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Raising your kids to have a healthy relationship with food. A plea from an eating disorders dietitian

By August 16, 2017Comfort.Food

Raising your kids so they enjoy health food and avoid Eating Disorders

Is it important to you that your child eats healthy food? A no-brainer, right? Of course it’s important! Now I’m going to ask you a slightly different question:

Is it also important to you that your child has a healthy relationship with food?

I have two young children, and for me, helping them develop a healthy relationship with food is one of my biggest parenting goals.

You see, I’m a dietitian who works with people who have a difficult relationship with food. Maybe they count calories all day long, and worry obsessively about whether their weight has gone up or down by even a gram or two. Maybe they spend their days trying to eat “really healthy” foods, but somehow keep finding themselves bingeing on all the other foods. Or maybe they have anorexia nervosa and struggle to allow themselves to eat any food at all.

Now, I’m not going to make any glib statements about what causes those difficulties with eating, and I’m certainly not going to say that it’s parents who cause those problems.

My message is actually a positive one:

Parents, there are few simple ways you can help to create a household which promotes the development of a HEALTHY relationship with food for your children (and hopefully you too)!

If only more parents realised this!!! It’s mostly about being conscious of the attitudes you have, and the words you use around food and weight. See, children learn a lot about food and eating from observing the adults around them. They internalise all those thoughts and behaviours you’re putting out there (whether you’re doing so intentionally or otherwise), so it can make a big difference to how they relate to food if you model relaxed, body-positive behaviours…

What can I do?

Let’s start by noticing what’s not helpful. Here are some food/weight statements that a lot of people make which they don’t notice are actually negative statements:

  • “I’m being really naughty eating this”
  • “Well I look awful in this outfit. Look at how big my bum is. How depressing.”
  • “I had the worst day imaginable. We’re getting take-away pizza and ice-cream tonight. And Mummy definitely needs a glass of wine.”

What are these statements teaching kids?

1) that eating food sometimes makes you a bad person,

2) that it’s normal and acceptable to be judgemental about your body shape, and to publicly criticise yourself for it, and

3) that negative emotions can be fixed with food.

Many people use this sort of language every week. Is it any wonder that children as young as 11 are starting to say they wish they were thinner, to judge other kids on their body shape, or to get upset that they don’t look the way that other people do?

Reframe

Now let’s try and reframe those statements so that the message isn’t negative:Raising your kids so they enjoy healthy food for life. A plea from an Eating Disorders dietitian

  • I’m really enjoying this. (…and meanwhile, you’re demonstrating eating an appropriate sized portion of that food, tasting it, and enjoying it, without ever saying a bad word about it!)
  • I love the colours on this top, they’re very fun. (ie, if you don’t like how the pants look, focus on what you DO like about the outfit)
  • I had an awful day. I need to do something fun to cheer myself up. Who wants to put loud music on and do Wii Karaoke with me? I encourage you join in if you don’t want me to only do Michael Bublé..

And the good news is, changing over to this way of thinking and talking will actually help give you a more positive relationship with your body too.

Here are my top tips for promoting a household where everyone feels positive about food and isn’t hung-up on body shape:

  • Demonstrate healthy eating by what you choose to serve, the portion sizes you serve, and your positive encouragement of your child’s decision to eat from a range of all the different food groups. You don’t need to make negative statements about any foods or how people eat.
  • Eat together as a family. Be relaxed at the table, don’t use it as a place to hash out complaints or criticisms. Make it a place to connect and experience food in a nice way.
  • Make it a rule in your family that you don’t say negative things about anybody’s weight or shape. How is it ever helpful to talk like that?
  • Don’t describe other people according to their weight or body shape. If you don’t know their name, you could say what colour top they’re wearing, describe their hair, etc.
  • Try not to voice negative statements about your own weight. On your gravestone,do think your weight will be listed as an achievement? No, it will talk about the sort of person you were and the impact you had upon other people in your life. Weight and body shape do not define a person, so keep it in perspective.
  • Try not to use food as a reward or bribe for kids doing things, that sets up an emotional eating association.
  • With older kids, make an effort to point out the tricks that are used in the media to modify images so they can create a “perfect” body. These days there are apps that allow even infrequent social media users to flick a finger and skim down the width of their body, air brush spots away, and increase their pout. It’s not real. The stuff in magazines is REALLY not real. Make sure your kids know this (boys as well as girls).
  • Keep an eye out for what your older kids are tuning into on social media. A lot of them promote unrealistic body shapes and sizes, or use language which, frankly, is not accepting and body-positive. Don’t let these messages get drip-fed into your child’s brain day after day, because it does affect them.

How do you support your kids to feel good about food and body image? Are there certain things that you avoid to achieve this? If your kids are older, what strategies have you tried to keep the social media issues under control? I’d love to hear from you, so please leave a message!

This post was originally published on Mums and Co

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