Updated: Mar 21, 2020
In my work, I see many adolescents who have eating disorders. In my nutrition assessment and consultation there is a question that asks “does any body in your house follow any food rules or diet?” This question is so important.
As a parent, you are in charge of your child nutrition and helping them to establish habits that will shape their relationship with food. Childhood is the time where children began developing their eating habits that will take them into adulthood. Parents play a huge role on how a child views food. It's very important to create a positive environment around food for many reasons. Adolescents have an increased risk of developing eating disorders. This risk for developing an eating disorder increases if a parent has an eating disorder (or history of one), parent who is dieting or fixating on weight, if the child is engaging in restrictive dieting, stressful and/or chaotic family situations, the child is being bullied (especially about weight/body/eating), lack of positive coping skills to deal negative emotions, trauma, and among other risk factors. A whole range of factors can lead to disordered eating, and much of that begins in childhood.
While parents/family are not the CAUSE of eating disorders, they do play an important role in helping kids form a positive body image, healthy coping skills and eating competence which are all important protective factors against eating disorders.
So how does a parent set the stage for a child to have a healthy relationship with food?
Here are some great guidelines:
Share the power of nutrition early on. Talk about foods in a non-moralistic way vs. labeling food as “good” and “bad” food. Stop the talk about food-type restriction. THIS IS A BIG ONE. Teach your children that food can give them energy, build strong bones and muscles, help them think well, heal their bumps and bruises and when they get sick, and prevent them from getting sick often. A child can learn to have guilt and shame for enjoying to eat “bad” foods and learn to associate themselves as "bad" and feel shameful about how much they enjoy eating “bad” foods. Instead of using the terms "bad" and "good," I've heard somebody else call them “growing foods” and “fun" foods. Change your talk around foods. Don’t give these foods that moral power.
Don’t use food as “rewards” or to comfort them. Dessert should not be only for a special occasion or something a child must “earn” or be restricted from. Teach a child that dessert and “fun” foods are part of a balanced healthy diet. Yes, model for them that nutrient dense food (fruits, vegetables, whole grain, protein, fats) should take up majority of the diet but also teach them how to have desserts as part of a balanced meal plan too! If you restrict these foods or give these foods power (only when you are good, you have to earn, etc.) they bring these feelings around these foods into adulthood. Kids will start associating these foods with external factors vs. internal signals. 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. Food is for hunger, satisfaction, and nourishment.
Avoid talking about weight. Stop the negative food talk and/or negative body image talk. STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT. Please. I beg you. When parents are on a “diet” and/or aren’t happy with their body image they may say things that influences their child or complain about their own eating by saying “I can’t eat that because I need to lose weight”. A child will pick up this same behavior. They will start look at their own body in that way. If a parent is dieting, many adolescents have told me they believe they need to be dieting too. I know this isn’t many parents’ intention. Even if a parent says to the child they don’t need to diet or avoid these foods, most kids still believe they should or begin to view food in a negative way. The saying doesn’t go… “monkey say monkey do…” It’s “monkey SEE monkey DO… Focusing on weight can be a trigger that leads to an unhealthy fixation on weight, food, body image, exercise, and dieting too. This negative talk also intensifies feelings of guilt and shame around food which may ultimately contribute to a cycle of restricting, purging, bingeing or excessive exercise.
Set boundaries. In a book called, Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Common Sense by Ellyn Satter, a dietitian, states parents decide the what and where of feeding by purchasing food, preparing food and offering the food at the family dinner meal (reference below). 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 and know they won’t have a chance to eat again until the next scheduled snack or meal.
Allow them to self-regulate. Don’t place restrictions on foods amounts. This is another BIG one. 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. Stay neutral when serving foods, instead of being pushy. If you are pushy on what and who much your child eats, you teach your child to listen to your external rules vs. their own internal signals. If you are concerned your child isn’t self-regulating and overeating or under-eating 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?” Allow child to serve themselves, as soon as they are developmentally able to do so. Having food served in bowls on the table allows a child to know there is more food if they are still hungry for it. If you serve your child, do not require a child to “clear the plate” before leaving the table or having dessert. This can push them to eat beyond their fullness and not be in tune with their own hunger and fullness cues. Many parents believes there is very valid reasons for them to regulate the child's eating. I've heard this such as fear of child gaining too much/not enough weight or fearful that they won't be healthy if they don't restrict them from the not-as nutritious "fun" foods. Although I do believe most parents believe controlling the amounts and types of foods is the right thing to do and have the best intentions at heart, this has the potential to be creating more harm than good. This could lead to a child to mistrust their own internal signals of hunger/fullness, not understand their own food preferences, not learn how the body feels after eating certain foods types/amounts, and the potential for binge eating and/or secretive eating certain foods in the future. Dieting is the most common precipitating factor in the development of an eating disorder. For individuals who are genetically predisposed for developing an eating disorder, dieting can be the "trigger" for increased obsessions about weight and food. You just have to TRUST that your kid will listen to their body. Role model this behavior and help encourage them to do so despite what they might hear somewhere else. Of course, 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, however, this isn’t always the case. If you have concerns about your child’s eating behavior and ability to self-regulate, it’s worth consulting with a dietitian.
Eat at the table and limit distractions. This will help you child become a mindful eater. 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.
Role modeling positive behaviors such as eating when hungry, stopping when full, eating a variety and balance of food. Eat with your child as often as possible and having family meals regularly. The less talk and more role modeling will more likely have a child trying new foods and balance. Kids like to do what their parents do. Kids are more likely to resist a food if there is talk about the food (whether that is positive encouragement or negative consequences if they don’t eat it). Children will naturally learn to enjoy vegetables and fruits when there isn’t a huge fuss about eating them.
Continue to exposure your child multiple times to this food and model yourself eating the food as well. Over time, your child will accept them. It could take a kid up to 15 or more times of being exposure to a food before they accept new foods. I know, it’s frustrating, but stay patient and continue to role model and serve it to them without pressure or getting into a power struggle. When offering a new food, try pairing it with familiar foods. Don’t put out several new foods at once. Including children in the grocery shopping or meal prep is another great way to increase their interest in trying the new foods they pick and prepare.
Learn some basic concepts of a child's relationship with food. Learn common behaviors/patterns to except and some practical tips for protect and foster a child's positive relationship while food. A great resource is The Ellyn Satter Institute. She teaches parents how to transform family meals to be joyful, healthful, free of struggle, drama and conflict. Click here to visit her website!
Remember, you have important job as an adult to help provide kids with a positive environment around food and their bodies. Take control (but taking less control that you may previous thought you needed) by learning how to do this!