In our culture we have a broken relationship with food. Four out of ten people in the United States will experience some degree of an eating disorder in their lifetime and it starts young. Forty-two percent of children from first and third grade desire to be thinner. Eighty-one percent of ten year olds are afraid of being fat. By the time these children are in high school, over one half of girls and one third of boys develop an eating disorder.
Food is no longer a nourishing substance, but something that inspires very conflicting emotions. Our relationship with food has been reduced to counting calories and restrictive dieting. Many of us don't exercise out of love for moving our bodies, but out of a desire to not be fat.
I've spoken before about the body positivity movement and how learning how to not only love our bodies regardless of what they look like, but to also love and respect the bodies of our peers, is so important on many levels. The body positivity movement is a way to undo the damage unrealistic beauty expectations have done to us. But in order to take it to the next step, we need to focus on how we can ensure our children and future generations a positive relationship with food, health and beauty.
To be clear, the goal here is not teaching them healthy habits so that they can be thin. The goal here is empowering our children with healthy habits so that they don't harm themselves in order to achieve this illusive standard of beauty and thereby perpetuating the idea that thin is best. So here are some ways you can encourage your children to have a healthy relationship with food.
1. Talk about Food
This doesn't have to be a serious conversation about what foods are good and what foods are bad. When we have a bad relationship with food, we can struggle with having an open discussion about it that doesn't involve judgement. Talk about the different flavors, textures, and colors of what you're eating. It teaches your child to engage and be present with their food. It rids the notion that food is simply just fuel and makes eating an enjoyable activity.
2. Teach Them to Listen to Their Bodies
Try putting small portions on their plate to start and allow them to get seconds if they want more. Sometimes we overly control their portions or we tell them to eat everything on their plate. Your child is not always going to be ravenously hungry; in fact sometimes it's the opposite. Sometimes they eat three bites before they run off to play leaving you to worry about whether they ate enough. Teaching them to listen to their bodies is a very empowering tool. Respecting what they decide for themselves grants them autonomy and an establishment of personal boundaries. You can always set aside a plate for later to insure they aren't just holding out for snack time.
3. Associate Food with Self-Care
Teaching your child how to love themselves and invest in self-care is something that builds the foundation for their adult selves. establishing positive self-care as a child leads to well-adjusted adults who have healthy coping skills for times of stress and emotional turmoil. One way you can do this is teaching them that eating healthy is apart of self care. We don't eat healthy to try to achieve a particular body type. We eat healthy because we want to have more energy, we want our body to function at it's fullest potential, and we want to feel great.
4. Let Them be Involved with Meal Prep
Spend time at the grocery store letting them decide which is the best watermelon to buy. Let them decide what veggies you will include in your dinner. Get them excited about cooking food. It's a necessary skill and it helps them establish control over food without resorting to unhealthy diet restrictions. As they get older, let them have one night a week where they are responsible for dinner.
5. Talk About Their Feelings Regarding Food
Emotions around food and body image are complex, and part of having a good relationship with food involve learning how to deal with the negative as well as embrace the positive. The key is to always end these conversations on a positive note. Talk about their insecurities and frustrations. Give them space to express dissatisfaction, because it happens and it's ok. Listen and validate those feelings. But don't walk away leaving them in those thoughts. Find solutions and remind them that they are more than their beautiful bodies.