How to help kids have a healthy relationship with food and their body
Child with healthy food relationship

In today’s society we are bombarded with so many messages on what to eat, how to lose weight and unrealistic images of what we should look like. Unfortunately children are not immune to these messages and in a worrying trend it is now not uncommon to hear young children talk negatively about their bodies. In fact recent research suggests that more than half of primary school aged children want to lose weight. This unhealthy relationship with food and their bodies puts them at an increased risk of becoming overweight and developing eating disorders in the future.

So with all this in mind, how do we help our children develop a healthy relationship with food and their body? I have developed some simple strategies for you to implement with your children.

Avoid labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’

Labelling food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can lead to feelings of guilt and shame when your child eats ‘bad‘ food. They may feel that they are a bad person or are doing something bad by eating ‘bad’ food’. In addition often the feelings of guilt can make them eat more of that sort of food, even when they do not actually feel like it. An alternative way to talk about food with your children is using terms such as ‘everyday’ or ‘healthy’ foods and ‘sometimes’ or ‘party’ foods. 

Avoid using food as a reward or for comfort

When we start using food as a reward for good behaviour or for comfort when children are upset we are teaching them to associate eating with their emotions. Children need to learn how to deal with their emotions without the use of food. Instead of using food as a reward focus on non-food related rewards such as going out to do a special activity together. If your child is upset talk to them about how they are feeling rather than trying to ease their pain with food.

Allow your children to leave food on their plate

Young children are generally intuitive eaters, eating more when they are hungry and less when they are not. However messages such as ‘you need to finish everything on your plate’ causes them to lose their ability to sense when they are full or hungry. Without a sense of hunger and fullness, they are more likely to overeat.

Be a positive role model  

Children role model their parent’s behaviour. If children are exposed to negative body image and diet talk and see their parents dieting and weighing themselves constantly this will be seen as normal behaviour. Focus on taking the emphasis away from weight and body appearance and focus on promoting healthy behaviours such a getting your children involved in preparing healthy meals, sitting down as a family to eat meals and being physically active.

This article was written for Kidspot NZ by Melinda Brathwaite, dietitian and nutritionist at Connective Healthcare.

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