Help Your Children Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food

three kids happily sits eating healthy food drinking milk
by Helena Popovic

Following my recent Health-e-Byte, many people have asked how they can best help their children and grandchildren avoid comfort eating. Here are some practical suggestions.

  1. Make mealtimes as relaxed and stress-free as possible. I know this can be a challenge when children are restless or not wanting to eat their vegetables, so do your best to approach things in a playful, coaxing manner. It often takes 10-15 enticing offers of a new food before a child will accept and eat it.
  2. Feed your toddler when they want to be fed rather than when you think they should be fed. Child psychologists call this ‘feeding on demand’. Again this isn’t always easy when you have your own busy schedule, but it is something to aim for.
  3. Make eating an activity that is only done at the dining table – not in front of the computer, while watching TV or doing anything else. The best way to enforce this is to practise it yourself. Teach your child that eating is vitally important for optimal performance at school and in sport. Food is something to be appreciated and savoured, not consumed mindlessly while multitasking. This also means making the dinner table a screen-free zone.
  4. Don’t use food for reward or withhold favourite foods as punishment.
  5. Find alternatives to food as treats. When surveyed, children – including teenagers – say that what they most want and value is more fun time with their parents. They crave their parents’ undivided attention – whether it’s having a meaningful conversation or doing something they enjoy. We underestimate how healing it is to be fully present for someone, especially as we live in such a distracted world.
  6. Don’t talk about sweets as treats. If we label sweet foods as treats we’ll feel like we’re missing out when we don’t have them. Call ice cream ice cream and biscuits. Don’t turn them into something with added emotional value. 
  7. Model healthy eating. Avoid saying in front of your children, ‘I’ve had a hard day, I deserve a glass of wine or a piece of cake.’ I’m not suggesting you deny yourself what you need but don’t label wine and cake as compensation for a difficult day. If you don’t create a story around why you’re drinking wine and eating cake, your child will not develop a narrative in their own mind about how to deal with difficult days.
  8. Teach children that junk food is not food. You are not being mean by not buying junk, you are being a good parent and demonstrating how much you love them. Tell them that you can’t bring yourself to buy them something that is poisonous to their body and contributes to their feeling tired and unhappy. Explain that junk food stops their brain and body from working properly. Don’t paint a picture of future health problems but of immediate setbacks in terms of what is important to them right now. Link healthy eating with doing well at what means most to them.
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