Something no one tells you about parenting is how wildly overwhelming feeding a child can be. When raising a kid, parents are not only under the scrutiny of their own social circles (aunties and grandmas all suddenly turn into nutrition experts), but they also tend to compare themselves to unrealistic standards set by social media (I’m looking at you, Pinterest-worthy lunchboxes). Overall, parenting advice around food is generally confusing and loaded with shame, which can be super stressful for young (already sleep-deprived) parents.
Among all of this, we tend to forget that eating is very much a primal instinct and that, from the day we are born, our bodies are designed to advocate for themselves in terms of hunger and fullness cues. Truly, what parents need to do more of is to let go of micromanaging feeding. According to registered dietitian and family therapist Ellyn Satter, “Feeding a child is much more than choosing foods and getting them into a child; it is first and foremost about the love and connection between parent and child.”
Love and connection start when parents model healthy food behaviors and a positive body image to their little ones, which is no easy feat in a culture filled with diet talk and body shaming. With a long-term success rate of less than 5 percent, dieting can be truly detrimental not only to your own health but to your children’s health too. Furthermore, research shows that teens who were encouraged to diet by their (dieting) parents run an increased risk of obesity, dieting, binge eating, unhealthy weight control behaviors, and lower body satisfaction in adulthood.
So how, you might ask, is it possible to become a positive role model for your children when it comes to food and body? Here are three simple things you can work on at mealtimes.
Avoid the “good” and “bad” foods definition.
Demonstrate that all foods are morally neutral and avoid restricting foods and dieting (unless someone suffers from a proven food allergy, of course). The words you use really matter. Instead of “good” versus “bad”, you could use “everyday” versus “sometimes” foods or “nutritious” versus “fun” foods.
Whatever term you elect to use, make “fun” foods a daily occurrence for you and your kids. For one, because experiencing pleasure when eating is proven to foster a healthier metabolism overall, with better nutrient assimilation, calorie-burning capacity, and appetite regulation. But also because allowing “fun” foods is the only way to remove the irresistible attraction these foods tend to carry when restricted.
Ban the clean-plate policy and teach embodiment instead.
Respect your kids when they tell you that they have had enough to eat while being clear that the next opportunity to eat will not present itself again before a few hours (it is recommended for young families to structure food intake in three meals and two snacks daily, to discourage munching throughout the day).
Encourage your children to recognize their natural hunger and fullness cues. Don’t make getting a dessert dependent on cleaning up a plate.
Make mealtimes stress-free with the division of responsibility in feeding.
If mealtimes turn into a constant power struggle and you find yourself asking for just one more spoonful a bit too often, consider applying a division of responsibility in feeding at family meals. Devised by Ellyn Satter, this model encourages parents to take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding while letting their child determine how much and whether to eat what is provided.
In charge of timings, settings and what goes on the dinner table, parents are still very much in control of their children’s diet but release a lot of the pressure typically experienced by all around mealtime. Remember that kids are very intuitive when it comes to meeting their food requirements. If it doesn’t seem to happen over the course of one day, it will balance out over a few weeks or even a month. In the long run, fostering more relaxed mealtimes allows for kids to feel less pressured around food and more adventurous. More freedom and less judgment around eating gives them a chance to view mealtimes as the fun, safe space for connection that it should be.
Whatever feels right to you as a parent, keep in mind that your number one job at mealtimes is to foster connection. And that, whatever age your kids are, it is never too late for you to model a healthier relationship with food and body to them.
Florence Gillet is an Eating Psychology Coach and the founder of www.beyondbodyimage.com. By opening up about her experience with eating disorder recovery as a mother of two, Florence hopes to spread awareness about pervasive fatphobia, self-acceptance at any size, mental health issues, and raising body-confident kids in a culture engulfed in body hate.