To set your kids up for a lifetime of good health, you’re on a mission to feed your family only healthy choices—but doing this can backfire, especially when your idea of healthy is at an extreme. When concepts of “good” and “bad” are linked to food and eating in children’s minds, negative emotions such as stress and anxiety (and worse) can result—and that can set the stage for an unhealthy relationship with food as they grow up.
How could that happen? Your kids don’t live in a bubble, and inevitably they will be outside your presence and be offered foods that are forbidden in your household, whether that’s soda or anything less than a tofu burger on a whole grain bun. For example, kids don’t want to be different from their friends, so they’re naturally going to want to eat pizza, a hot dog, cake and treats at play dates and birthday parties. The problem is that when they eat something you would never allow, they may feel guilty…ashamed…anxious—as if they’ve done something very wrong.
You might be thinking, Yes, I hope that would be their response, much the same way you hope that would be their response to other forbidden things like cigarettes and alcohol. But forbidding foods can engender negative feelings at a much younger age and worsen throughout childhood. With food, as with everything else in parenting, it’s important to embrace moderation and to pick one’s battles. Assuming that there are no serious food allergies, eating white bread, for example, is not dangerous to one’s mental or physical health in the way that cigarettes or alcohol are.
Additionally, figuring out what, when and how much to eat are fundamental ways that children learn about themselves. If they’re allowed a reasonable amount of autonomy in this area, they will develop healthy self-esteem. If too much control is exerted, it will interfere with their developing sense of self, which can undermine healthy self-esteem.
When kids start believing that they’re “bad” people, that belief is hard to shake and can follow them into adulthood. Some people develop what’s called the “imposter syndrome”—to the world, they present a very successful façade, but inside they’re constantly worried that people will find out that they are really “no good.”
Another risk when parents are too controlling about diet is that kids will feel compelled to sneak forbidden foods. For example, they may use allowance money to secretly binge on cookies or another treat and then feel ashamed afterward. This could put them at risk for an eating disorder, for which secrecy and shame are hallmarks.
KIDS AND FOOD: CREATE A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP
Consider these tips to foster a positive relationship between your kids and food…
Resist making every meal a teachable moment. You might be tempted to talk about all the reasons your family should gobble up the healthy foods on their dinner plates, but don’t..because that turns every meal into an unpleasant, stress-filled experience. Use mealtime to reconnect with your family about other aspects of their lives.
Don’t make hunger a flaw or a crime. For example, if your child is hungry at 5 pm but dinner isn’t until 6, don’t deny him/her a snack, and don’t make him feel bad for wanting one. Children should learn to pay attention to what their bodies tell them. Ignoring hunger can confuse children and make them hate their needs and then, possibly, themselves.
Resign from the clean-plate club. Your kids will eat what they naturally need to, so don’t hound them to clean their plates or take just “one more bite” of broccoli. Hounding your children will “load” eating and food with a lot of negative emotion, which actually creates emotional eating, the basis of all eating disorders.
Include all food groups. Keep in mind that your kids need a variety of foods to grow properly. So unless there’s a confirmed allergy or condition such as celiac disease, don’t rule out entire categories of food. Talk to your pediatrician about what a healthy diet means for your children at different stages. For instance, young children need a significant amount of fat in their diets for their brains and nervous systems to develop properly. If you want to deviate from the doctor’s advice, ask yourself, Why am I doing this? It’s possible that you have some emotional issues with food that need working through, maybe with the help of a professional therapist.
Don’t demonize treats. Yes, they’re in a category by themselves—after all, no one needs cookies, candy, soda or chips. Have a conversation with your kids about this kind of food. Explain that it doesn’t help their bodies grow healthier. But then give them some wiggle room—while fruit, vegetables and nuts might be your go-to, everyday snacks, acknowledge that chips and cookies taste good and can be “sometimes” treats rather than making them completely off limits.
Read more about the dangers of micromanaging your kids’ diets from BottomLineInc CEO Sarah Hiner.