In a world that sends so many complicated, often unhealthy, messages about food and our bodies, it can be hard for parents to talk to kids about what it really means to be healthy, to feel good about your shape and to eat well.
If you’re worried about your child’s weight, or concerned because your child has started comparing his or her body to others or asking about dieting, we’ve got some simple verbal and non-verbal strategies that can help. Use these tips to guide your kids toward eating well and feeling good about their bodies (even if it’s something you struggle with, too).
Tip 1: Keep discussions focused on health, not weight or size. Speak openly with your child about the connections between food and health. For younger kids, explain the wonderful things about healthy foods. For example, let them know that carrots help your eyes see well and that milk can help you grow strong bones. For older children, focus on how the proper fuel can better prepare them for learning at school or upping their sports game, or just remind them that healthy food gives them more energy to get through a busy day. Make it clear to your child that skipping meals or undereating does not provide the fuel they need to be happy or healthy. While adults may be focused on how eating will affect their health in the future, children tend to care more about how food will affect them right now.
Tip 2: Remind your child that you are their biggest cheerleader. Be aware of how offhand comments about weight can harm your child’s self-image and relationship with food and eating. Children often absorb more than we realize, so even seemingly harmless jokes about weight can have damaging effects for years to come. With this in mind, help your child find ways to appreciate all the things his or her body can do, not what it looks like. Make it very clear to your child that you love him/her exactly the way he/she is. While weight loss is recommended for some children who are severely overweight, diets can lead to more restrictive eating and increased weight gain over time. Tread lightly and consult your child’s healthcare team before embarking on any kind of diet change.
Tip 3: Be a good role model. Imagine for a moment the kind of relationship you want your child to have with his or her body. Now, demonstrate that relationship yourself (even if you don’t feel it yet). Don’t make self-deprecating comments about your body. Ever. Show your child how much you love yourself, regardless of your size. One of the best ways to do this is to show your child how much you enjoy all kinds of food by eating mindfully. Reject the diet mentality that classifies all food as either “good” or “bad.” Rather, embrace healthier habits as a way to demonstrate self-love. Without saying a word, these behaviors send your child a powerful message about choosing health and body-positivity.
Tip 4: Trust your child’s instincts. This may be the hardest tip to follow, but it’s definitely one of the most important. We were all born with the ability to self-regulate how much energy we need to eat. Unfortunately, this ability can be unlearned if it’s not supported by the beliefs, attitudes and practices around us. Relearning it takes time (hint: embracing mindful eating as a family can help.) In the meantime, your role as a parent is to keep a consistent meal and snack routine and to provide a balanced menu. Make mealtimes something your child looks forward to, not something to dread. When it comes to mealtime, your child’s job is to show up and decide whether to eat and how much to eat. This teaches your child that you trust them to decide for themselves how they will eat. Your trust fosters their own trust in themselves, which prepares them to eat competently and well, even when you’re not there.
Tip 5: Teach your child awareness about eating. Teach your child to pay attention to their own signs of hunger and fullness when eating. For younger kids, ask questions before and while they are eating such as “Is your tummy hungry? Can you hear its grumbly noise?” And when they seem done eating, say “Are you still hungry?” Respect whichever answer they give you by not forcing them to take another bite if they’re full and not withholding seconds if they are still hungry. Teach your children to eat slowly, so their brains have time to catch up with their stomachs. Give yourself and your child a few minutes to let your food settle before going for seconds. Have fun by trying to see who can finish their meal the slowest. Teach your kids to rank their hunger and fullness on a scale between “really, really hungry” and “way too full” before and after eating. Teach them to stay in the middle of the scale and eat until they are no longer hungry, but not until they are too full.
Use these tips to help guide discussions and foster healthy eating habits in your child. Remember to keep the focus on healthy behaviors and body positivity. This approach can help your kids (and you!) develop a confident, happy relationship with food and their bodies.