As a mom who knows too much about our food system and the potential hazards to my children, I struggle to maintain a smile when my kids are handed red food-dyed snacks at soccer practice or served Coke at a birthday party. I was worried I had forever damaged them by cringing around certain food products. So the fact that my son understands that healthful foods are better choices, but that all food is okay in small doses, makes me sigh with relief. Many children grow up with eating disorders and unhealthy associations to food. So how do we help our kids have a healthy relationship to food?
Here are a few simple suggestions:
1 Food, especially unhealthful food, shouldn’t be used as a reward. The common incentive used by parents “Eat your vegetables so you can have dessert” clearly communicates to children that vegetables are to be avoided and desserts are to be desired.
2 Food should not be used as a punishment either. Taking away dessert as discipline teaches kids that dessert is the prize.
3 Labeling a food as “bad” can cause children to feel guilty or bad themselves when they eat it. Instead label unhealthful foods “sometimes foods,” as they really are the foods we should eat only sometimes.
4 Unhealthful foods shouldn’t be labeled “treats” either. Wouldn’t it be great if our kids perceived a delicious ripe peach or a slice of summer watermelon as a treat?
5 A child forced to eat may not learn what it feels like to be hungry or full, or how to listen to his body. Sometimes kids are not hungry. That’s okay. Don’t then force them to eat five more bites.
6 Teaching children that a holiday or celebration is about spending time with friends, participating in a fun activity or being active together, instead of simply consuming a lot of food and drink, is an important message. When our kids are teenagers and win a sports championship, or when they are adults and receive a promotion, we hope they will understand that celebrating does not need to be focused on excessive consumption of food and drink.
So as much as I’d love to tell my children that they should never eat at McDonald’s and always refuse soda and fluorescent food products, that’s not a healthy message. And knowing most kids, it might make them more determined to get their paws on those forbidden fruits!
So what is the right message to our kids?
The right message is that certain foods nourish our bodies, make us strong and help us feel good. We should fill our bodies with those foods when we are hungry at a meal. Other foods don’t do those wonderful things for us, so we should eat them on occasion. All food should be enjoyed.
Then, if you are like me, hide your grimaced face and keep your mouth shut when they dive into those Spider-Man snacks because “sometimes foods” are absolutely okay sometimes.
Seidenberg is the co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company.