By Kacey Legnitto, MS, RD, CEDRD
Raising kids to have a positive relationship with food and to be intuitive eaters is not an easy task in our world today. Parents receive a lot of pressure around ensuring their kids are “healthy”. I put “healthy” in quotation marks because it has come to have a different meaning with all of the fear-mongering occurring around the so-called “obesity epidemic”. Parents want their children to be truly happy and healthy, and with the exhaustive messages about the dangers of eating certain foods or being a higher weight, parents often feel fearful and as if they need to take action to prevent horrible consequences for their child. Parents are being bombarded with messages urging them to ensure their kids are not gaining “too” much weight and are eating a diet rich in "healthy" foods. Fun foods are demonized and more and more parents are removing them from the house. While food restrictions from parents are usually coming from a place of loving and wanting to protect their children, this can have negative consequences. The messages and pressures sent from diet culture* are often leading to increased food battles between parents and kids, confusing and inappropriate messages being sent to kids around food and exercise, and increased anxiety around food and body for kids.
The truth is, kids are not meant to focus on nutrition or body size at an early age. Also, the immense amount of pressure parents are receiving around ensuring their kid’s body meets a certain “health ideal” is not fair or supportive either.
Children, like all of us, are born with a natural ability to regulate food and to know what their body needs. Parents can help that innate ability to flourish. Even in a world full of messages about food and bodies, which can often disrupt this innate ability. Parents can also help to repair their children’s relationship with food and their bodies if their child has developed disordered eating*. When it comes to nourishing kid’s bodies and supporting them to become intuitive eaters, kids need structure and consistency around meals and snacks. This structure and consistency create a safe space for kids to explore how eating feels in their bodies, what tastes good to them, and how much food feels good to them. This safe space helps kids cultivate trust within their own bodies and themselves. Keeping food talk neutral at meal and snack times (no good or bad food talk) further supports having a trusting and intuitive relationship with food. When kids are given rules around what they “should” or “shouldn’t” eat or what is “good” or “bad” to eat, their ability to eat based on their hunger, fullness, and satiety cues often deteriorates over time. Rules implemented around food makes eating a cerebral process versus a satisfying and trusting mind and body experience. When there is structure around food but not restrictive rules, children tend to have better self-esteem, body image, and less fear and guilt around food. It can also be a protective factor that decreases the chances of children developing disordered eating and eating disorders. So then the question arises, how do I raise my child to have a normal relationship with food that fosters health both mentally and physically?
When it comes to feeding children, the key is “focusing efforts on providing appetizing food at predictable times” and then food regulation seems to fall into place, as described by Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, CICSW, BCD in her book Secrets of Raising a Healthy Family. When kids have a sense of when then will be fed next, they learn how to adequately nourish their body at any given meal or snack as they understand food will be coming again soon. Ellyn Satter also supports parents in staying in their lane so kids can better explore eating from a neutral and nourishing place. This means parents have a set of responsibilities and kids have a set of responsibilities. Parents are in charge of choosing what is served at the meal or snack, when the meal or snack takes place, and where the meal or snack occurs. Kids are in charge of choosing if and how much to eat at the meals and snacks provided. For this to work, parents have to provide enough food at meals and snack times for their kids to go back for seconds should they want to. It is also good for parents to aim to offer foods from all food groups and to not deem any one food group better than another. Rather, they are all neutral and provide different benefits to the body. When parents stick to their role and kids have the freedom to explore what and how much to eat within what was provided at the meal or snack, kids often are able to remain very attuned to their hunger, fullness, and satiety cues and eat from an intuitive and pleasurable place versus a rigid, rule-based place (which almost always leads to disordered eating and a complicated relationship with food).
Lastly, bringing fun foods into the house and including them in meals and snacks helps kids to have a normal relationship with these foods. If children do not get to explore these foods at home and are told they are not OK to eat, kids are much more likely to become driven to seek these foods and become overly preoccupied with these foods when outside of the home. This can feel exhausting for both kids and parents. Practice including fun foods at meal and snack times at home to support your child in cultivating a sense of trust and enjoyment with these foods. For more support on how to foster intuitive eating in young kids, check out the book Secrets of Raising a Healthy Family by Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, CICSW, BCD and/or reach out to Willow Mind & Body to learn more! Shifting the feeding relationship and trying a new way of feeding a person’s family can feel daunting, especially amid the scary messages being sent via diet culture about how it might impact children’s health. However, it can also provide a lot of fun and relief for the whole family when parents are set up to feel skillful and confident in this method of feeding. It is never too late to start!
*Bolded Terms Defined:
Diet Culture: Diet culture is what we are surrounded by on a daily basis. It is a culture that creates thinness as the ideal and “moral” body shape, which often creates issues such as disordered eating, eating disorders, weight stigma, increased stress, yo-yo dieting (which is associated with poor health outcomes), vilifies certain foods and/or ways of eating, etc.
Disordered Eating: As described by The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (link), “disordered eating is used to describe a range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder. Signs and symptoms of disordered eating may include, but are not limited to: frequent dieting, anxiety associated with specific foods or meal skipping, chronic weight fluctuations, rigid rituals and routines surrounding food and exercise, feelings of guilt and shame associated with eating, preoccupation with food, weight and body image that negatively impacts quality of life, and/or a feeling of loss of control around food, including compulsive eating habits, using exercise, food restriction, fasting or purging to "make up for bad foods" consumed.”