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"I wish that they would eat more vegetables." "He won't eat anything that's not macaroni and cheese."
"She has such a sweet-tooth — I think that she would eat candy forever if she could." "My child eats when bored or upset. How do I help them stop?" "I want my child to have a healthy relationship with food, so I don't want to make it a stressful topic. How do I do that and still help them make healthy choices?"
Healthy eating is obviously important to health and well-being, and it's something that every family has to grapple with in one way or another. Our relationship with food is important, but it's also complicated. Many parents feel pulled in multiple directions when trying to help their children develop healthy eating habits. For example, a lot of parents want their kids to eat more vegetables, but also feel that they'd rather have their child eat something at a meal rather than nothing. They have a hard time knowing what to do when their child refuses three meals that day and then asks for mac'n'cheese at bedtime.
How kids think about food
As we dive into this conversation, it's important to remember that kids think of foods very differently than most adults do. Until kids are at least 11 or 12, and often not until they are older, their brains aren't set up developmentally to think about food abstractly. This means that young brains aren't as able as adults to think about future implications of choices that they make while they're eating. Lots of us have trouble connecting our food choices to things like our risk for heart disease as adults, and kids' brains just aren't able to make that leap.
Especially for kids that are in elementary school or younger, food is usually about the here and now. Even if parents and kids think about food differently, parents are still critical players in helping their kids form healthy relationships with food. Ellyn Satter, considered one of the "guru" of picky eating, has lots of resources that focus on what roles the parent should have during feeding and what roles the child should have, and how these fit in with helping kids have positive, healthy relationships with food!
Here's a brief outline of parent and child feeding roles according to Ellyn Satter:
The parent is in charge of what, when and where food is offered. Healthy structure around meals includes having regular scheduled sit-down meals, where families eat together as much as possible and during which other distractions (like screens) are turned off. Parents should model the skills that they want their child to have, such as eating a variety of foods, trying new foods, and making meals a time for positive interaction.
The child is in charge of how much and whether they eat. As hard as it might be for parents, it's OK if an otherwise healthy child does not eat at a given meal, and it does not mean that a parent should provide them an alternative source of calories (read: mac'n'cheese, as per almost every child's request!). Children usually do a good job of regulating the number of calories that they need overall and will make up for their intake at the next meal.
Keep it positive
Sometimes having structure around meals can feel like a lot of rules and regulations around food, but it's really meant to be a framework that allows the child to explore and grow into healthy eating. As families talk about food together, here are some other tips to keep the conversations positive:
When talking about food, describe food as healthy fuel for the body, and help kids understand that their bodies need lots of different kinds of fuel. Using the word "fuel" turns the conversation away from what we should not put in our bodies to thinking about what we should put in our bodies and how we want our bodies to be powered by good healthy stuff!
Describe treats or junk foods as "once in a while" foods. There are no never foods, just foods that we only want to have once in a while. Soda or juice are great examples of this! Talking about these as things that we have once in a while takes away some of the taboo around these foods. We don't want kids to feel bad or guilty for having a cup of soda at a birthday party, but we also do not want them to expect these foods daily.
Family meals make a positive impact on people's eating habits, whether you're an adult or a child! If you can have dinner together, that is a great time to model healthy food (and family) relationships.
If eating with stress or anxiety is an issue or a trigger for overeating or making poor food choices for your child, sometimes it can be helpful to address the source of the stress/worry rather than focusing or talk a lot about eating. Reducing stress can reduce the less healthy choices without a lot of guilt on the eating front. First steps to reducing stress for a child might mean taking "stress breaks" during homework or right after school or helping to identify if there is a pattern to your child's worries.
Lastly, helping kids recognize the signals that their bodies are giving them around food and responding to them appropriately is an incredible skill. Mindfulness is a tool to help people do just that. There are many mindfulness resources for middle and high school kids, and a lot of elementary schools are incorporating mindfulness, so your child may already be on the mindfulness train.
It's hard for any parent wonder how your child's eating habits now will impact their relationship with food in the future. Some of the best ways to impact this are to have healthy structure (the what, when, and where) around food and letting them make decisions about how much they eat (whether and how much) while keeping the conversation positive. These tools can help families experience food as source of fuel, fun, and joy, and grow their children into adults that enjoy food and fuel their body in healthy ways.