Helping create healthy relationships with food

Earlier this week, I shared some developing research about the importance of healthy eating for emotional and physical health.  In the same vein, this article describes some straightforward strategies to help our children develop healthy attitudes towards food, and thereby reduce their risk of developing eating disorders and other mental health issues, and to maintain good health throughout their lifespan. I have included the key strategies here

1. Promote a healthy relationship with food

How parents feel about themselves, how they talk about food, and whether they themselves are on diets can affect their children. This is why it is so important that we role model healthy eating behaviours and attitudes to food, weight and health. So what are some of the things you can do to promote a healthy relationship with food?

  • Make nutritious food options readily available at home.
  • Explain the difference between “everyday” foods and “sometimes” foods and avoid labels such as good/bad, toxic/clean, junk/healthy food.
  • Allow children to eat “sometimes” foods in moderation, banning is more likely to lead to over-eating these foods (and drinks) when they are available.
  • Be a good role model — eat a balanced variety and amount of nutritious foods and drinks, eat breakfast and do not skip meals
  • Model eating “sometimes” foods in moderation, without talking about being bad or feeling guilty.

2. Prioritise family meals

Regular family meals can help kids develop a healthy attitude towards food, and it also gives you a chance to role model healthy eating patterns. Family traditions based around meals, such as a Sunday roast, can help children develop positive memories with food. It is also helpful to turn off the TV and other devices and involve your children in work associated with the family meal, where you can.

3. Don’t use food as a reward

Many parents have been known to soothe an upset child with a sweet or treat. Here are some ways you can avoid emotional feeding and using food as a reward:

  • Find non-food ways to praise and reward children, for instance create a sticker chart or spend time together.
  • Praise children for their character rather than their weight or what they eat.
  • Show love through giving hugs or telling your children you love them rather than by using food.
  • Help your child explore a range of ways to calm down.

4. Eat when you’re hungry

Have a variety of food available, but encourage your children to take the responsibility for their eating choices, by taking food and drink from that selection.  Importantly, you do not need to have all types of food in every meal — children will absorb the nutrients they need over time so look at their dietary intake over a week or two.  Here are some ways we can help our children eat only when they are hungry:

  • Help your child to identify feelings of hunger and fullness
  • Avoid telling them to eat everything on their plate.
  • Avoid strict rules around the foods your child eats.
  • Allow your child to eat “sometimes” foods in moderation, banning can encourage over-eating when they are available.