Parents: Here’s How to Talk to Young Kids About Healthy Eating
A dietitian gives the tips she uses with her own children.
As a dietitian, I had big plans about creating a healthy family lifestyle while pregnant with my daughter Madeline. I would make my own baby food, pack Pinterest-perfect lunchboxes, and buy only whole, unprocessed foods. We would be an active family that went on hikes and played outdoors. In fact, the kids would be so happy running around that I’d probably have to drag everyone in from the yard at the end of the weekend!
But, let’s be honest: living this idyllic, healthy lifestyle doesn’t always happen (and rarely, if ever, happens to the extent that I envisioned), and raising kids in a perfect environment doesn’t guarantee they will be healthy.
Genetics play a role, too—something that I worried might not be on my kids’ side in terms of body weight. While I hoped this wouldn’t ever be an issue, I was determined to figure out the best seeds to plant so that my kids would have a healthy body, body image and relationship with food—regardless of how genetics might influence their weight.
So I became an avid reader of all that came across my desk on feeding children, obesity trends, psychological approaches to encouraging healthy eating, and what role parents should play in all of this. I’ve agreed and disagreed with what I read, and kept a few of the more thought-provoking articles. But I also got frustrated. Were these advice-givers actually living in the same reality that I was? Did they have real, live children in their homes? And did their day have more hours in it than mine?
After 11 years of critical reading and many parenting failures with my own kids, here are a few approaches and thoughts I’ve found that have actually been practical and helpful.
Food Is Fuel
The purpose of food is to give energy to our body and provide nutrients to keep it healthy. Calories are simply a measure of the amount of energy a particular food can give the body—just like inches are a measure of length. Say the word “calories” to an adult, however, and many will equate it to diets, restriction, and weight—but this is a skewed and pretty narrow view of the word.
I wanted my kids to think of food and calories by their true purpose and definition, so I’ve attempted to use this approach when explaining food or nutrition questions—like what calories are, or the advantages of choosing one food over another. It’s helped me to avoid conveying subtle judgmental connotations, and while I don’t expect this to fully prevent negative outlooks on eating and food choices, I’m hoping they won’t automatically equate “calories” with dieting or weight gain.
Kids Don’t Know How to Connect the Dots
Kids don’t naturally know there is a connection between how they feel and their eating and activity. Heck, even some adults fail to see the connection! It took my five-year-old daughter’s complete meltdown in Target to make me realize this—she didn’t know that the sudden empty feeling in her stomach and her outburst of emotions were likely due to a drop in blood sugar from the doughnut she ate earlier.
I realized then that by teaching her how what she eats impacts her body and her feelings, and even what she can do in gym class, I was giving her tools to make good food decisions, and they had nothing to do with body weight or body image. I’ve also found that teaching opportunities often arise naturally in daily activities. Here’s a few examples:
My son, Griffin, complained about his head hurting after school, and I asked if he drank any water. When his answer was, “no,” I explained that not drinking water could lead to dehydration and make his head hurt. Whether that was the real reason for the headache or not, it started him thinking about the food-body connection. It was also a way to encourage water intake without me saying, “Griffin, drink your water.”
Madeline came home complaining that she had “no energy” and “could barely make it” through soccer practice. I’d noticed that she hadn’t been eating much of her lunchbox sandwich for the past few days, so I asked if she ate it that day...she had not. I explained that not eating lunch was making her body run on empty, just like a car with no gas. She’d never thought to connect her lack of lunch to her lack of energy at practice, so it was a simple way to help her connect the dots and illustrate the “food is fuel” concept.
No Foods Are “Bad”
Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” is an easy trap to fall into, especially during those seasons of the year when it seems candy is pouring into the house. But one thing recommended almost across the board is to avoid subjective terms that can lead kids to start classifying foods as one or the other.
Thinking of foods in such concrete terms opens the door for emotions to start complicating food relationships. But to be completely honest, it can be hard to come up with reasons (other than it’s “good” or “bad”) to give kids about why you want them to choose more or less of certain foods. What’s worked best for me is to stop and think about what I want to convey about health in general before I speak, which sometimes means giving them a quick concise answer at the time and explaining things more once I have my thoughts together.
Kids Need Guidelines and Limits
Kids will (obviously) deny it, but they need order, boundaries, and guidelines to thrive and grow. This includes teaching kids healthy eating habits, appropriate eating times, and snack guidelines. Establishing eating “norms” or guidelines is essential, but not in a heavy-handed or restrictive manner. Instead try explaining, for instance, why and when we eat a snack (because we feel hunger, not because we’re bored), that water is the usual drink with and in between meals, or that a cupcake is okay to eat (just not three at a time or every day of the week).
Parents Control the Environment, Not Genetics
As much as we want to blame parents for a child’s weight issues, parents aren’t always the source of the problem. True, parents play a major role in overall health by promoting family meals, nutritious snacks, and activity—but genetics are also a big factor in a determining one’s body type.
In fact, research suggests that genetics may determine 40-70% of a person’s body weight, and environment is responsible for only 30-60% of it. But as a parent, you can’t blame your child’s body type or size all on genetics—you have to create a healthy environment for your kids.
Live by Example
What I do and say as a parent has the greatest impact on my children’s future health habits and body image—or at least that’s what the research consistently suggests. They may not always follow my example and eat their veggies, but they are regularly served at the dinner table, and my children see me eat them.
I try to also show them that healthy eating isn’t about perfection (thank goodness!) but rather learning what moderation is, and that healthy looks different on every body. Don’t let your children find you critiquing your body in a mirror or constantly talking about what diet you are following to lose those “last five pounds.” This can suggest to them that self-worth and confidence are defined by a scale or a pants size.