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Fostering a Healthy Food Relationship for Children


How can parents help their children develop a healthy relationship with food?

As a child of the 80’s and early 90’s, I never recall the term “healthy food relationship.” Knowing what this term means now, I recognize that I didn’t have a good relationship with food. I would sneak sweets having been told I couldn’t have them or being made to finish my plate/vegetables before I could.

I saw family members on diets and started to associate certain foods with being unhealthy because of what I saw or learned from my family members. This relationship with food had ups and downs into my teens. As I got older this changed with exposure to more influences from the media, friends, and family. Admittedly, part of why I became a registered dietitian was because of my love-hate relationship with food.

Thankfully, my education and professional experience has helped me to develop a love-love relationship with food. As a parent, I want that for my kids and I’m sure all parents would agree this is important – but what, exactly, is a healthy food relationship and how do we promote this for our children?

What is  your relationship with food?

First, we need to explore our own relationship with food. Growing up did you ever hear comments like: “I can’t eat that, I’m watching my weight”, “Are you sure you should eat that much?”, “You can’t have dessert if you don’t eat your veggies” or the infamous “You have to finish what’s on your plate.”

Was there an adult you were close with who was constantly dieting? Maybe a sibling or classmate who poked fun at your body. These things impact our relationship with food.

Things like food security, trauma, family food rules, even how we were fed as infants can play a role as well. We may have been taught strict food rules, like you shouldn’t eat after 7:00 pm. Alternatively, the newer version of this: “You shouldn’t eat before noon, you need to fast.”

Or that sugar will make you fat, but fat will make you lose weight, or you should eat only when you’re hungry, but what if you’re never hungry? It’s all so confusing.

If you’re a parent, you can help your kids to develop a healthy food relationship with some mindset shifts. Let’s start with a few suggestions:

Recognize that all foods can fit. AKA avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” This may cause children to think they are a bad person if they eat a “bad” food. Instead, teach them that all food is fuel and can fit into their lives. Some foods our body’s need more often than others. One type of food won’t instantly make them healthy or unhealthy. Literally all foods provide nourishment of some kind.

Kids naturally know when they are hungry and full. Encourage them to be vocal about how they are feeling by asking questions such as “How does this apple make your stomach feel?” and “Is your tummy still growling or does it tell you that you’re full?”

Respect their hunger/fullness. This can be done by not encouraging them to clean their plate. This causes them to ignore their natural signs of fullness which can influence their eating habits later in life. No one likes to be made to eat when they don’t want too.

Ensure to offer regular meals and snacks. Lack of access to food can lead to anxiety and overeating for some. Offering three meals, and three snacks daily teaches kids that they are safe and can trust food to be available. They learn that if they are hungry, food will be available soon. Or if they are full, they do not need to continue to eat past fullness, as the next meal or snack will be available in a few hours. We are all able to trust our hunger and fullness cues better when we eat regular meals and snacks.

Avoid rewarding with food. Rewarding kids with food can influence their eating habits later in life. Instead, try to provide other rewards such as new craft supplies, an extra book at bedtime or playing a favorite game with family.

Encourage body neutrality. Body neutrality is the concept of focusing on how amazing bodies are based solely on their functions. Bodies allow for us to play sports, hug family and so much more. Let them know that they are more than just their body and avoid talking about anyone’s body weight either positively or negatively. Kids are very aware of their environment and absorb what happens around them. If they hear others talking negatively about their body, they may start to think those same thoughts about themselves. Lead by example and avoid using negative language when referring to your body and food selections. Acknowledge that body size does not determine worth. Therefore, focus on their non-physical characteristics rather than how their body looks. Are they talented at piano? Are they filled with kindness for their friends/family? Let them know!

Promote diverse media images. Use books, TV shows, posters and educational videos that include children with diverse body sizes, shapes, and skin colors. By exposing kids to diversity at an early age, this helps them understand that we are all different.

Get kids involved. Have kids help with gardening, picking food at the grocery store, or preparing meals in the kitchen as this can encourage them to try new foods. This also provides an opportunity for them to ask questions as well as begin conversations about nutrition and making healthy choices.

What does a healthy food relationship look like?

Overall, a healthy food relationship may look like this: kids feel confident in their eating abilities, they grow into the body that is right for them, they learn to love a variety of foods on their own, they listen to their bodies about how much to eat and learn to self-regulate their intake, they do not feel shame or guilt for eating certain foods, they do not attach their eating or weight with their self-worth.

As a parent or caregiver, you’re in the best position to help kids develop this relationship. For more information, you can reach out to a registered dietitian through your primary care provider, just ask how you can speak with one! We can help guide you to more information.

Breena Bladon is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with the North Muskoka Nurse Practitioner-Led Clinic in Huntsville. Some information for this article was adapted from: Houston Food Bank: Encouraging Kids to have a Positive Relationship with Food (online resource) and Sarah Remmer. com, specifically,  What is Food Neutrality and Why is it Important for your Child? (2022, April 28).