When my first child was born, I promised her she was going to avoid all the body image issues I had. She was going to be slim and fit and eat healthy and everyone would know I was doing an amazing job.
So I read everything I could get my hands on about kids’ healthy eating.
Problem was, almost everything I read, gave me sage advice about what kids ‘should’ be eating. But nothing about ‘how’ they were eating, and even less about how to avoid fights and anxiety or sneaking and stealing and down and out stubbornness.
The more I read the more frustrated I got. My kid just didn’t want to eat the way I was being told she ought to. Clearly the problem was me.
Then, one day, with stones falling in my heart, I caught my daughter ‘stealing’ sweets from the cupboard. On her smart loving face was guilt and fear and shame – all the things I had promised I was going to help her avoid.
I knew in that moment I had to do something different. Problem was, I had no idea what to do. I was already doing all the things!!
So I went into research mode. I have a master’s degree and one thing I know how to do is sift good science from bad. What I found shocked and amazed me.
I learned that weight and health are not nearly as linked as we’ve been taught to believe.
Eating disorders are not the result of some moral or psychological failing, they are a very normal biological response to certain environments.
And that changed everything.
I put all my learnings into practice and about a year down the track the most magical thing happened. My daughter, the one who I’d had a million food battles with, who had told me she hated her fat legs, who had had to sneak and steal sweets because they’d been so limited in our house, came home from school and said this:
“Mum, some of the girls in my class don’t like the size of their tummies. They think they should be thinner. I think they should just know their body is amazing because of everything it does for them.”
And it dawned on me, I’d made good on my promise. My child was growing up to see her body as a gift to respect, not a problem to fix.
Now that I’ve done the leg work of figuring out how to help my child eat healthily, I want to spread the word. I want to take the knowledge that sits up in lofty research land and bring it to you and me and all the other grateful mothers on the planet.
So here’s what you can do to help your kid eat healthy in a far more holistic way than thinking only about the nutrient content of their plates.
6 key factors for kids’ healthy eating
One: Eat as a family as often as possible
Focus the conversation about the people, not what they are eating. Ask your kid about their day, and let them eat or not eat.
Two: Demonstrate variety
Variety can be hard for a lot of kids. The very best way for them to grow into variety is to see you enjoying a lot of different foods. Take care not to comment on what they have or haven’t eaten. If they try something new, instead of praising them, ask them what they thought? Did they think it was salty or sweet? Smooth or rough? Did it remind them of anything else?
Three: Enjoy your food
There is nothing like seeing someone delight in what they eat to encourage others to eat it. Be as enthusiastic about salads and veggies as you are about pudding and cheese.
Four: Avoid dualities (good/bad – healthy/unhealthy)
Teaching kids that some food is good and some and bad can backfire. Kids are black/white thinkers. If I love eating a ‘bad’ food, that means I’m bad. This can start food anxiety in kids and diminish the trust they have in their own appetites and bodies. It’s been shown that kids who are allowed to make their own choices about what they eat (not told how much of one thing or another they are allowed) grow up to be far more confident eaters and enjoy stable weight. Kids who are policed often end up as adults eating a lot more of what they weren’t allowed and less of what they were ‘made to eat’.
Five: Avoid linking food to body size
Body size is controlled by many factors. What we eat and how much we move is only a tiny part of the picture (after genetics, biology, trauma, illness, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, exposure to toxins, social stigma). Suggesting a particular food will make you bigger or smaller is unsubstantiated and can lead to kids being anxious around food. It also perpetuates the idea that some body sizes and types are better than others. For a child to grow up believing their body is a good one and wanting to take care of it well, it helps for them to see respect of all body types demonstrated by the adults around them.
Six: Talk about food tastes and preferences
Instead of talking about food as healthy or not, talk about the different kinds of foods and how we react to them. This food makes your bones get strong – do you prefer it to the beans or do you prefer the beans? Which are saltier? Which is the sweetest dish on this table? Which is the most tart? Which one fills us up the fastest? All these questions get kids to tune into their body, rather than creating black and white rules.
What to do to learn and practice these key factors
Teaching your kids to eat a variety of foods and learn to take care of and respect their body is a nuanced and long term project, not a quick fix kind of thing. I’m continuing to learn and find the area fascinating. Here’s what I suggest to get some good runs on the board:
- Join 100s of other grateful parents and grab this free 10 Principles of Raising Body Confident Kids printable.
- Read Child of Mine, Body Respect and Raising Body Confident Kids: A practical workbook for parents.
- Learn about the Divisions of Responsibility in eating.
- Listen to this PODCAST with dietitian Evelyn Tribole (it should be compulsory listening for every parent).