How to Cultivate a Healthy Relationship with Food in Your Children

For most of us, growing up meant being told that we had to finish all the food on our plate because there were “starving children in (insert undeveloped country here).” Of course, our parents thought they were doing what was best for us, but they never taught us about things like portion sizes, eating mindfully or developing a healthy relationship with your food. They’re not entirely at fault — that’s how they were raised — but it’s up to us to break the cycle and help our children develop a healthy relationship with food.

Here are a few tips and tricks to help your children make healthier choices about what they use to fuel their bodies.

Ditch the “Clean Your Plate” Mentality

While no one wants to waste food, the “clean your plate” mentality can be detrimental to your food relationship if you’re not already paying close attention to things like portion sizes and moderation. Go to a restaurant — any restaurant in the country — and you’ll get massive portions. You might have proteins, carbohydrates and vegetables, but it’ll be three to four times what you should be eating in a single sitting — and you’ll expect yourself to eat all of it.

In your home, teach your children to listen to their bodies. Ideally, you should eat small portions, giving yourself enough time to feel those internal cues that you’re actually full. If you don’t, you’ll perpetually overeat. Besides, mealtime shouldn’t feel like a punishment just because you’ve got too much food on your plate.

There Is No Such Thing as Good or Bad Food

If you’re trying to eat well, you probably instinctively categorize the foods you eat as good or bad. Things like lean protein, vegetables and complex carbohydrates go into the good pile, while potato chips, pizza and cupcakes go into the bad category.

We’re here to tell you that unless a piece of food is spoiled, there is no such thing as bad food. Anything can be unhealthy if you eat too much of it. Stop thinking of the food you eat as good or bad and start thinking of all of it as fuel for your body. Everything, from chicken breast to cheesecake, can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet as long as you remember one key term — moderation.

Don’t tell your kids they can’t have a cupcake for dessert after they enjoy a healthy dinner because it’s bad for them. Instead, set limits. Enjoy a treat now and then, but teach them not to devour the entire box.

Get Outside and Play

Remember when we were kids, and we’d head out to play as soon as the sun rose and wouldn’t come home until the street lights came on? The world has changed since we were young, and it’s not safe for our kids to have the childhood we had. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t need to get outside and play. This might not sound like it has a lot to do with developing a healthy relationship with food, but hear us out.

Play helps our kids develop skills and learn lessons they’ll use for the rest of their lives, from leadership to sportsmanship and everything in between. It also allows younger children to learn and hone their motor skills, improving strength and balance.

This is where the lesson from our last point comes in — thinking of food as fuel for your body. Talk to your kids. Teach them about simple and natural sugars, simple and complex carbohydrates, and the different fuels that keep them going through the day. The complex carbs in a piece of whole wheat bread will keep them going longer than the simple sugars in a packet of fruit snacks.

No Negative Food or Body Talk

Kids live by a simple motto — monkey see, monkey do. They won’t do what we tell them to if they see us doing the exact opposite. If we want them to have a healthy relationship with food and then feel bad for eating a cookie, they’re going to get mixed messages.

Think about how you talk about food. We’ve already established that you need to eliminate the idea of good and bad food from your mindset, but that’s only effective if you strive to make changes. At the same time, stop the negative body talk. Don’t call yourself fat. Don’t say you need to go on a diet. Don’t poke your belly and say you need to lose a few pounds. Even if they’re too young to understand, kids will start to internalize those sentiments — and they will become their internal dialogue.

Rewrite your monologue. Lose the negative self-talk, both when it’s targeted at your diet and when you’re talking about yourself. Focusing on the bad makes it harder for you and your children to establish a healthy relationship with food.

Sit Down at the Table to Eat

We get it. We all have busy lives, and sometimes, it’s faster and more efficient to feed our families on the go. Unfortunately, that usually leads to overeating because fast food is easy and cheap to obtain and comes in massive portions.

Studies have shown that the act of eating at the table, instead of on the go, helps to reduce portion sizes, increase satisfaction and make it easier for you to eat mindfully. That means you’re in the moment, savoring each bite of your meal, instead of shoveling food into your face in a mad dash to make it your next appointment or task.

Even if you’ve got a super busy schedule, make it a point to sit down and eat around the dinner table a few times every week. You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to encourage your children to have a healthy relationship with their food when you’re cooking at home and paying closer attention to portion sizes.

Everything in Moderation

Remember the golden rule of healthy food relationships — everything in moderation. Live by that and everything else will fall into place.

Jennifer Landis is a mom, wife, freelance writer, and blogger at Mindfulness Mama. She enjoys yoga day, red wine, and drinking all of the tea she can find. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferELandis.

Image courtesy of Patrick Fore.

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