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By Kristen Fuller, M.D.
Children are like sponges. They soak in almost everything around them, repeat the words they hear, mimic the actions they see, and even adapt to the behavioral patterns that they are around the most. Parents have one of the strongest influences on children and therefore it is our job, to model healthy behaviors. However we live in a world of labels, eating disorders, fad diets, skinny jeans, and body shaming, so it can be difficult to teach kids about food in a positive way. Childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past 40 years and it is becoming more popular to grab dinner on the go instead of sharing home-cooked family meals. Conversely, more and more children and adolescents are engaging in diets and weight loss behaviors. Childhood obesity and eating disorders are extremely dangerous, but so is allowing the labels “good” and “bad” food as this can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. The goal is to teach a positive, open-minded approach to food while giving kids options to choose their own food and to learn the nutritious value of what they put in their bodies.
Lesson #1: Do not label food as “good” or “bad.”
Oftentimes, parents will label sugary, fried, and salty foods such a fries, donuts, cookies, and pizza as “bad” and fruits and vegetables as “good,” which can create a judgmental picture of food in your child’s head. Of course, you do not want your toddler to eat five bags of potato chips and a pound of candy but it is important to explain why some foods can help them grow strong and other foods are just fun “sometimes” foods. You can also use the example of foods that are always kept in the house (for example fruits, nuts, and vegetables) and fun foods that are sometimes kept in the house like sweets and treats. After all, we all love to indulge in a piece of chocolate cake now and then, as long as we balance it out with nutritious foods on a regular basis.
Lesson #2: Try and try again.
Children’s taste buds change and develop over time, so it is important to keep trying foods, even if it wasn’t an instant favorite the first time. You may need to offer a child a new food several times before they will accept it, so try new foods with familiar ones and always encourage taking a bite or two. And since the children are watching, you have to eat your veggies too!
Lesson #3: Get them involved.
Kids love to learn, get their hands dirty and help their parents. Cooking and baking is a great way to teach kids how a nutritious meal is made while allowing them to tap into their creative side. You can teach them about each ingredient throughout the process and these fun activities can inspire a desire to be involved in family meals and cook for their future families. Another great way to get kids involved is to plant a vegetable or an herb garden with them. They can learn the nutritional benefits of each herb or vegetable while learning how plants grow.
Lesson #4: Keep it to yourself.
Whether you are in an intense exercise program or dieting by restricting carbohydrates, do not share this type of lifestyle with your kids. Even if you are losing weight in a healthy and responsible manner, telling kids “carbs are bad” or “I have to exercise to lose this gut” can create a judgmental and negative picture of food and exercise. This can potentially lead them to engage in food restricting behaviors and can begin the cycle of thought that exercise is a punishment, not a reward for what your body can achieve.
Lesson #5: Educate them on healthy living rather than focusing on a healthy weight.
Overweight kids are often teased in school and weight gain in childhood can result in chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Instead of talking about weight gain and weight loss, it is better to introduce the concept of a healthy lifestyle which includes cooking nutritious foods, playing team sports, eating sweets and treats in moderation.
Lesson #6: Ditch the clean plate club.
Children have a more attuned sense of hunger and fullness than adults, and when we push them to eat beyond what their body needs, we teach them to overeat. As a parent, it is your job to provide nutritious meals and supply an appropriate portion size at the beginning of the meal. Allow your child to stop if they are telling you they are full and allow extra fruits, lean proteins, whole grains, and veggies if they are still hungry.
Lesson #7: Be body positive.
Celebrate that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and use body-positive language instead of body shaming language. Body positive language includes talking positively about yourself and others, emphasizing that you exercise for fun (not to achieve a certain shape), and never talking poorly about other people’s bodies. Kids pick up on your comments and remarks, internalize and repeat them. Give them words worth repeating to others, and to themselves.
Written in collaboration with Rebecca Mason, R.D.