A child is born to know how to eat intuitively and listen to their hunger cues. Parents have a lot of influence on their child and how their relationship with food develops over the years. The child’s relationship with food can be healthy primarily when the adult has a healthy relationship with food and keeps eating and the feeding environment positive.
In my work I see a lot of adolescents who have an eating disorder or severe picky eating behaviors and food has become the enemy. I also see a lot of overweight children who have learned to use food for comfort and soothing and food has become a method of comfort that has lead to their over eating. How does a parent help keep food neutral in the household, so the child will grow up to be mindful about eating and develop a healthy relationship with food?
Here are some suggestions on raising a child who has a healthy relationship with food:
Eat at the table. Don’t get in the habit of feeding your child on the go, in the car, in the stroller or in front of the television. In order for a child to be mindful of eating, distractions should be limited. Eat with your child as often as possible and having family meals regularly is even more beneficial.
Avoid labeling food as “good” and “bad” food. A child can learn to have quilt and shame for liking to eat foods that are “bad” and learn to associate themselves as bad and feel shame for how much they like to eat “bad” foods. I prefer to refer to foods as “growing foods” and our “fun” foods.
Don’t use food as the reward for good behavior or offer what is considered a “treat” when your child has had a bad day. This starts the child associating food with their mood and behavior vs. their hunger.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating a birthday with cake or celebrating the last day of school with ice cream. In addition, there is nothing wrong with offering dessert every Friday night just because. Dessert should not be just for a special occasion and should be something the child doesn’t feel is being restricted or has to earn. Dessert and “fun” foods are part of a balanced healthy diet. I recommend serving the “growing” foods 80% of the time and the “fun” foods 20% of the time, so your child doesn’t feel deprived. When children have desserts as part of their balanced diet, they learn to be satisfied with a small portion, knowing it’s not the last time they’ll have an opportunity.
Set boundaries. The Division of Responsibility was coined by Ellyn Satter, a dietitan and feeding therapist. The Division of responsibility is when the parents decide the what and where of feeding by purchasing food, preparing food and offering the food at the family dinner meal. The child decides how much and of what foods they are going to eat. A child should be allowed to eat as much as they want to be satisfied at the meal, knowing they won’t have a chance to eat again until the next scheduled snack or meal. Children were born to be intuitive eaters and know how to self regulate. Some days they’ll eat more since it tastes so good and other days they’ll eat less since they are distracted and eager to go play.
Allow them to self regulate. If you are concerned your child isn’t self regulating and overeating or undereating at meals, parents can help guide children by reminding them when the next meal will be and saying “What is your tummy telling you? Is your tummy still hungry?” Having food served in bowls on the table allows a child to know there is more food if they are still hungry for it. Depending on the child’s age, parents can help a child understand their hungry by giving it a number or calling it medium hungry vs. really big hungry. It’s never a good idea to require a child to finish their plate of food behavior having dessert, since this can push them to eat beyond their fullness.
Stop the negative food talk and/or negative body image talk. When parents are on a “diet” and/or aren’t happy with their body image they may say things that influences their child such as “Don’t eat so much or you’ll get fat” or complain about their own eating by saying “I can’t eat that, I need to lose weight”.
There are situations that a child isn’t in tune to their hunger and will need a little assistance and parents can be a helpful guide. Prader-Wlli is a genetic disorder where a symptom is an insatiable appetite and chronic overeating, which can be diagnosed by your pediatrician. If you have concerns about your child’s eating behavior and ability to self regulate, it’s worth consulting with a pediatric dietitian.
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