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Raising Happy Eaters: A healthy relationship with food - By Emily Green BSc MSc

Raising Happy Eaters: A healthy relationship with food - By Emily Green BSc MSc

Dec 14, 2022Charlotte Thompson

Raising Happy Eaters. 
You may not have thought about it much but, we each have a relationship with food. This relationship develops all throughout life and is influenced by a multitude of factors, particularly our early experiences and our parents’ relationship with food. It includes our beliefs about food, the reasoning behind our food choices and how food makes us feel about ourselves. Fostering a positive environment in which your child can develop a healthy relationship with food is (I would argue) essential as part of their life skills!

Raising your child to have a healthy relationship with food may help support their self confidence, protect them from developing obesity and reduce their risk of disordered eating and eating disorders later in life (1).

The Division of Responsibility in Feeding
Before we dive in, I’d like to shine a light on the idea of the Division of Responsibility when it comes to feeding your child - an approach which really takes some pressure off parents! This theory splits up the roles between parent and child at meal times shown briefly below (2).

The parents’ responsibility is:
What food is eaten and how it’s prepared
When meals and snacks are provided
Where food is eaten
How to behave at mealtimes
To be considerate of your child’s lack of food experience

The child’s responsibility is:
If they will eat (without being pressured)
How much they eat
To learn to behave appropriately
To grow predictably in the way that’s right for them

In short, it’s not necessarily your job to get your child to eat but to provide them with the opportunity and trust that over time they know how much their body needs and will learn to tolerate a wider variety of foods. Developing this body trust as children is a key part of having a healthy approach to eating.

How To Develop a Positive Relationship with Food
A child is like a sponge for information. How they see you behave is crucial for helping them to form their own ideas about themselves and the world. While there are no hard and fast rules for raising happy eaters, there are plenty of ways you can model a healthy way to approach food and eating. Here are a few ideas to explore and see what works for you.

Eating Mindfully
Now, you may be laughing at me here for suggesting children can sit still and eat mindfully BUT there are some aspects of mindful eating you could try to incorporate.

A key part of mindful eating is setting a calm environment or asking questions about the sensations of our bodies and sensory aspects of food. Here’s a few examples:

  • Close your eyes, what foods can you smell on this plate?
  • How many different colours do you see in this meal?
  • Let’s take a bite of apple, can you hear the crunch?
  • Do you feel hungry right now? Where can you feel this feeling in your body?
  • Do you feel satisfied after eating, could you eat more or are you full?

 

Weight-Related Comments
It’s never helpful to comment on a person’s weight - Including your own!

You never know the reason why someone’s weight may have fluctuated. They could be going through a rough time, have a medical condition, or be returning to a weight that’s healthy for them. With this in mind, when children hear grown ups commenting on other people’s bodies it puts emphasis on how their body weight or shape is related to judgement of their worth.

Try to avoid making associations between diet and weight. You are in control of what’s on the menu which allows parents to strive for healthy, balanced food choices. However, your little one doesn’t need to make this link. Focus on other aspects of food such as the taste, colour and texture or explain that food gives us energy to do our favourite activities!

Curiosity, Exposure & Food Play
Fussy eating is a normal part of the eating journey for most children. Little ones’ taste preferences are changing and developing constantly which is why repeated exposure to different foods can be helpful for increasing the quantity of foods they are okay with.

But I don’t just mean on their plates…

Encouraging play and creativity with foods outside of mealtimes (where there is no expectation for the child to eat) can reduce the pressure they feel and spark their curiosity. Get your child involved in the weekly food shop, making veggie art or let them join in with cooking - younger kids could help mash potatoes or scrub carrots.

The idea is that this will broaden the range of foods they are comfortable with and encourage step-by-step exposure to achieve a more varied diet.

Be Mindful of Language!

  • “Don’t eat that, you’ll get fat”
  • “Mummy needs to go on a diet”
  • “I had been good all week but today I was bad and ate ice cream”

 

Labelling foods as “good” or “bad” demonises certain foods and attaches a moral value to eating. We know this has potentially damaging effects on how we view food relating to our self worth.

Food is just food.

Some foods have more nutrients and others have less but that doesn’t make some inherently “bad”. All foods can have a place in a healthy diet in balanced proportions.

Eating Together
Digging into this idea of modelling healthy behaviours, eating together can be a great learning experience. If your child sees you eating and enjoying all varieties of foods it can teach them that it’s acceptable for them to do the same.

Conversely, noticing a parent is avoiding all sweet treats or never eats the bread or pasta at meal times is something children can pick up on. These strict diet behaviours could be interpreted negatively or mimicked which reduces a child’s list of accepted foods and limits the range of nutrients they may get.

Try placing the components of your meal in the centre of the table and allow kids to serve themselves. Observe and accept whatever they choose to have. As they gain confidence, it may help reduce pressure or tension at the dinner table.

Modelling Positive Body Image + Weight Attitudes
Research has suggested that parents’ negative weight attitudes (e.g. restricting food intake or encouragement to diet) can increase the risk of body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness in daughters. This may also lead to an increased risk of eating disorders like anorexia or binge eating disorder in later years (1).

Exposure to the media or “grown up conversations” can teach kids to be aware of their bodies and absorb societal expectations around the way they look.
Scarily, concerns about their own body image can begin before a child even starts school! Research has reported an increasing number of 6-10 year olds are experiencing anxieties around body confidence issues (3). Whilst it’s near impossible to filter the media messages a child sees or hears, you can model a positive way to respond to them and build up body confidence from an early age.

Focus on what our bodies can DO instead of how they look. Always avoid commenting on a person’s weight but marvel at how strong legs help us run fast, or how dancing makes us feel happy. Demonstrating acceptance of your own form goes a long way to showing your little one how to accept theirs.

All Foods Fit
The ‘all foods fit’ approach refers to allowing any foods to be part of a balanced diet. No foods or food groups should be excluded without medical or ethical reason (e.g. for allergies or religious beliefs). A nourishing plate includes a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats and fresh produce but less nutritious or processed foods should not be demonised or completely excluded.

Promoting acceptance of all foods is a step in the right direction away from developing food fears, a moral association with food choices and a restrictive mindset.

Fingers crossed you have learned something new about our relationship with food and found creative ideas in this blog post to help raise happy, healthy eaters!

By Emily Green BSc MSc

Author Bio:

Emily provides invaluable insight into the dos and don'ts surrounding raising a child that has a healthy relationship with food - an absolute must-read for all parents! 

She covers topics including raising happy eaters, the division of responsibility in feeding, developing a healthy relationship with food, eating mindfully, managing weight-related comments, food play, modelling positive body image, and the 'all foods fit' approach. 

Emily is a soon-to-be registered nutritionist and holds two first-class degrees in BSc Nutrition & Psychology and MSc Clinical Nutrition. Find her on Instagram @nutritionupontyne or her website nutritionupontyne.co.uk  

References

  1. Satter E. Raise a healthy child who is a joy to feed [Internet]. Ellyn Satter Institute. n.d. [cited 01 Dec 2022]. Available from: https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/the-division-of-responsibility-in-feeding/ 
  2. Wertheim E. Parent influences in the transmission of eating and weight related values and behaviors. Eating Disorders [Internet]. 2002 [cited 07 Dec 2022];10(4):321–34. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10640260214507 
  3. Professional Association for Childcare & Early Years. Body Confidence Issues [Internet]. PACEY. 2016 [cited 01 Dec 2022]. Available from: https://www.pacey.org.uk/news-and-views/news/archive/2016-news/august-2016/children-as-young-as-3-unhappy-with-their-bodies/

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