How to Help Your Child Have a Positive Relationship with Food

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In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we wanted to offer families a simple guide to helping your child develop a positive relationship with food. With conflicting health messaging at your child’s fingertips and confusing media messaging promoting elusive “ideal” body types, it’s more important than ever to help your children feel good about their bodies and their food choices. Here are some ideas to help you get started.

Help Your Child Develop a Trusting Relationship with Food

Dr. Paula Quatromoni, Associate Professor at Boston University and expert in the field of eating disorders, encourages parents to teach their child to listen to what their body is telling them, and help them trust that they can respond by giving their body what it needs. Quatromoni emphasizes, “children need to learn that when they are hungry, their body needs to be fed. When they are thirsty, they need water. When they are tired, they need to rest.” When a parent or caregiver tries to control a child’s eating, it immediately begins to erode trust. If your child has a high BMI (Body Mass Index), you might feel that decreasing portion sizes, or restricting certain foods, might be a legitimate action to take. However, it also erodes trust between your child and their body signals. Instead of being able to tap into his or her own hunger and fullness cues and physical reactions to the eating experience, the child reacts to the parent’s messages. It’s important for a child to know that they will be able to have access to food when they are hungry, that they can eat the foods they enjoy, and that they will have enough food to satiate them, no more or no less. It’s important not to interfere with these internal cues by delaying mealtimes, for example, telling your child they’re going to ruin their dinner if they eat now, when they are hungry. On the flip side, pressuring a child to “clean their plate” encourages them to eat past the point of their own natural fullness and can increase anxiety over food and meals.

A simple first step to take is reading Ellyn Satter’s book Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Common Sense. In this book, Satter reminds us that it is the parent’s job to provide the food, and the child’s job to eat as much or little and he or she needs. This means that when it’s time to eat a meal or snack, you provide the food and your child gets to eat as much or little as they want. This will help teach your child to respond to their own internal hunger and fullness cues, because they know they are able to eat as much or as little as they want without external interference. Quatromoni states, “this strategy gives parents the autonomy to exert control over the nutritional quality of the foods presented to the child, but lets the child decide how much to eat. Allowing a child to select from among a couple of snack choices, or vegetable side dishes to accompany the dinner entree, is another way of shifting an appropriate level of control to the child.”

Allow your Child to Take Control

Autonomy is the name of the game when it comes to developing a healthier relationship with food. According to Quatromoni, the parent’s responsibility is to plan and provide consistent, regular daily meals, and to choose and prepare nutritious foods and balanced meals for the family. The power of the shared family meal cannot be emphasized enough, for this is a daily opportunity to role model your own enjoyment and healthy relationship with food to your children. You can foster self-sufficiency by allowing your child to serve him or herself and dictate the amount of food that goes on his or her plate.  

It’s important that the child is able to eat how much he wants, without feeling pressure to eat more or less. Overtime, their body will self-regulate, and they will get the nutrition their body needs, as long as there are no external forces interfering. It is important to note here, that this does not mean you have to be a short-order cook. Remember, you provide the food, and the child decides how much they want to eat.

Offer a Variety of Foods

While there is no debate that fruits and vegetables are more nutritious than cookies or cake, it’s important for children to have access to both. If they are feeling deprived of their favorite foods, they will find a way to access them, and in those instances, overeating or binge eating is a common response. Studies show that when parents use restrictive feeding practices, they backfire and create bigger problems. In response to foods being labeled “off limits,” children will sneak food and be secretive, avoid eating in public, and feel guilty or ashamed after eating “forbidden” foods. None of these outcomes are consistent with having a healthy relationship with food. Once your child learns that all foods can fit into a healthy eating plan, it’s likely they will be more relaxed around food, will enjoy food, and will be able to eat an amount that is satisfying without overdoing it. Keep your home stocked with a variety of both nutritious “every day” foods and other “once-in-a-while” treats. Quatromoni offers a solid guideline to start with: “a good rule of thumb is that about 80 percent of the foods you choose over the course of the day should be mostly nutrient-dense foods (fresh whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, whole grains, dairy and protein-rich fish, poultry and meats). That leaves the remaining 10 to 20 percent of food choices to come from snacks and treats.”  Ask your child what some of his or her favorite treats are. This will help narrow down the choices without feeling like you have to have a pantry filled with “once-in-a-while” foods.  

Ask Open Ended Questions

As your child is learning to become more autonomous with their food, you can help encourage them to tap into their inner wisdom by asking open ended questions. For example, if your child lets you know that he or she is hungry an hour before dinner, you can say something like, “we are eating dinner in an hour, what kind of snack would like to eat now, that won’t fill you up so much that you won’t be hungry for dinner?” This type of question can help your child really notice how hungry they are in that moment. They might decide that they can wait an hour for dinner, or might decide on having a smaller snack to hold them over. Asking open ended questions is much more effective for promoting autonomy than simple “yes or no” questions. In this particular situation, if you asked “can you wait an hour until dinner?” your child might have said “yes” in order to please your needs or may respond with a defiant, “no.” Remember, when their needs are not met, it undermines trust in a child’s ability to attend to his hunger cues and interferes with the child’s relationship with food.

Don’t Talk About Weight

Your child’s annual visit to the pediatrician includes an assessment of growth and development, including measured height and weight. Aside from that, there is no need to weigh your child at home and no need to talk about their weight. Similarly, we encourage you not to talk about your weight in front of your child. Instead, help your child appreciate and value all of the things his or her body is capable of, like running, jumping, dancing and playing sports. Help your child find physical activities he or she enjoys doing, and find ways to emphasize your child’s positive attributes in ways that don’t involve their weight or physical appearance. Be sure to comment on how much fun your child seemed to have riding bicycles in the park with their friends, and call attention to the sportsmanship they displayed when their team was losing in that basketball game.

We know this is no easy feat, and we’d love to hear your thoughts or concerns in the comments below to start a conversation around this timely topic.