By Karnie Babikian, Nutrition Educator
Many significant dietary changes occur in the first years of life as children transition from milk/formula to soft solids and eventually to a diet including various foods and beverages. In this period, children learn how to eat and explore what food really is- both of which play a significant role in shaping food choices, dietary patterns, eating behaviors, and attitudes that persist through adolescence and adulthood. Recognizing the value of a positive relationship with food during this time is critical because young children are at a vulnerable age and sensitive to environmental triggers that can impact how they view food and their body. Unhealthy relationships with food can affect physical and mental health, potentially leading to disordered eating behaviors.
“Positive eating attitudes and behavior act as a measure for mental health because [eating] is based on tuning in and respecting our inner experience of hunger, appetite, and satisfaction as well as being accepting and nurturing ourselves and our bodies.” ²
What does a healthy relationship with food mean?
A healthy relationship with food is one in which food is viewed in a neutral way, not as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Instead of moralizing food, all foods should be viewed as nourishment.⁴ Some foods will be more nutrient-dense than others and will be recommended to be consumed more often for their nutritional benefits. This does not mean less nutrient-dense foods should be considered ‘bad’ and avoided entirely. Everything in moderation can fit into a healthy diet as long as the diet is balanced by foods from all important food groups. Moralizing certain foods over others can dictate which foods children will feel safe to eat as they get older. This is also important to consider for children who have selective eating behaviors and experience difficulty with growing. When food intake is minimal, all calories are meaningful and contribute to their growth.
A healthy relationship with food is one in which food is not used as reward.
Using food as a reward – like offering brownies for finishing the broccoli– teaches children that certain foods are only meant to be consumed as a reward while others are only consumed as a chore, without enjoyment. Teaching that certain foods (sweets, chips) are ‘off limits’ can lead to overeating those foods when children finally get access to them. This makes it challenging for children to learn how to self-regulate when eating foods that are often higher in fat, sugar, and sodium. Using food as a reward or punishment can send mixed signals to children.³ If children are told to stay away from ‘bad’ foods and only eat ‘good’ foods but then are allowed to indulge in that ‘bad’ food when they demonstrate positive behavior, this becomes confusing.
A negative relationship with food can, but not always, looks like the following: eating to cope with negative emotions, restricting entire food groups, categorizing certain foods as ‘off limits’, and feeling guilty for eating ‘bad’ foods.
What can parents do to help?
- Find non-food rewards. What are some things that are meaningful to your child or that your child is motivated by? These could be anything from taking a trip to a playground, playing their favorite game, listening to their favorite song, or getting a new bath toy. Use these to reward children for a positive behavior instead of using food.
- Avoid thinking about food as good or bad. The most important thing is for children to remain nourished and grow appropriately. Some foods are undeniably more nutrient-dense and provide more health benefits than others. While over-consuming nutrient-poor foods can sometimes affect our health, banning them entirely makes children want them more. Remember, the Division of Responsibility of Eating allows parents to set boundaries and determine what will be served at each meal. This allows you to offer desserts and foods high in sugar in moderation and when you see the most appropriate.⁵
- Lead as an example. Parental food habits and feeding strategies are among the most significant determining factors of eating behavior in children. Research shows that positive parental modeling can immensely impact children’s eating behaviors and attitudes.¹ Model healthy behaviors that you want your child to adopt, such as avoiding talking about appearance, body image, or food in a negative way. Family meals are an excellent opportunity to model positive eating behaviors and teach children about different foods.
- Get your children involved. Help your child establish a positive association with food by allowing them to explore foods in their environment: in the kitchen at home or at the grocery store. Get them involved in age-appropriate activities such as choosing groceries, preparing food, setting the table, etc.
- Practice patience. Give yourself and your children grace, building healthful habits as a family takes time.
- Scaglioni S, De Cosmi V, Ciappolino V, Parazzini F, Brambilla P, Agostoni C. Factors Influencing Children’s Eating Behaviours. Nutrients. 2018 May 31;10(6):706. doi: 10.3390/nu10060706. PMID: 29857549; PMCID: PMC6024598.
- “Make Your Eating Joyful and Positive: Raising Eating Competent Children.” Ellyn Satter Institute,https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-eat/#:~:text=At%20the%20heart%20of%20a,of%20food%20we%20enjoy%20.%20.%20.
- “Why Parents Shouldn’t Use Food as Reward or Punishment.” Why Parents Shouldn’t Use Food as Reward or Punishment – Health Encyclopedia – University of Rochester Medical Center, https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=160&ContentID=32#:~:text=Using%20food%20as%20a%20reward,%2C%20fat%2C%20and%20empty%20calories.
- Choc. “How to Help Your Child Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food.” CHOC, 28 Jan. 2022, https://health.choc.org/how-to-help-your-child-develop-a-healthy-relationship-with-food/.
- Rosenbloom, Cara. “How to Stop Your Kid from Obsessing over Dessert.” Today’s Parent, 13 Aug. 2021, https://www.todaysparent.com/family/family-health/how-to-stop-your-kid-from-obsessing-over-dessert/.
- “How Parents Can Help Kids Develop a Positive Relationship with Food.” Center For Discovery, 22 Oct. 2019, https://centerfordiscovery.com/blog/how-parents-can-help-kids-develop-a-positive-relationship-with-food/.