There’s more pressure placed on the way kids eat as parents strive to help them learn healthy habits early on. Here’s how you can help your kids thrive by loving food in a healthy way.
There is no question that parents want the very best for their children. Yet, it’s safe to say that as parents, we can’t make everything perfect for our kids. We understand that our expectations need lowering at times.
This is especially true when it comes to how and what they eat.
In today’s world, there is so much emphasis placed on perfection around a child’s diet. We feel the pressure from medical authorities, school, sports, media, and mom friends. We fear that if they consume red dye or too much sugar that it will impact everything from their body, to their brains, to their behavior. We believe that their health is dependent on hiding vegetables in sauces or even desserts.
Instead of raising a generation of foodies to love all food, we are raising health nuts: people who are obsessed about their health.
When we attach superiority and morality to health, we may be raising a generation who fears food, hides food, and hastily eats. In fact, scientific studies have linked dietary restriction placed on a child to serious consequences such as increased weight gain, eating when not hungry, and a preoccupation with food. Furthermore, a study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that children who experience restriction on a long-term basis will preferentially select and consume palatable, restricted foods when given the opportunity to make their own choices. If you don’t allow for certain foods in the home, there is a good chance they will find access to it.
As both a mother and nutrition professional, I’ve always felt an intense responsibility to nourish my children properly. Although I felt an obligation to be an example of good nutrition in every way I could, I also wanted my children to be adventurous with their food and made it a point to not talk negatively about any foods. And like most parents, I too have struggled to find the balance between nourishing my children and allowing for autonomy with their food choices.
In my personal and professional experience, I have found that focusing more on the latter ultimately fosters a child who respects food – all food. Here’s what this can look like.
1. Involve your kids in weekly menus.
Ask each child to pick something they would like for dinner during the week. Choosing three meals and purchasing the ingredients to have on hand is a good start. The other nights can be for leftovers, breakfast for dinner, or going out.
2. Have a variety of foods in your home.
Aim to get seasonal produce, dairy, whole grains, fats, and protein choices. Try to take your child to the store with you when you have plenty of time. Let them pick out a play food and a nourishing food that they like for the week. This gives children comfort knowing that there is something they like to eat at home.
3. Teach them to recognize body cues.
Don’t push for your kid finish their plate or be expected to eat a certain amount. Talk to them about what hunger and fullness feel like. Don’t pressure them to eat a perceived healthy food to get a treat.
4. Increase exposure.
Do what you can as a family as your budget allows to vary your dining experiences. Travel, try new eateries, and experiment with recipes. Teach them about flavors, spices, and condiments. If your kid mostly loves macaroni and cheese, occasionally try different ways to serve it.
5. Respect the cook.
Teach your kids to be respectful when you make dinner. They can at least try a bite of what you made. Aim to avoid negative words regarding food such as bad, disgusting, or gross. When you are invited over for meals, work with your child to show respect for the cook. If they don’t like something they can push it to the side of their plate. This can be difficult for sensitive or overly picky children, but with persistence can get easier.
6. Let loose.
This one may be difficult, but try to relax about your child’s diet. Trust that they will get what they need, and relax about your diet as well. Let your children see you enjoying a variety of foods and treats. Remember that we all have foods that we prefer and that disliking some foods is typical.
As parents, we are constantly juggling work, volunteering, self-care, kids’ schedules, household responsibilities, and everything else that is thrown our way. Our efforts to feed our children in the best way we know how are always well-intentioned, and we are trying to do the best we can. Keep in mind that every child is a different eater, and know that letting go of rules and allowing your children to have flexibility with food will ultimately teach them how to nourish their own bodies.
They will learn what they need and in what amounts. They will understand what foods feel good to them before a game and what sounds good after a three-hour dance practice. They will grow up as confident eaters who adequately fuel their bodies while finding pleasure in foods that bring them joy.
At the end of the day, we simply want our kids to be happy and healthy.
HEADER IMAGE: KATHERINE CHASE
Devrie Pettit, MS, RDN is a non-diet Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a private practice in South Jordan, Utah. As a wife and mother-of-four, raising her children as foodies rather than health nuts is one of her top priorities. Devrie offers private nutrition therapy, Intuitive Eating group coaching, and a journaling subscription for nourishment and self-care. Learn more about Devrie at Be Happily Fed.