America’s obesity epidemic gets a lot of news attention – as it should. From New York’s ban on large sugary drinks to horrifying stories about school lunches, we’re quite aware that obesity is a growing problem for both children and adults, but we’ve yet to find a magic solution that will reverse the damage.
So what’s a parent to do? While we can’t always control what our kids eat, we do have the power to influence their relationships with food. Teaching kids to think about food the right way can help instill lifelong healthy practices that’ll have a big impact well into adulthood – so here are the best tips for doing just that.
Let Kids Help You Cook
It’s no secret that home cooking is generally a lot healthier than eating out. According to HelpGuide.org, restaurant meals tend to have more fat, sugar and salt than the home-cooked variety. If you eat at home, you’ll know what’s going into your food, and you’ll be able to make more knowledgeable, healthier choices.
Take the benefits of home cooking to the next level by letting your kids help you cook. There’s an awesome article on WebMD about why it’s important to spend time in the kitchen with your kids. Letting kids help in the kitchen
- Encourages kids to try healthy foods
- Helps kids feel like they’re contributing to the family
- Builds self-confidence
- Makes for excellent parent-child quality time
- Builds lifelong cooking skills
Additionally, WebMD has a whole list of age-appropriate ways your kids can help in the kitchen, so check ‘em out!
Don’t use food as a band-aid or a reward
A high school friend once said something that totally blew my mind: “I wish we didn’t have to eat food to survive.” When she said this, I thought she was nuts because I’m a total foodie. But this simple statement stuck with me through the years because the more I think about it, the more I think she had the right attitude.
I love food, and I have a somewhat emotional relationship with it. I tend to bust out the ice cream and salty snacks when I’ve had a bad day. I also tend to “reward” myself when things are going well. I think my friend had it right because she recognized that ultimately, food is just fuel for our bodies. Yes, we can and should enjoy it, but we also shouldn’t eat just for the sake of eating.
In the Psychology Today article, “Seven Things You Should Never Say to your Child About Food,” tips five and six are directly related to this topic. Tip five (“Feel bad? Let’s go for ice cream.”) talks about the side effects of using food to treat emotional pain: “No wonder that 75% of overeating is due to emotions!” Tip six (“If you’re good, you get a treat!”) discusses how using food as a reward instills in kids that if they’re good, they should indulge. To make a long story short, know that using food to cushion pain or reward your child can create an unhealthy emotional relationship with food.
Try, Try and Try Again with Picky Eaters
Getting kids to eat new foods can be really frustrating (believe me, I know!). If you offer new foods often enough, your kids will eventually give in, and maybe even start to like it.
Case in point: My son used to hate broccoli. For months, he would cry if I even put it on his plate. While I never forced him to eat it, I continually offered it to him and encouraged him to try it. Now, he likes it. He willingly eats it every time I serve it. Parenting win? I think so.
Persistence is key when you’re trying to get your kids to eat healthy food. This doesn’t mean you should force-feed your kids; force-feeding will turn mealtime into a power struggle. Being persistent is about letting your kids eat healthfully because they want to, not because they have to.
Avoid the Clean Plate Club
How many of you have told your kids to clean their plates?
Did you know that the Clean Plate Club was actually a World War II slogan? Because of strict food rationing in America in the early 1940s, kids were encouraged to clean their plates so no scraps of food would go to waste.
Lucky for us, we live in a time and place where food scarcity is largely unknown. Telling your kids to clean their plates sends the message that they should use their plates – not their physical feelings – to determine how much food to eat. According to a Psychology Today article, we often finish everything on our plates because these kinds of messages tell us “to stuff ourselves in spite of our true heartfelt needs.” Portion sizes are often too large, so it’s best to allow your kids to be done eating when their body tells them they’re done, not when their plate does. This simple change in thinking can prevent overeating, a largely contributing factor to obesity.
I can tell you from firsthand experience that these tips are easier said than done. I’ve often bribed and rewarded my son with food. I’ve told him to finish his dinner before he gets up from the table. I’ve even given in to temper tantrums concerning cookies. I’ve made many, many mistakes. But parenting is a journey, and most of us are learning as we go.
So now it’s up to you, Zing readers. How do you talk to your kids about food? What are your food rules? What’s your food philosophy? Here’s your chance to sound off, so leave a comment below!