As a registered dietitian, I am well aware of the wonders good nutrition can do. And still, despite all the knowledge and credentials behind my belt, striving for a perfect diet is much lower on my priority list than fostering a healthy relationship with food for my children.
Of course, variety and an overall balance are important.
But if we put all our energy into measuring portion sizes and counting numbers of servings we have less time to shape our child’s healthy relationship with food – something no amount of kale or chia seeds can do for us.
And something our children need so desperately in this turned upside-down food environment.
The good news is that even if your child is not a perfect eater today, with the right feeding strategy in place he is very likely to grow into a happy one, with a healthy relationship with food and good eating habits.
What I love about a healthy relationship with food is that it can give freedom from food rules, lessen anxiety around eating and support positive body image.
It also helps feel great about eating and nourishing one’s body, minimizes emotional eating and allows to stay attuned to hunger-fullness.
Which, in turn, can increase your child’s chances of having a healthy body and tons of self-esteem for many years to come!
3 signs your child has a healthy relationship with food
1. Your child feels in control around all types of food. This is an important skill to have in this crazy food world with piles of palatable food at every corner.
Of course, a plate of cookies or a cake will always be a big attraction and a source of excitement at a children’s party. But children with a healthy relationship with food will be off to play with friends after enjoying some treats instead of staying by the buffet table eating (and sometimes sneaking) until all the cookies are gone or parents lose their cool.
As a grown up, you feel in control around palatable foods if you can leave half of your chocolate cake on a plate just because you are not hungry any more or choose carrots instead of candy because you fancy some carrots for a snack. Sounds too good to be true? Time to look at your own relationship with food!
2. Your child can self regulate. With the exception of some medical conditions, all children are born with internal mechanisms allowing them to eat the amount they need for proper growth and development. This amount of food may vary from one day to another and from child to child.
It is fine to occasionally overeat when the food is extra delicious or under eat when we have more exciting things to do. But most of the time kids are wonderful at maintaining their calorie balance by choosing the right amounts of food.
Now, it does not mean that parents have to resign from their feeding jobs and just let kids randomly rummage through cupboards full of chips and cookies. No, a meal and snack schedule and balanced meals with a variety of options are still the parental responsibility because children do not have the skills or knowledge to organize their own feeding yet.
But within this structure, children who are happy eaters will have no problem adjusting their caloric intake to what their bodies need.
3. Your child is interested in exploring new foods. Kids have a natural curiosity about the world that naturally encompasses food and eating. If the right feeding strategy is in place, they can work independently on expanding their eating repertoire when they are ready.
Having a healthy relationship with food does not guarantee that your child will love everything he tries or will become a connoisseur of oysters by 5 years of age.
Instead, he will feel safe and confident enough to venture into an unknown territory of new flavours and textures from time to time, at his own speed.
Parents of happy eaters often hear questions about new foods or requests to buy something new in a supermarket. Children with sensory, oral motor or anxiety issues may need more time and help from feeding specialists but they are also able to push themselves to learn to like more variety!
How can you foster a healthy relationship with food in your child? As with everything in parenting, there is no overnight solution for this and you may need to examine YOUR OWN attitudes to food and eating first. Here are a few resources to get you started.
Before our children leave the nest, we have thousands of opportunities to teach them healthy relationship with food – one of the most precious gifts that will be supporting them all life.
So let’s not waste time.
You can start by examining your own attitudes to food and using the best feeding strategy you can help your little ones feel in control around palatable foods, stay attuned to their hunger-fullness and push themselves to explore the exciting world of new flavors and textures!