice chair for research at the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.
A study Dr. Berge published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2013, for instance, found that teens whose parents had weight-related conversations with them were more likely to diet, embrace unhealthy weight-control behaviors and binge eat than those whose parents had conversations focused on healthy eating alone.
Getting the messaging right early on — so that it doesn’t cause harm later — is challenging, Dr. Berge said, since any discussion about eating vegetables or exercising can become harmful when it’s suggested in the service of losing weight.
Instead, talk about positive outcomes or behaviors that interest the child, like athletic ability, for example.
In the end, don’t stress too much over your kids’ diets.
Parents often feel pressure — whether from other parents or from health-related content online — to obsess over their children’s diets or to measure those diets against those of other kids. But Dr. Muth said they should decide what’s best for their family, and not to worry about what others do.
Additionally, Dr. Muth said that paying attention to your child’s growth chart is important for ensuring that your kid is developing in a healthy way in relation to their age; but in some cases, it can also be more important to focus on raising a healthy, happy child and not on a number on a scale.
WHEN TO WORRY
Talk to a pediatrician or a nutritionist if your child, at any age, starts obsessing about weight, or gains or loses a lot of weight in a short period of time, Dr. Muth said. Other red flags for disordered eating or unhealthy body image could include skipping meals, talking about their weight, saying negative things about their bodies, saying negative or shaming things about others’ eating habits or appearance, sneaking foods or referring to certain foods as “good” or “bad.” She said a pediatrician or nutritionist can help parents talk to their children and develop a healthy eating plan.
Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., a professor and division head of the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, March 12, 2019
Dr. Whitney Linsenmeyer, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and an instructor at St. Louis University’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, March 13, 2019
Dr. Natalie Muth, M.D., R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, March 8, 2019
Dr. Jerica Berge, Ph.D., an associate professor and vice chair for research at the University of Minnesota Medical School Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, March 6, 2019
“Factors Influencing Children’s Eating Behaviors,” Nutrients, June 2018
“Involving children in meal preparation. Effects on food intake,” Appetite, August 2014
“Parent conversations about healthful eating and weight: associations with adolescent disordered eating behaviors,” JAMA Pediatrics, August 2013
“Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents,” Pediatrics, September 2016