Raising children to have a healthy relationship with food is easier said than done when you yourself have been raised to finish everything on your plate. You may also be battling with your own relationship with food. Or perhaps you just don’t have the mental bandwidth to help them think about their food choices at the end of a long hard day.
When it comes to helping my daughter to have a healthy relationship with food, I can’t claim to be an expert, and it’s something I’m pretty sure I have not always made the best decisions on. But recently, when we published this article about children and obesity, it started an interesting conversation around therefore how to help children have a healthy relationship with food. When so often we feel up against it in terms of what it out there.
So today I’ve invited Dr Nauf AlBendar, Medical Scientist and founder of The Womb Effect to help us get to the bottom of firstly why it’s important that we as parents encourage our children to have a healthy relationship with food, and secondly how exactly we can go about doing that.
Why are positive experiences with food important for children and how does this translate to a healthier relationship with food as an adult?
Children do not come with positive or negative experiences of food. The first experiences your child will have with food is in utero and before birth. Taste and odours will develop according to mum’s diet during pregnancy. This will then impact your child’s early acceptance of certain types of foods as part of its ‘prenatal programming’.
After birth, breastfed infants will still be exposed to the many flavours of the mother’s diet. Because the act of breastfeeding is more responsive to the baby’s cues of hunger and satiety, these particular infants will grow up to have greater self-regulation in food intake.
In contrast, formula-fed infants will learn to prefer a unique type of flavour and may be more difficult in accepting, later on, a varied diet.
Research has found that early life experiences with healthier tastes and flavours can promote healthy eating later on. The palette is cemented by age 3, so by offering a variety of nourishing foods and flavours to your child from pregnancy and beyond and by providing repeated exposure of any of the disliked foods to stimulate their taste is a necessary strategy to develop good eating habits. He or She will then be less likely to turn into a picky eater and develop a taste for variety and healthy eating.
At the end of the day, it is important to remember that parents set the example. Children model themselves on their parent’s eating behaviours, lifestyle, eating-related attitudes, and satisfaction or dissatisfaction regarding body image very early on.
Studies have shown that parental feeding behaviours have a significant influence on the development of children’s food preferences and have an important and active role in establishing and promoting behaviours that will persist throughout his or her life.
How should we talk about food with our children (including diet talk!!)?
It is normal for parents to naturally want their children to embrace healthy lifestyles. But even the most well-meaning comments can have a big impact on your child’s body image and long-term relationships with food.
Research has shown that teenagers and children who are taunted about diet talk and weight are more likely to become adults that struggle with poor body image and low self-esteem. They are also more likely to become emotional eaters with unhealthy dieting and eating habits. Over the long term, women were more affected than men by weight-based teasing from family members.
Before talking you should first and foremost be a positive role model yourself! By viewing food as a source of joy and nourishment rather than the enemy. If you personally worry about your weight, certain types of foods or if you tend to embrace fad diets rather than focusing on a balanced meal, it can be challenging to model healthier behaviours to your child.
I would also avoid having weight-related conversations and have conversations focused on healthy eating alone.
Why is it important not to use food as rewards or punishment?
The most common parental strategies used to influence children’s food intake include showing love with food, restriction or portion control, pressured to eat, reasoning, rewarded with food (praise and food), and punishments (withholding desired food).
These are all different types of power struggles that can give the wrong messages about food and can make certain foods more valuable than others, when moderation should be encouraged.
Making mealtimes a battleground sets up both the parent and child for failure when it comes to eating well and has been shown to be associated with a higher risk of unhealthy food consumption.
How important is sitting down together at a family meal in all of this?
Family meals and social interactions during meals are important events in a child’s life. Children who routinely eat with their families are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits.
Family meals have shown to be linked to a child’s weight, eating patterns, social skills and general fitness. Parents should also consider family meals to be an opportunity to increase their interaction with their children and share their values that are associated with food and eating.
What are your top five tips for helping children to have a healthy relationship with food?
My top tips would be to
- Purchase only healthy foods for the home so that you can allow your child to have an input in some food choices and perhaps help you in meal planning and preparation.
- Serve moderate portions and have relatively consistent meal and snack times.
- Expose your child to a variety of foods and encourage him or her to try new foods. If resistant, present the new food repeatedly until it is no longer “new.” Experts say it could take anywhere from 10-20 tries for the child to like the new food.
- Have at least one shared family meal a day!
- Socialise during mealtime. You should try to eat with your child so modelling can occur and mealtimes are viewed as pleasant social occasions. Eating together lets your child watch you try new foods and helps him or her communicate hunger and satiety, as well as the enjoyment of specific foods. For teenagers, mealtime can be a chance to reconnect.
And five things we shouldn’t do?
- Don’t allow distractions such as having screens on.
- Children should not graze throughout the day, they need to develop an expectation and an appetite around mealtime.
- Do not make separate meals during family meals. Everyone at the table should be given the same foods.
- Do not glorify or demonize certain foods but rather focus on eating a balanced wholefood diet, your child will mimic your behaviour.
- Do not ban certain food types. Help manage when and how it can be eaten.
Anything else you’d like to add?
In our modern world even more so now with social media, parents feel the need to obsess over their children’s diets or to measure those diets against those of other children. It is more important to focus on raising a healthy and happy child then a number on a scale.
Food, in many parts of the world, is still a source of enjoyment, gathering and connection. And this is how it should be.
What is your experience of encouraging your children to have a healthy relationship with food? Do share in a comment below.
About Dr. Nauf AlBendar
Dr. Nauf AlBendar is a medical scientist at the forefront of human health research. With a BSc in Molecular Genetics and Genomics, an MSc in Nutrition & Food Science and a PHD in clinical medicine, Nauf has developed a deep appreciation and understanding for the developmental origins of health and disease. For more information please visit her website www.thewombeffect.co.
Picture credit: Food photo created by prostooleh – www.freepik.com