Raising children with healthy attitudes towards food

Our childhood experiences of food often shape our adult relationships with food, and more and more we are seeing children who have developed or are developing poor relationships with food. These may not always be obvious, or you may notice your child is fussy, over eats or under eats. Food relationships develop from a young age, and so if you get it right early on, your child will be less at risk of developing negative behaviours towards food. If your child has already developed unhealthy relationships with food, all is not lost, it will just be a little more challenging to change those relationships.

Please read on if you would like to know more.

Your food relationships

You probably know yourself that the foods you eat or don’t eat today are influenced by the way you grew up. My husband will not eat anything with parsley or white sauce, because of the negative memories of being forced to eat boiled white fish and parsley sauce which he disliked regularly throughout childhood. Can you think of any food behaviours you have that were influenced by your childhood experiences? Are you aware of any behaviours you may be passing on to your children? Some common mistakes I see from parents include:

  • Repeating the same behaviours our parents passed onto them
  • Language around food – criticism and praise
  • Using food as a reward
  • Weight concerns

What does a healthy relationship with food look like?

  • Enjoyment of food without rules/ restriction
  • Awareness of hunger and fullness
  • Food balance and variety
  • Relaxed attitude towards food

So how can we make sure our children develop a good relationship with food?

Flexible meal and snack routine, that allows awareness of hunger/ fullness cues

Children like routine, and a regular meal and snack routine including 3-4 meals and 2-3 snacks per day is a good idea. However, these routines do not need to be rigid and should be flexible to your childs appetite and hunger cues. For example, if your child is hungry before their next meal you could say it’s nearly tea time, or you could have the meal a bit earlier than usual. If your child usually has a snack mid-morning but isn’t hungry, let them refuse their snack and continue their usual routine as normal. It is common for children to refuse food, and we should never force them to eat or clear their plates. This allows for children to recognise their own hunger and fullness cues which helps children to build healthy food relationships. Children go through periods where they are hungrier and eat more, or less hungry and eat less or sometimes refuse completely. This is perfectly normal, if they settle back to their usual routine after a few days or weeks.

Fun, happy, and varied family mealtimes

Involving children with the shopping, preparation and serving of food can be all part of the fun around mealtimes. Not only is this a good way of teaching your children key life skills, but it can help desensitise them to foods or meals they have previously refused, but in a fun way. Obviously be aware of what they can and can’t do in terms of safety but let them get involved in the things they can do. My daughter likes to chop up vegetables with the plastic kitchen knives I bought her.

Family style serving is a good way of giving children control over what they want to put on their plate and how much. A good example of family style serving would be a roast dinner. You would put all the different foods in separate serving dishes in the middle of the table where everyone can help themselves to what they want. That way your child has been given the family meal, but they are choosing what and how much they would like. Don’t worry about mess or if your child doesn’t eat what they have put on their plate and help them with the more difficult things such as very hot food, or anything that is quite heavy. Try to offer both foods that your child likes and dislikes, so that they are continuously exposed to a good variety. This repeat exposure makes children more likely to try disliked foods, and even like them later down the line.

If your child does not want to eat a meal that is offered avoid giving an alternative, but equally don’t make a fuss about the refused meal. Puddings can always be offered even if a child hasn’t eaten their meal but avoid giving extra to compensate for the missed meal. Just give their usual portion. If a child has a good meal and snack routine, then their next meal or snack isn’t too far away, so it won’t be too long before they get their next opportunity to eat. By adopting this attitude mealtimes should remain positive, enjoyable, safe and fun, which will lead to healthy food relationships.

Food labelling and conversations

Avoid food as rewards or labelling foods good or bad. Restriction of reward foods or those deemed bad such as high fat/ sugar foods only become more desirable or can make children feel they only deserve them if they have done something good and can lead to guild around food. Instead normalise all food by offering a balanced diet that includes some high fat/ sugar foods, for example a glass of milk and 1-2 biscuits before bed, a scoop of ice cream for pudding, pizza and movie night on a weekend. High fat / sugar foods can and should be included as part of a healthy balanced diet and should be enjoyed without having to gain them as a reward.

Try to avoid making negative comments about foods that you may dislike, as this can lead to your child refusing foods they may have liked. Try to avoid making comments about foods being good/ bad, and instead have discussions about what foods look like/ where they come from, and what they are good for. For example, milk is white, it comes from cows, it’s good for your bones and teeth. Ensure conversations around food are always positive and relaxed. Finally, as I always say, be your child’s role model. Your child wants to be just like you, and if you demonstrate positive eating behaviours, and a healthy attitude towards food, then it is likely that your child with pick up on the same behaviours and attitudes.

Things to look out for:

What does an unhealthy food relationship look like?

  • Eating when you are not hungry
  • Emotional eating
  • Food rules and restriction
  • Feelings of guilt after food
  • Disordered eating

If your child is struggling with any of these, then you should seek support from a qualified health professional such as a doctor or dietitian.

Please comment below or get in touch if you would like any further information or support.

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