Stress-less eating

Messages about food are everywhere, but we need to be careful that we foster in our children a healthy relationship with food.

We live in a world full of nutrition information and many people have a real thirst for nutrition knowledge. However, one thing we need do to be aware of is that our children are also getting bombarded with nutrition messages each day from friends, family, school and media. It is our responsibility to teach them healthy eating and healthy behaviours, but we need to go about this in the right way.

Firstly, ditch using the terms “good” vs “bad” foods. We don’t need moral judgement at the table! The key phrases I use instead are “everyday” foods and “sometimes” foods. Using these terms means that no food is “bad” but that moderation is required with foods such as lollies, takeaways or soft drinks.

We are social creatures and connect via food. Ice cream at the beach can be a treasured memory. Therefore I feel it is important to sometimes allow these foods so that we teach children to eat them sensibly and in a suitable portion size. Model this behaviour at home by having takeaways as a sometimes food and only serve dessert occasionally, for example, if you’re having visitors. It does not need to be a nightly routine.

Variety is key

Another useful phrase in our house is the need to eat a “variety of things”. I do not make my children finish everything on their plate before leaving the table, or before they can eat something else. But I do enforce one rule: they need to have eaten a variety of things if they want more of something or to get down from the table.

Saying they need to eat all their dinner before they get dessert makes the dessert seem the more desirable option on the dinner menu. It is also driving them to eat beyond their appetite. Instead of this, use the message of variety. Some days, this results in my children needing to eat more potato to get more broccoli, or having some tomato before they get more cucumber.

Food as a bribe

Food is a great motivator and often a boring trip to the supermarket or a grazed knee can be appeased with a lollipop. The question to ask yourself here is whether food is the ideal reward? I would suggest, no. We don’t have to look too far to see the negative impacts such thinking has on adults, for example, a few too many glasses of wine or “comfort eating” an entire chocolate bar after a bad day. Try to establish a routine of offering non-food rewards (such as stickers, a bike ride, a trip to the park or the movies) and using cuddles, special plasters or special kid-size ice packs to soothe any hurts. Food is for fuel and should be eaten in response to hunger (and, at times, for social reasons).

Mindful eating

A way to teach your children how to eat in response to hunger is mindful eating and this tool will set your children up well in life. Children should be allowed to establish whether they are hungry or not. This can be tricky when you feel your child is wanting food because they are bored. Examples of this are the child who wanders out to the pantry when the ads come on the television or the one who wants seconds just because it is their favourite meal. Mindful eating is about teaching them to be conscious of what they are eating, with distractions such as television limited. Spend time teaching them to enjoy their food. What does it look like? Smell like? Taste like? They also need to learn to stop eating when they have had enough. It is very tempting to encourage your child to finish what is on their plate, however, as many of us know, this mentality will stay with your child into adulthood. Sometimes kids are really not hungry and that’s okay. If they can learn to eat only until they are satisfied, then this will significantly help with weight management in the long term.

Role modelling

We all know the benefits of positive role modelling. This applies to food also. How you talk about food, use food and eat around your children is important. Family dinners at the table and providing a balanced meal have been proven to boost the amount of vegetables eaten. If you are worried about your own weight or have a negative body image, keep such thoughts away your children, who can quickly develop the belief that their body defines who they are.

Disordered eating

The Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand reports that 1.7% of the New Zealand population have an eating disorder. This equates to as many as 68,000 people. Around 90% of these are female, and for 15- to 24-year-old females, anorexia and bulimia are the third most common chronic illness after asthma and obesity. Professionals are also seeing increasing numbers of people with orthorexia – an unhealthy obsession with ensuring all food is healthy. This results in poorer health (either physical, due to lack of nutrition, or mental, due to the stress and social impact of the condition).

To shift the focus away from “good and bad foods” and avoid negative outcomes for our children, think how easy it is to make a few adjustments to the way we speak to our children about food or how we respond to food around children. Teach your children to appreciate quality food that makes them feel good from the inside out. Signs your child is establishing a harmful relationship with food or negative body image:

  • Binge eating
  • Excessive exercising
  • Signs of stress when trying to choose foods
  • Inability to eat, or stress as a result of eating a “sometimes” food
  • Avoiding eating in front of others
  • Over restriction of foods/creating strict rules
  • Excessive questioning of healthiness of foods
  • Excessive online searching on healthy eating/food blogs

Angela is a dietitian specialising in paediatrics, food intolerances, and weight management. Her practice, Food Savvy, is based in Wellington and Nelson.

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