Encourage Kids to Have a Healthy Attitude Toward Food

An Interview with Jennifer McDaniel

Caucasian children eating cantaloupe slices
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Many parents aren’t sure what rules are helpful for kids when it comes to food. Our view on food and nutrition can be somewhat complicated given we live in a world where unhealthy food is constantly advertised right alongside the commercials for the latest fad diets. The rules parents establish about food can help kids develop a healthy attitude toward food that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

I interviewed Jennifer McDaniel, a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified specialist in sports dietetics and the spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to hear what she had to say about how parents can create household rules about food and mealtimes to help kids develop healthy bodies and healthy attitudes about food.

What are some healthy household rules parents can make that can encourage kids to have a healthy relationship with food?

The no thank you bite. In our family, I ask that everyone take at least one bite of every food on their plate. If they do not care for the food, after taking that a bite, they can say “no thank you,” and move on. Food exposure is key to acceptance. It can take up to 20 times of exposing a child to the same food before they decide to embrace it…so this rule requires they continue to “try” it.

Positive table talk. We have a rule that talk at the table be positive when it comes to food.

Words such as “yucky,” “gross” and “nasty” are not allowed to be descriptors of food! This keeps one family member from influencing the behavior of another member’s preferences. The goal for table talk is to resonate healthy tones!

Related article: Establishing Mealtime Rules for Kids

Random treats. As a dietitian, I often hear from others that my family probably only eats “healthy” foods.

I myself live by the 80/20 rule where 80 percent of my choices are nutrient-dense foods and 20 percent are more “sometimes” foods or what might be considered treats. The key is that these treats are offered randomly and should not always be expected to be offered after a meal or after a winning game, etc. There is no major “celebration” around these treats, just the fun spontaneity of going for ice cream on a random weekday night.

Related article: Setting Limits with Food

It’s a family affair. My children are young, but if dad is in town, we do our best to sit down together as a family to eat. For super busy families this means that dinner might happen at 8 pm to accommodate busy schedules. However, the value of eating together trumps the time or place of where we eat.

Research shows that when a family eats together, kids perform better in school, are less involved in risky behaviors, and maintain healthier weights. Eating together as family is a time to connect, and it is a rare time in the day when everyone can gather in one spot for just 20 to 40 minutes.

One meal, one family. What mom or dad cooks for the meal is what gets served. Short order cooking is not only energy draining on the cook, but does not reinforce the concept of offering balance and exposing children to new foods. Picky eating is a natural behavior, but if the cook ALWAYS accommodates by making something separate for the picky eater, the picky eating will rarely improve.

Related article: Ways to Prevent Power Struggles with a Picky Eater

What types of rules can actually backfire and lead to kids developing an unhealthy relationship with food?

Always offering a sweet or treat after a meal. This can lead to unhealthy patterns that my weight management clients attribute started in childhood.

Requiring the child eat everything on their plate. I ask my children to try everything, but they are not required to finish everything. A child should be in control of amounts eaten and their own appetite.

No one knows their body better than they do. If you make them sit at the table till plates are empty, the eating experience will become a negative one, and they might develop an unhealthy relationship with certain foods.

How do you feel about food being used as a reward for kids?

Food itself should be seen as nourishment and fuel, not as a reward or entertainment. I believe our children should also be taught to see foods that way as well. If cookies are given to reward eating their broccoli, the child begins to think that broccoli must be a pretty bad food if they have to get cookies because they ate it! Many of my adult clients feel their unhealthy relationship with sweets or comfort foods started back in their childhood.

Related article: Free and Low Cost Reward Ideas

Typically, in our home, as long as they follow the one bite of everything rule, they may have some type of dessert, if it is offered that night.

How can parents model a healthy relationship with food?

  • Model healthy eating themselves!
  • Eat together as a family. Make time to sit down and eat.
  • Eat REAL food vs. shakes/bars or dieting products.
  • Have positive self-image talk.
  • Include “sometimes” food in moderation.

Can setting limits on a child's media use encourage a healthy relationship with food?

Absolutely.

Teaching children how to mindfully eat early is a lifelong skill that will encourage a healthy relationship with food. Most adults are multitaskers and will watch the news, do work on their iPad or read the paper. While this is sometimes necessary or OK, it should not be the norm. We need to serve as good examples, and we eat, we should put down everything but the fork and spoons and enjoy our company.

10 Tips for Setting Limits on Electronics and Screen Time

In addition, we know that food-marketing influences our children’s food preferences and how much they will eat! It is an established fact that the more TV/media is watched the more likely to be overweight compared to those who do not watch much media.

What they watch matters too. In one study, children who watched food commercials ate 45 percent more food compared to those who watched the same TV show without the food commercials.

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