When we have a positive relationship with food, we’re able to feed our body what it needs to be healthy, enjoy treats without guilt and feel relaxed about eating. As parents, there’s lots we can do to help kids feel good about food.
What does a positive relationship with food look like?
When we have a positive relationship with food, we:
enjoy foods that nourish us – and enjoy treats sometimes too.
are in tune with our body’s signals – we know when we’re hungry for actual food (as opposed to wanting to eat for other reasons like boredom or loneliness), and when we’ve had enough.
take pleasure in eating
feel relaxed about food and don’t obsess over it
How to help kids have a positive relationship with food
As parents, we have more influence than anyone (food advertisers included) about how our kids grow up feeling about food. Here are five ways you can help your kids develop a positive relationship with food:
1) Eat together. Building a positive relationship with food happens most naturally where there are positive experiences around food, and the family dinner table is a daily opportunity for this to occur. It doesn’t matter whether you’re having a three-course gourmet meal or pizza out of a box, the food itself isn’t the focus - being together is the important thing. Put aside any grievances or difficult conversation topics for the time being, and treat the mealtime as a sacred, happy time together.
Got a picky eater? Then get those positive mealtime vibes flowing! When we experience positive emotions, our field of focus expands, making us feel more curious and adventurous. This is exactly the frame of mind a picky eater needs to be open to new food experiences and expand their food repertoire. Putting pressure on them to eat does the opposite.
Family meals not only help kids to grow up with a more positive relationship with food, research shows that children who have regular, positive family meals have better outcomes in school, are more likely to be a healthy weight, are less likely to develop an eating disorder and are less likely to abuse drugs – and this is despite socioeconomic status. It’s around the table that we do the work of the family –connecting, nurturing, comforting, talking through issues. The importance of eating together can't be understated.
2) Turn off the TV. Have you ever been out for a meal at a restaurant that had a TV on somewhere in the room? And despite your best intentions, your eyes kept drifting back to it? Screens have an almost magnetic pull for most of us, so make it a habit to turn the TV off during mealtimes. If our goal of family meals is about connecting and enjoying one another’s company, we need to be able to focus our attention on one another – not on the TV.
In addition, research clearly shows that we’re more likely to overeat while watching TV. Watching TV distracts us from our body’s fullness signals, and makes us not really notice that we’re eating. Without paying attention, it can feel like we haven't eaten, and so we keep going despite being full.
3) Allow treats sometimes. There’s a reason celebrations usually involve special foods like cakes and desserts – they’re delicious! The problem with Western culture is that these foods have become every day foods for many people. Helping kids have a positive relationship with food means helping them to feel comfortable with food as something that enhances life and wellbeing – and sometimes this means a special treat (whatever that means for you and your family).
The key is to bring celebration foods back to their place – occasional, special and shared with others in a spirit of happiness. What we don’t want is for kids to feel that they’re being ‘bad’ by eating these foods or that we don’t trust them to control their own appetite.
4) Control the environment, not the child. One of the dilemmas many parents face is not wanting to pressure their children about food, but wanting them to eat a healthy diet. For many children, choosing what they do or don’t eat is one of the few things they can control in their lives – and it’s essential that we allow them to do this.
Our role as parents is to create a home environment where the food choices available are things that you’d be happy for them to eat. If you don’t want them eating Coco Pops, don’t buy them. Buying them and expecting the kids not to eat them is opening yourself up to a struggle that could have been avoided.
Sometimes, changing the environment can take a mindful decision and then consciously sticking to it while everyone adjusts. For example, if your kids are used to finding ice-cream in the freezer and you decide only to buy it on special occasions, you might meet a bit of resistance to begin with. Hold firm and don’t give too many explanations or excuses. Try it and see - you might be surprised.
5) Notice your own behaviours around food. Kids are smart. Very smart. They learn far more by observing our behaviours than by listening to our instructions. Spend some time noticing your own relationship to food. Do you talk about being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on what you’re eating? Do you diet, or use restrictive language around food, like ‘I can’t eat that’. And how do you talk about your own body? Do you focus on how it looks, or on how it feels?
Ideally, we want our kids to have a positive relationship with food because eating well allows their bodies to be healthy, and healthy bodies feel good to be in, and, research shows, healthy bodies lead to better moods and lower rates of depression and anxiety. Healthy bodies are happier bodies. (Notice there’s nothing in there about what these healthy bodies look like?)
Now here’s the thing – you can’t hide how you feel about food. Sometimes the best thing we can do to help our kids develop a healthy relationship with food, is to work on ourselves. And in the meantime, savour that piece of cake…together!
References available upon request.