How to Talk to Your Kids About Healthy Eating
Stop saying you're fat
By Elyse Notarianni

Her mom was fat. At least, she heard her mom say that so often, Kristin August believed it. August herself was underweight and acutely aware of that too. Kids made fun of her, and her doctors asked if she was sure she didn’t have an eating disorder.

For her, food wasn’t fuel – it was a part of her daily struggle with her body. As a mom today, August, now 43 and raising a family in Cinnaminson, wants to flip the script for her 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son.

“I was pretty unhappy with my body from an early age,” August says. “I want my kids to have a positive relationship with their bodies, and that means having a positive relationship with food.”

For so long, the conversation about food centered around calorie-counting and admissions of guilt for cheating on the latest fad diet. But today’s generation of parents is using tactics to switch that focus to health, strength and nutrition.

Food isn’t “bad”

When talking to your kids, stress health over weight, says Maryann Codd, a pediatric dietitian at Cooper University Health Care.

“Linking food to appearance, especially labeling foods as ‘bad’ or ‘fattening,’ can lead to unhealthy relationships with eating,” Codd says. “You don’t want to pit foods against each other.”

Research shows that kids as young as 5 voice dissatisfaction with their bodies, and about one-half of teenage girls and one-quarter of teenage boys have tried dieting. Parents can teach kids to focus on how their bodies feel, not how they look.

“With my kids, I like to talk about food in terms of its benefits,” August says. “We talk about what’s good for your body and your brain. We eat food to help us grow big and strong.”


Show the picky eater some love

The key to expanding your kid’s palate is to expose them to new foods without pressure, says Charlotte Markey, PhD, professor of psychology at Rutgers University-Camden. Her advice? If at first your kid doesn’t like a food, try, try again.

“Most kids would eat chicken nuggets and French fries for three-fourths of their meals if you let them,” Markey says. “Research shows that people need about 8 experiences with a certain food to like it. Kids can’t develop a liking for broccoli if they’re never exposed to it. Taste buds change, so just because they don’t like it today doesn’t mean they never will.”

Trying a new food can be as simple as taking one bite. And it’s important not to obsess about it, Markey adds.


But don’t cater to the picky eater

Nothing derails a parent’s dream of providing consistently healthy, balanced meals like hosting a picky eater at the table. Codd, a mom of 2, warns parents against catering too much to their picky eater.

“Kids are allowed to have preferences and not like something,” she says, “but there are kids who don’t eat any fruits or veggies ever. As a parent, I know how difficult it is to have a picky eater. But if families make a separate meal for the child every night, they need to know that will last forever. The kid’s eating won’t ever improve.”


Tacos or taters: Let the kids decide

A lot of parents don’t want kids in the kitchen because it could create a mess. But it’s a great way to teach children the fundamentals of health while proving that food can be fun.

“Start involving kids in meal planning when they’re young,” Codd says. “Let them help pick out colorful fruits and veggies at the grocery store. As they get older, they can be in charge of choosing and shopping for one meal a week. It can be something as easy as a taco night, where they can plan the toppings. The important part is making them a part of the decisions about the foods they eat.”


Don’t hide the cookies

Promoting a balanced diet doesn’t mean cutting out unhealthy foods completely.

“If you’re withholding certain foods, kids get nervous,” Codd says. “If all of a sudden there are no cookies in the house, it makes them more likely to overdo it when they go to their friend’s house, or to sneak foods or hide them in their room.”


When to worry

Developing healthy eating habits isn’t always easy, but there are a few signs that may prompt you to seek professional help for your child. Pay attention to how your child is developing. If they are overweight or underweight, that can be a sign that something’s not right. If your child seems distraught around mealtime, if their eating habits change suddenly, if they start to talk about dieting or food becomes a regular source of pressure on the family, then it might be time to speak with a professional, Markey says.

“Society focuses so much on our bodies and not enough on our health,” August says. “The best thing to do is educate yourself and set the stage early to create a healthy relationship with food.”

February 2021
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