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Seven Ways to Help Your Children Develop a Positive Relationship with Food

three children eating ice cream

Candy is junk food. It’s not good for you.  

You need to eat your broccoli. It’s so healthy! 

You can have dessert after you finish your dinner 

Do any of these statements sound familiar? I’ve heard them throughout my life, so I have always labeled foods as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy and nutritious or junkWe are all trained to believe that foods can only be one or the other 

I never thought about the effects of labeling food until I became a mom. When my son started eating solid foods, I furiously searched for articles by nutrition experts who could tell me exactly what I needed to do to ensure he developed a healthy relationship with food. My own food insecurities took over my brain, and all I could think was, Will my sweet tooth be passed down to him so he’ll gorge himself on cupcakes all day? That wouldn’t happen on my watch! My goal was to raise a vegetable-loving, fresh-foodeating son.  

Did I achieve this goal? Well, no. Is my fridge filled with dinosaur nuggets and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Maybe. Have I given up? No. I’m proud to say that my son loves carrots.  

Is that the only vegetable he eats right now? Yes.  

I’m only human, and I’ve made some mistakes on my journey toward helping my son cultivate a healthy relationship with food. I’d like to share some of the insightful tips that have helped me reevaluate harmful attitudes toward food that I’ve learned. 

Do Not Label Foods as Good or BadThe first and most important step is to make a conscious decision to stop calling foods goodbadhealthy or unhealthywhich is something discussed in a previous article about how to handle sweets at home. Pediatric nutritionist Jill Castle recommends using the words nourishing or fun 

In an article on her website, Castle shares a real-life example of the harm that labeling foods may cause. She discusses a client who was frustrated that her daughter didn’t make healthier choices. The client would ask her daughter, Are you sure you want that?” and “Couldn’t you choose something healthier?” Her daughter did try to make good choices, but she felt deep shame about enjoying her “bad” choices, too. 

“Ultimately, [the daughter] became conflicted about food, which started to eat away at her self-esteem. She didn’t feel good about herself (or the foods she enjoyed eating) and knew she wasn’t meeting her mom’s food expectations,” Castle said. 

 To avoid unintentional harm, I like to use registered dietitian Jennifer Anderson’s method for discussing foods without labeling them. Read the text in her Instagram post to learn how to tailor your conversations to the ages of your children.  

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Do Not Pressure, Force or Bribe Children to EatPressuring children to eat can include pleading with them to take another bite, spoonfeeding them as they resist or bribing them with dessert. 

Young children are experts at understanding their bodies’ cues about food. They know when they’re hungry and when they’re fullIf we plead, force or bribe children to eat, we’re teaching them to ignore those cues. Using dessert as a bribe can lead over- or undereating as children focus on getting to the sweets. 

Alisha Grogan, a pediatric occupational therapist, says,“[] in the long run we’re accidentally reinforcing that the food that’s on their dinner plate really isn’t as good as the dessert. It sends the message that the food during the meal is something that just has to be endured to get the real prize.”  

Do Not Restrict FoodsSweet treats, fried foods and sugary drinks are everywhere. At some point, most children will develop a taste for themIf you don’t allow these foods in the house, it could cause a greater desire for them. This can lead to secret eating, binge eating and overeating 

Like adults, kids want what they can’t or don’t have. It’s human nature,” says Castle. 

Take away the candy, and kids can’t stop thinking about it. However, unlike adults, kids have less control over their biological drive to eat. 

 Maintain an eating schedule, and don’t stray from it. My son was a grazer, so we gave him snacks with milk or diluted juice throughout the day. Then, we were flummoxed when he wouldn’t eat during our main meals. Well, why would he? He ate all day. Once we set specific times for meals and snacks, we fell into a stressless feeding routine.  

Remember the Division of Responsibility. Renowned therapist, author and lecturer Ellyn Satter developed the Division of Responsibility to help make feeding your children less stressful. Basically, parents are responsible for what, when and where they serve their children food, and children are responsible for how much and whether to eat. Once I started to practice this method, mealtimes became much less stressful. I didn’t feel any need to pressure my son to eat, which meant he could listen to his own body and his hunger cues. I highly recommend reading through all of the resources from the Ellyn Satter Institute. 

Serve dessert with dinner. Wait, what? By serving a small portion of dessert with dinner, you’ve removed the feelings of restriction that can lead to cravings while making fun foods less of a novelty or soughtafter reward. When children know they get to have dessert and no foods are off limits, it can lessen their feelings of deprivation and guilt. They learn what a moderate portion is and how to incorporate fun foods into a balanced diet 

You don’t need to serve dessert every night or provide a fun food free-for-all. You can still set boundaries with your children, but your goal is to teach them balance. Jill Castle has some great tips for how to get started setting food boundaries. 

Repeatedly introduce new foods. Let your children get used to seeing new foods. My son’s reaction to them is usually “EWWW!” and that’s fine. Let your children know that they don’t have to eat the new food if they don’t want to, so there’s no pressure to eat – and no battles about eating! It can take children anywhere from 12 to 30 exposures to a new food before they’re willing to try it. 

Here are some other great ideas: 

  • Plant a garden together; 
  • Take your children grocery shopping and let them find fruits and vegetables they want to try; 
  • Prepare meals together; 
  • Try serving family-style meals. 

 Even if your children refuse to eat a rainbow of foods, it’s okay! It takes time, and your children’s limited eating habits don’t make you a bad parent. Give yourself a break, and please don’t compare your family’s dietary habits to anyone else’s. Even though my son isn’t interested in expanding his vegetable palate right now, we have gotten to a point where he will try a few new things – even if it’s a quick lick and a grimace. That’s a win in my book!