How to Help Your Child Have a Healthy Relationship With Food
As a parent, you want the best for your child. Particularly when it comes to the arena of food. You don’t want your child to struggle with obesity or an eating disorder and want him/her to have a natural, intuitive relationship with food. What can you do to help your child have a healthy relationship with food?
Here are some ways parents can contribute to an healthy relationship with food in their children.
If you find you’re not doing everything in this list, don’t beat yourself up! You’re not perfect and nothing is black and white, especially our relationship with food. Use this list as a guide and trust your instincts and what works in your family.
- Set proper boundaries around food (in a kind, gentle way). For example a child in a store wants the cupcakes she sees. Mom says I understand sweetie, but we’ve having lots of sweets already over the holidays. We need to eat other foods so that we can grow big and strong. Which snack would you like now your carrots or your peas? In this example, not only is the boundary set, but the child is given options. This is important when encouraging a child to develop tastes for healthy foods – always provide options. Avoid giving in so that the child won’t make a scene or saying no in a way that shuts the child down but doesn’t teach healthy boundaries.
- Set boundaries period! Letting children eat what they want without saying no can lead to numerous difficulties around food. In my practice, I’ve worked with several clients whose parents either never said no to food or didn’t place boundaries around food at all. Whatever the child wanted was allowed. Though it can feel like it’s encouraging your child’s preferences and not deprivation, this isn’t nurturing your child. As a parent, it is important to teach children healthy boundaries so they can internalize them and have them as a resource growing up. Limits are healthy boundaries too and keep us safe.This is similar to making special meals for children. Certainly, you want to consider your child’s needs and preferences. However, if the child always gets to determine what they want, they’re not going to learn or develop a preference for a variety of foods. Keep in mind that they also need to be introduced to new things several times. So offer them a new food several times.
- Avoid overly strict rules or boundaries: ie., not having sweets in the house, not allowing candy, sweets, desserts or snacks. When you make food off-limits, it increases the likelihood that the child will binge on these foods later. For example, I’ve seen many people struggle with overeating or binge eating as an adult who were deprived of sweets in the home as children. The “off-limits” food became more special, more desired. Children may even experience overeating brownies, cakes, cookies, etc when over at their friends houses or at birthday parties if these types of things are off limits at home. This teaches a black and white, unhealthy relationship with food. Food is not either all good or all bad. Most importantly, tight restriction is more likely to lead to overeating or binge eating later.
- Find a variety of ways to celebrate, reward, nurture, and soothe your child. Certainly, for all of us celebrations revolve around food (i.e., birthday dinner/cake). That is natural. However, when food is the go-to for celebrations, reward or soothing it teaches the child to associate with food with every emotional event, which can lead to using food for emotional reasons. Rather, find different ways to celebrate such as bowling night or soothe when not feeling well such as a favorite movie instead of ice cream. The point is to offer variety.
- Avoid using dessert as a reward for eating veggies. This reinforces the belief that veggies aren’t good and desserts are the treat. Find alternative ways to encourage healthy choices by offering more than one vegetable to choose from, for example.
- De-emphasize weight. Avoid comments such as, “You don’t want to get fat, do you?” Or, “you’re getting fat, you need to eat healthier.” These can unknowingly be shame-based tactics that begin a lifelong negative relationship with food and body image. This takes away from the purpose of healthy eating and can lead to eating disordered behavior vs. healthy eating behavior.
- Eat proper meals together. You want to encourage the meal to be about social relationships and connecting vs. just the food. This takes the emphasis and focus off food and provides comfort in the connection vs. the food. It also helps to prevent grazing and snacking, which are common sources of overeating.
- Let the child determine when they’re full. Don’t push the “clean your plate” club. This teaches children to disregard their internal cues and can lead to overeating. Your child is a natural intuitive eater. Their body will tell them when they’re full – this is very important to keep intact! Our eating should come from our body’s internal cues.
Read more about how we can help with family therapy, child counseling, compulsive eating, overeating and eating disorders. Contact one of our therapists in Houston, Tx for parent coaching to help your child have a healthy relationship with food or help with healing your own relationship with food.
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