As a dietitian who has spent much of my time working in an outpatient setting, I've regularly worked with well-intentioned parents whose approach to nutrition education unintentionally encroaches on food policing and weight shaming.
I understand this often comes from the best of intentions. Parents want to see their children make choices that fit within a healthy lifestyle. Plus, the topic of nutrition itself can feel a little tricky to master. Balanced nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all eating pattern, however there are clearly foods that should be incorporated daily and those that are better for our health when chosen sporadically.
Since we often learn life-long eating habits during childhood, it is important to learn how to encourage healthy behaviors that avoid shaming or guilt. Here are a few tips I like to discuss with clients:
- Avoid labeling food as "good" or "bad". It is true that some foods provide health benefits, while others do not. However, it all comes down to balance. Kids are going to feel as though they are "bad" when selecting a less nourishing food if they have been taught that it is "bad" for their health. This can lead to guilt. Eating is - and should be - an enjoyable experience.
- Allow all foods in moderation. Offer balanced meals and snacks, consisting of a minimum of two food groups. Let your child choose what order to eat food in, and how much to have. While it is best not to keep an unlimited supply of fried foods, baked goods, or soda in the house, having an appropriate portion of an indulgence periodically can actually help kids learn the art of self-regulation.
- Teach kids how to identify appropriate portion sizes. Serve appropriate portion sizes at meals, however remember that kids are growing and might still feel hungry after the first helping. Encourage kids to listen to their personal hunger and satiety cues to identify when they've had enough.
- Serve a variety of foods. Children base their food choices on personal preferences. One of the best ways to expand their palate is to offer a variety of healthful foods, prepared in a variety of ways. Encourage kids to try at least one bite of everything on their plate, but avoid requiring them to finish everything that is served. Over time, they will find an assortment of nourishing foods they enjoy eating.
- Avoid weight talk. We all have different body types. Unfortunately, modern beauty standards can leave kids feeling insecure in their body. Kids will likely be exposed to negative weight talk at school, online, and in the media. Avoid negative weight talk at home, and instead focus on creating a home environment that encourages regular physical activity and balanced eating habits.
- Model healthy habits. Practice what you preach. Kids pick up on your habits so regularly model balanced eating and exercise habits at home. Also be sure to avoid pointing out insecurities with your own body and appearance.