Raising Kids with to be Healthy with Food

Introduction: Defining the Problem

You don’t have to look far or wait long for evidence that we are developing major problems with food; just watch the news on any given day, or look around you the next time you’re out in any public place where people gather.  Two-thirds of American adults are overweight; the rate of weight problems in children has risen steadily in the last few decades, and now 1/3 of them are overweight, too.  The incidence of obesity-related disease is sky-rocketing, and the age of onset for obesity-related medical problems is getting lower all the time.  We have turned the tide against all of the medical advances and advantages of successful civilization and are now raising the first-ever generation of kids in this country which is expected to have a shorter lifespan than the generation before. 

One cause of this disturbing trend is the way we have learned to relate to food, and its role in our lives.  We have made food overly important as a source of personal enjoyment, stress management, and social bonding, while de-emphasizing more effective options for meeting those needs, like physical activity and personal hobbies.  The result is an emotional set toward food which predisposes us toward being sedentary, preferring non-nutritional convenience foods, requiring ever-increasing portion sizes in order to feel like we’ve been satisfied, and turning to food to meet practically every emotional need.

Kids who are raised to relate to food in this manner have little hope of having healthy eating patterns in their adult lives.  They are likely to struggle with lifelong weight problems, emotional stress related to their inability to manage food properly, and the host of medical problems that predictably follows. 

It doesn’t have to be this way.  You – within your own family, and for the lasting benefit of your children – have the power to create change, and you have the power to begin right now.

Some Solutions: The Role of Food in the Family

One of the best things you can do for your kids as a parent is to address your own eating issues, otherwise, you will almost certainly teach your children to have the same issues – contact me if you would like help with this.  It is also helpful to stay up-to-date on good books about our food supply, because once you understand the reality of what we’re eating, making different choices comes much more naturally. 

In the meantime, be careful about the role you give food in your family.  The list that follows addresses common practices that lead to food being made overly important, and thus becoming a destructive force rather than a life-generating one.    
1. Don’t make food the primary way you express your love for your kids.  Love is best expressed through other means, such as verbal and physical affection, validation, and time shared together.  Define food for your children as fuel for their growing bodies, which they can certainly enjoy along the way.  Defining it in emotional terms can lead to a lifetime of emotionally-based decision-making about food, which typically leads to over-consumption and focus on low-quality foods.   

2. Don’t use food as a reward.  Reward your kids with time, affection, special activities, or special privileges.

3. Don’t pressure your kids to eat just because it makes you happy to see them eat.  Their eating should be primarily about support of their growing bodies, not about your emotional fulfillment. 

4. Don't suggest that your kids use food to help themselves feel better emotionally, because this habit can haunt them for the rest of their lives.  Teach them how to deal with their problems and feelings directly, rather than simply distracting themselves from their stresses with food.

5. Avoid organizing family togetherness around food as the main event.  Make shared activities the primary focus, with food in the background in a secondary role.  Even major holidays can be reshaped in this way with a bit of creativity, and those who have done so report that their holidays are actually more enjoyable as a result.  

More Solutions:  Food Practices that Set up Successful Food Management

Now that we’ve explored what not to do, here are some ideas about what to do in order to support your kids in developing a healthy approach to food:

1. Keep your home well-stocked with fresh, whole foods at all times.  When real food is much more readily available than junk food in your home, your family will naturally eat more real food.  Real food has actual nutritional value, results in more lasting feelings of fullness, and is less likely to trigger repeat-eating; junk food is actually harmful to eat, results in quick return of hunger, and triggers rapid, repeat-eating (“nobody can eat just one”).  The consistent presence of real food in your home will allow your family to naturally enjoy more control with their eating, in addition to supporting better health.

2. Maintain a supply of easy-access, healthy snacks (pre-cut veggies, fruits, whole grain products) that everyone can grab on-the-go. 

3. Encourage family gathering at meal times, preferably without TV in background, so that you can focus on connecting with each other and share a more quality eating experience than the pre-packaged snack grabbed in haste and inhaled in isolation.

4. Model a mindful, controlled approach to eating for your kids by minimizing the household practice of eating while doing other things like reading, watching TV, working at the computer, talking on the phone, etc.  When you eat while doing something else, it is impossible to give eating your full attention – this results in mindless consumption of unneeded calories that don’t even get noticed or enjoyed on their way to your stomach.  Kids are very susceptible to adopting the pattern of mindless eating – you can help by modeling a better way. 

5. Teach kids to distinguish between real food that supports their bodies and health (fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, beans, etc.), and items that are edible and enjoyable, but which provide no meaningful nourishment (snack foods, processed foods; almost anything that came out of a factory instead of from a farm).  Teach them that foods having only entertainment value must be enjoyed occasionally and in small portions, rather than becoming a cornerstone of the daily diet.  There are many social messages encouraging the over-consumption of nutritionally useless products – without you giving a different message at home, your kids have little chance of avoiding this trap.

6. Model smaller portion sizes, which is easier to do when you down-size the plates, bowls, and glasses that you use.  Americans have become accustomed to portions which are, in fact, several times larger than they should be, which is why so many of us are also much larger than we should be.  Model portion sanity at home, so your kids can recognize the unreasonable portion sizes that they encounter out in the world. 

7. Prepare balanced, healthy meals with a wide variety of whole foods and do not create alternate meals for the picky eaters -- they will eat when they get hungry enough.

8. Consider requiring that your child try a new food item on at least five separate occasions before giving up on it altogether; they might actually get used to it with repeated exposure.  Be careful to keep the emotional atmosphere light and non-threatening when kids are trying new foods; if fights with you come to be associated with broccoli, for example, you can be sure that your child will never, ever develop an appreciation for broccoli.

9. Finally, look for ways to incorporate more physical activity into your lives as a family.  Playing sports or taking long walks together strengthens relational bonds while providing opportunities for exercise that everyone needs anyway.  People who are more physically active tend to gravitate naturally toward higher quality foods, plus they learn more effective means of stress management than eating can ever provide.  Setting a tone of physical activity in your home will position your kids for a much healthier, happier adulthood, as well as giving them more or an edge in relating to food in a way that works well for them.  

Raising children to be balanced with food in our current environment is a daunting challenge to be sure, because there are so many forces at work beyond the influence that you have.  If you use your influence to best advantage as described in this article, you greatly increase the odds of your kids figuring out how to have a healthy relationship with food; at the very least, you give them a fighting chance.  Good luck.

Copyright © 2008.  Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.

Some other articles you may find useful:

Are You a Compulsive Eater?  Test Yourself and See...

Basic Strategies for Managing the Urge to Eat

Compulsive Eating: Serious Health Issues
Fat: Important New Findings
Grocery Shopping 101

Loving Each Other to Death with Food

What Are Complex Carbohydrates and Why Should You Care? 

Why You Love Exercise, but Don't Know It 

Your Weight May Not be the Problem
Self-Help for Intense Anxiety


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