How to Help Our Kids Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food and Their Body
We slowly take the aluminum foil off the crystal plate of fudge we made that morning. It’s stacked up like a pyramid and with each crinkle and crack of the foil, my daughter’s eyes grow wider. She’s never seen fudge before. And although she can tell by the color it’s something chocolate, this girl came out of the womb skeptical of all things, not to be persuaded. A trait maybe I’ll be thankful for… LATER.
Her Grammy says, “now this is fudge, I got the recipe off the marshmallow fluff container, it’s delicious. Try some.” My daughter backs away with an overexaggerated face of disgust. We laugh and begin to talk about something else, and when we do her hand rockets out to the tray and swipes a square.
“I love it!” she announces proudly. “Can I have five more pieces?”
Five more pieces? My stomach drops. I immediately critique our last five interactions at the dinner table, judging my efforts to help my kids develop a healthy relationship with food and their body. As most of you know I’ve spent the last year and a half repairing my relationship with Food, re-learning Intuitive Eating after having hit the diet rock bottom from a lifetime of restricting. I’ve dedicated myself to pursuing an Intuitive Eating Certification from Evelyn Tribole’s Institute and learning alongside the wonderful coaches of Wellness Lately, so with all of this swirling in my mind I immediately think, did I cause this? I want to be able to help my kids develop a healthy Relationship with Food and their body. Am I somehow restricting her and now she is trying to eat as much as she can in fear she can’t have more?
“Sure honey, you can have another piece.” (I just ignored the quantity request.) She had one more piece and ran back to the playroom.
Later that night telling my husband, he laughed it off saying, “it’s coded in kids’ DNA to spend every day foraging for candy and sweets.” And although he might be onto something, my role in ending this cycle of food and body image issues is important to me. More than anything I want to get this right.
This post is for all the parents and caregivers out there that have struggled with their own relationship with food and body image, and like me, are desperately trying to do better by their kids. Many of us find ourselves in that impossible position of awareness that the previous generation’s handling of food may have contributed to some disordered patterns in us, yet without the knowledge on how to actually make things right. We want to help our kids develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies, but, but it is a book we have not read, and we don’t exactly know how. With the help of pediatric dietitians specializing in eating disorders, clinical studies, and childhood feeding specialists, this post will explore what I’ve learned to be the three most important things to consider when raising intuitive eaters, as well as address common questions and concerns we get from our clients anxious to help their kids develop a healthy relationship with food and their body.
- MODEL HEALTHY BEHAVIORS AROUND FOOD & BODY IMAGE.
For most of us that struggled with disordered eating it doesn’t take long to think back to a few key individuals in our lives who suggested a script on how we should speak about our body and choices around food. Social learning through association or modeling is one of the most basic theories on how children develop traits, habits and skills. Monkey see, monkey do.
The fact is, children are far more perceptive than we give them credit for. How we talk about ourselves and others has an impact. The language we use about all bodies – yours, theirs and others – is the view you give your children on the world. Many parents in my generation consider themselves to be avoiding these issues because they don’t speak to their children directly about their bodies. While it is an improvement, we still must do better. Weight stigma is a systemic problem, and in order to combat it we must start by teaching our children that you can be healthy at every size. That FAT is simply just another body type.
If modeling neutrality around body types seems impossible, and if this topic in general seems extra charged for you, I’d nudge you to look inward, asking “what’s your relationship with food and your body, what truly are your beliefs and why?”
In an interview with Anna Lutz, an Anti-Diet Registered Dietitian in Raleigh, NC, who specializes in eating disorders and pediatric/family nutrition, she mentions “more important than feeding your children the ‘perfect’ way or saying the ‘right things’, the best gift you can give your children if you are struggling with your own food and body image issues, is to get help yourself.”
Before we proceed any further, let it be said that any guilt, or shame you are feeling for potentially f’ing your kids up needs to be set aside. There is no need for, nor is there value in, one Mother dosing out Mom shame to another. Diet culture is the water we are all swimming in. No parents I know would purposely try to harm their children’s relationship with food and their bodies. More often than not parents are operating from a place of love and fear, created by diet culture’s irresponsible propaganda. Instead of placing blame on the individuals we must consider the root of these beliefs, and understand it’s not a matter of censoring what we say in front of our children, but really challenging and changing our cultural beliefs about food and body image. If you want to help your kids develop a healthy relationship with food and their body you have to consider yours first.
This is A LOT to unpack. In becoming an Intuitive Eater, I realized this was far more than transformation of my eating habits and body. This was a paradigm shift on how I defined myself, my value, my potential and how I saw others in the world. You can listen to my story here.
If you are not ready to dive into the deep end yet, that’s okay too. The very fact you are still reading this post means you are becoming aware, and that is a great first step. Here’s a quick list of things you can start doing today to help model a positive relationship with food and body.
- Give Permission To Eat All Foods: Do not forbid certain foods or food groups. Some require structure, but never total exclusion (more on this in a minute).
- Remain Neutral About Foods: Don’t reward or punish with food.
- Do Not Label Foods: At All. Good, Bad, healthy, unhealthy, treats, strong foods. None of it is useful. Instead just use facts. “This apple is a Gala apple, it’s red, it has fiber in it and it tastes sweet.”
- Cook with your kids: Prepare food together. Get them involved in the sensory experience of cooking, the beautiful colors, how nuts sound when they are chopped, how a handful of herbs smell straight from the garden.
- Slow Down At Meal Time. Say a prayer or have each child share something about their day. Helping them to foster the appreciation of the experience of eating, as opposed to standard “gobble and go” will help children be mindful.
- Model Mindfulness When Eating: Verbalize to your child how you listen to your body. Mention when you are hungry, when you are getting full. Talk about what your body wants and why. As you eat, mention how the food tastes, how your tummy feels.
- Teach Kids About Non Judgemental Observation or the Food Anthropologist: Does too many sugar cookies at the Christmas party make your tummy feel yucky. No judgement, but we can remember that next time and check in with our tummy after the first cookie.
- Throw out your scale: A number is not your worth or your child’s and isn’t a valid measure of your health. We know this is easier said than done, and something we support our clients through if it serves them.
- Health At Every Size: Teach your child that health can come at every size. The HAES approach suggests that thinness isn’t synonymous for healthy, just as fat is not the same thing as unhealthy.
- Do not talk negatively about anyone’s body. Talk about bodies based on what they do, not based on how they look. “My arms help me give you the best hugs, my legs carried me three miles this morning running.”
- Model that their worth is not related to their size: Compliment your kids on things other than how they look. Each time you do this they realize, “how they look is actually the least interesting thing about them.”
- Model cultural criticism: Teach your children to be media literate and understand how photos are edited. Here’s a great interview with Dr. Michelle Lelwica, who refined this important concept.
A few weeks ago, a Nutrisystem commercial with Marie Osmound came on the TV while my children and I played in the family room. Marie Osmond stands center screen wearing black leggings and a bright red shirt, holding her hands up like a choir director asking the audience to join simply to show her whittled midsection.
After Marie sings her praises for the program, my older daughter (only 6) shouts out to the TV,
“Sorry not listening to you!”
My heart skipped a beat. I tried to remain casual as I looked up from my book. Leveling my voice I softly said,
“now why aren’t you listening to her?”
She looked me straight in the eye and said simply yet firmly,
“Because you don’t Mom. DIETING is weird.”
Now, keep in mind, it’s not like I’m preaching to her the words of Intuitive Eating on the regular. In fact I’ve said very little. But in this moment I know….I’m modeling and she’s watching…she sees me and from my own efforts to nourish a healthy relationship with food and my body, she’s building her belief system. I’m far from perfect, and the modeling that was going on a year and a half ago is stuff I’m not proud of. But now…this moment, it’s everything.
- REMAIN NEUTRAL & Intervene LESS:
Children don’t actually need to be TAUGHT to eat intuitively the same way we teach ourselves. If we think about the ten principles of Intuitive Eating, they are based on undoing all the parts of diet culture that have taken us away from our own innate hunger and fullness cues or introspective awareness. In the case of our children, our hope is that they don’t have much diet culture in them yet to reject, no diet police to ignore or militant exercise to stop doing. As we discussed earlier, one reason modeling is so important is that parents and caregivers are the ones most likely to bring this diet mentality into the homes unknowingly disrupting our children’s ability to be intuitive eaters. So reminding ourselves that children don’t need to hear all the rules you have curated over your years of dieting. Food at the end of the day is just food.
As Registered Dietician Abbey Sharp said recently, it may be comforting for parents to know that, “fostering healthy relationships with food in your children, is one area where our kids can actually excel with less teaching and intervention.” When I talk to the few friends I have that do not have disordered relationships with food, it’s not surprising to learn, food just wasn’t a big deal in their childhood homes. They ate a wide variety of foods, they enjoyed them, they moved on. In retrospect I see, their parents were intuitive eaters, neutral about food and now so are they.
Diet culture is a system of oppression and the enforcement of the rules associated with it takes our children away from their ability to recognize and process their own internal physical sensations like hunger and fullness. Rules like clear your plate, or have five more bites of peas to get your treat, are commonly heard at almost every dinner table in America. Studies will show that people who are able to listen to their own interoceptive awareness have better overall self confidence, less disordered eating habits and a better relationship with food. Our attempts at control today, will actually lead our children to feel OUT of control as adults, or the minute they are out of our sight. So less rules, less emotion.
- PROVIDE STRUCTURE IN FEEDING
While understanding that it is not our role as parents to control or micromage our children’s eating habits, developmentally for younger kids, it is important to provide structure. Anna Lutz related this careful dance to the structure we provide around bedtime for young children. We don’t just say, listen to your body and when you are tired go to bed. We provide the structure of a consistent routine, a calming environment that gently guides them to be better able to listen to their bodies and submit to sleep. When designing this structure Anna mentions, “I think about not only the nutritional impact, but also the behavioral or emotional impact of how we are feeding. How we approach food in our home has just as much, if not more, of an influence on our children’s health and relationship with food, than what we feed them”.
The best guide to follow, when determining how to practically and positively frame mealtimes is Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility. Ellyn Satter is a registered dietician and family therapist, with over 50 years experience in research and helping families find joy in feeding their children, and her Division of Responsibility Structure, is as follows:
- Parents offer up generally balanced meals & snacks
- Parents set times and places for eating
- And children determine what they eat and how much
This is certainly easier said than done, especially when this is not the structure we were raised within. Our love, and that fear created by diet culture, is powerful, and it’s hard not to step in and attempt to take control. Bribes, coercion, and demands are what we know. But being an Intuitive Eater is all about trust. In order for our children to remain competent intuitive eaters, we must teach them that it’s safe to trust themselves. Ellyn’s book and website are great resources for this.
But what about SUGAR?
If the thought of your children eating sugar makes you anxious and fearful, igniting that need to control and protect, again I’d ask you to take a look at YOUR relationship with sugar.
When you think back to how you grew up, how did sugar take its place on your table? Did you have to finish your vegetables before the cookie? Were desserts used to reward and punish? Was sugar consumed with a side of fear and shame? As we consider how we want to parent our children, we can lean into this gift of experience, reviewing how our parents handled these moments and how those decisions may have impacted our behaviors as adults. Again, we always send compassion to that generation. As parents we are all just trying to do our best with the resources available to us.
But if you feel charged around sugar, look inward to understand why. In order to really model neutrality around food you really have to be neutral yourself.
Give your children permission to eat sugar, and… “don’t be weird about it.”
In Evelyn Tribole’s Interview on Dan Harris’ Ten Percent Happier Podcast, Dan opens up about his complex relationship with sugar. Confiding that his very well meaning parents restricted it, leaving him a grown adult that polishes off a sleeve of oreo cookies because he simply has no breaks around those foods. He tells a story about an argument he got into recently with his wife regarding her suggestion to just, “not be weird about sugar” approaching Halloween. His wife won (good move, Dan) and they just let their kid eat whatever he wanted. Turns out, much like my daughter at the beginning of this article, once permission was granted and the food was not forbidden, the charge was gone and the brain and body settled at moderate amounts.
Did you know the model of Intuitive Eating was initially based on research done on kids around the PERMISSION paradox!?! This idea that when you make a food off-limits for a child and restrict it, that becomes the food they want most. They sneak this food, overeat this food and feel out of control around it! Just think of yourself, and when you have restricted in the past, whether for a religious event like Lent, a diet, or just a personal rule like if you don’t allow wine or dessert in the middle of the week, what do you CRAVE most come Friday afternoon????
RIGHT…….do I hear light bulbs clicking on? RESTRICTION and labeling of food, creates unnecessary currency around foods and leads to INCREASED intake and/or binging. Trust that it is not a matter of willpower, it is a psychological response much like breathing. If food is available, your body will always fight to be fed if it’s starving.
Wait…But Isn’t SUGAR HARMFUL?
You may say, but Kimberly, doesn’t sugar make children hyper?
Does it? The Diet Industry certainly would like us to fall into the trap of villainizing certain food groups like sugar. But if you prefer science to advertising, one study in particular among many, conducted in1995 by a Vanderbilt University Pediatrician, Mark Wolraich involving more than 400 children, found no evidence to confirm that sugar directly impacts kids behavior or cognition. And again, this is one of many studies claiming the same.
Is sugar in moderate quantities really to be feared? Or is sugar just the understudy for the FAT Villain the Diet Industry cast in the 1990’s, causing us to all fill our cupboards with fat free everything? Personally, I went from being a self-proclaimed sugar addict, cycling on and off periods of restricting sugar as long as I could to binging on it when I was overcome by cravings. Finally when I decided to stop all that and give myself unconditional permission to eat sugar, I started eating it whenever I wanted. At first this was something very sweet daily, but slowly the novelty wore off (thank you food habituation) and now I have it moderately because it’s DELICIOUS and it brings me joy. And that….is exactly what I want for my kids.
So How Do We Provide Structure Around Sugar?
So with all the fear mongering aside, we all understand green beans and chocolate cake are not nutritionally “equal.” Ellyn Satter refers to these high-fat, high-sugar, low-nutrient foods as forbidden foods, meaning “previously forbidden foods.” Ellyn Satter recommends a slight change to her Division of Responsibility when feeding sugary foods. She suggests to offer a child size portion of dessert alongside the meal that is being served.
Having the cookie served at the same time as the main course allows these items to exist on the same level in the child’s mind. There are no negotiations or battles, creating distraction towards your children’s ability to listen to their own cues. There is no increased currency to the cookie, as it is not a reward for consuming the “inferior food.” As family dinners continue, food choices become neutralized, and eating alongside your children, you are modeling eating a variety of foods, discussing taste, flavors and enjoying the “experience” that mealtime brings. Below I include a list of her recommendations when managing these groups
Where to Go From Here
I started Intuitive Eating in October of 2019. Upon giving myself permission to eat all foods, I instantly stopped binge eating “forbidden foods.” Slowly I began to work through the other Principles of Intuitive Eating and saw the positive changes in my mental health, overall confidence and felt the relief and freedom of finally feeling at home in my body. Once I felt I had myself in a good place I turned my attention back on helping my kids develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies (put your oxygen mask on first right?).
Over the last few months I’ve just now started to employ these techniques mentioned above in my own home with my kids. Why did it take me so long? Diet culture is strong and this philosophy is so opposite to how we grew up. It’s hard to let go of the illusion that we can somehow control what our children eat, and the hope that our control will keep them safe, happy and healthy. Through all this study and my own experience, I’ve learned the biggest gift I can give my kids is to teach them how to trust themselves. Makes me think of the Shell Silverstein poem I learned as a kid…
Sometimes I wonder, are we going to be the generation that is able to stop passing down this legacy of unnecessary pain to our children? As I watch the teenagers walk by me as I pick up my kids from kindergarten, their heads buried into their iphones, I think about all the things this generation is up against that I wasn’t, exacerbating this systemic problem of weight stigma and the preoccupation with looks. I try to send myself compassion in moments of anxiety like when my daughter asked for five pieces of fudge. But then there are other moments where confident in her truth, she blurts out something like “dieting is weird,” and I know I’m doing okay.
If helping your kids develop healthy relationship with food and their body is important to you too, and you want to talk with a coach to address your own issues with food and body image so you can better help your children, request a free breakthrough call here.