Let me start with a little story this week about why it is important NOT to talk to your children about nutrition! This past winter my daughter came down with the flu (welcome to Kindergarten). The morning after her fever started she came down to me and said, “Mommy, I think I know why I got sick.” “Oh really, why? ” I said (fully expecting her to say that her friend also was sick). Instead I was met with, “I think I ate too much sugar.” A little probing about why she thought sugar made her sick and she explained that at their Valentine’s Day party the teachers said they couldn’t eat their candy because it was bad for them.
This is really good example of how a young child’s mind works. At no point did anyone say that if she ate candy she would get the flu, but her wild imagination led her to believe that! Nutrition is a very abstract concept because we can’t see or feel it. However, when we put food into concrete categories like good or bad, healthy or unhealthy it can be problematic.
Now, you might be arguing in your head with me. No way, my 6 year old knows that apples are healthy. You are right they may know they are healthy because they are regurgitating the information they have been fed, but they doesn’t fully comprehend what it means. Don’t believe me? Ask them why apples are healthy? You will see the blank stare.
When children who are not able to fully grasp nutrition concepts are taught to look at foods in concrete ways…good versus bad, healthy versus unhealthy it starts early disordered thinking about food.
Think about it, what if dessert type foods were always thought about as being healthy? Would we have such guilt if we ate them? I’ve never had a client come in and say, “I really messed up this week, I ate broccoli for snack.” However, I hear so often people being shamed or even shame themselves for eating foods that they enjoy. For example, “I was really bad this week, I went to ice cream with my family. So, she I already blew it, I figured I’d kept eating whatever I wanted.” But, where does this guilt associated with food start?
Guilt associated with eating starts with early introduction to food shaming. Looking at food in a concrete way.
As parents, it’s our job to decide what, when and where to serve the food. We have more knowledge about nutrition and what a balanced meal should look like. However, this is even a gray area for a lot of adults. Adults too get caught up in demonizing food in their own heads to which can interfere with your own relationship with food.
So what do we do instead?
#1 Neutralize Food
Start early by keeping all foods on an even playing field. Don’t highlight or glorify one food over the other. If we constantly keep talking about eating more fruits or veggies because they are healthy and eating less cookies we make cookies “better” than fruits or veggies. The more “forbidden” they become the more they want to eat them.
Here’s an example: My daughter doesn’t know the nutritional difference between eating fruit and eating cookies. I serve them both often and keep them neutral. Last weekend we were at a birthday party for a friend. They had LOTS of appetizers. Soft pretzel nuggets, shrimp cocktail, chips, dips, etc… My daughter walked right up to the vegetable tray and spent the next 15 minutes eating vegetables. Why? She didn’t know that eating vegetables was a good thing, just like she doesn’t know that eating cookies are thought to be a bad thing.
Truth be told, it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes she will pick the dessert type food first too!
#2 Don’t Reward or Bribe
I know, you prepare a great meal with lots of things on the table and your child barely eats or only eats one thing. You want them to eat more (insert the food). So you say, “If you eat your green beans then you can have ice cream after dinner.” They look down at their plate with a sad face and choke down the green beans just to get the dessert. In a child’s head they translate that as, “The green beans must be so horrible that I get ice cream to eat them.”
BAHM, now they have a reason why they shouldn’t eat green beans.
#3 Refrain from Negative Food Talk
Once I heard someone on the boardwalk tell their child if they eat too much pizza they will get a big belly. This just isn’t true. A child that self regulates their eating and stops when they get full will grow more predictably. No one food results in “a big belly” in anyone. What we do know, if a child (or for that matter even an adult), feels guilty about eating a food they will be more likely to feel guilty about eating that food and tend to overeat those foods in stressful situations.
Defining foods as good and bad only results in guilt. Keep them neutral. Just yesterday, someone asked me than how do I say no to having a second dessert in one day without putting the food down. Remember it’s your job as the parent to keep the balance, but it’s not about shaming the food, but rather try something like this, “No, we aren’t going to have cookies right now, I’m serving fruit and yogurt because you already had ice cream at school today. We will have cookies again soon.”
I didn’t shame the food and I let them know they will come around again. It’s not forbidden.
#4 Serve Forbidden Foods with a Meal
One of the reasons, I credit to my daughter choosing the vegetables over any of the other appetizers is because she has no idea they are any different than any other food. Since she turned 1 year old and I started serving her dessert type foods I have served them with meals. What better way to neutralize a food, serve it with a meal. Your child will learn to look at both foods as equals. If cookies and peppers are good enough to serve at meal time one must not be different than the other.
There is always the fear, what if they eat the dessert and none of the other part of the meal. It could happen the first few times you do it, but the trick is serving one serving of dessert with meals. Enough that they get enough of it, but not too much that it ruins their meal.
#5 Have Fun with Food
Our society and education system gets so caught up in thinking we need to teach children about food by teaching it in concrete ways, but there are so many better ways to do it! Having fun with food with your children is the most important thing you can do to teach them about food in the early years. Plant a garden, cook with them, play food games.
If you are looking to get your child involved in with fun activities around food – join me staring July 15th as I host my first every “Kids in the Kitchen Challenge.” Each week I’ll send you fun food activities you can do with your kiddos to get them playing and enjoying food concepts. It’s going to FREE and FUN! Click on this link for more info!
So, whether you are trying to prevent your child from developing disordered eating or just trying to get them to eat vegetables we know that talking about healthy foods is counterproductive to both of these. When foods are neutralized they can learn to grow up and enjoy eating a different variety of foods.
Thanks for Reading. What do you think? Have you noticed your child has started to look at food as bad versus good and feels guilty after eating them? I’d love to hear what you have to say! Feel Free to Comment Below!