Every year, the eating disorders research unit sets up a stand at the Steven Z. Miller Pediatric Emergency Medicine Health Fair at New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Columbia University Irving Medical Center campus. The goal of this fair is to teach hundreds of local elementary school children about healthy living, nutrition, being active, and injury prevention.
While our group was brainstorming what activity to use to teach these children about healthy eating for this year’s fair, we were reminded of how tricky it can be to talk to kids about healthy living and nutrition. Given how easy it is for adults to draw a false equivalence between weight and health, it’s especially hard to disentangle the concepts for kids. Research informs us that when we teach children about maintaining a healthy lifestyle, it’s helpful to steer clear of “numbers talk” – focusing on body weight and calories. For example, one study found that parent conversations focused on weight and size were associated with a risk for disordered eating in their teens. At the same time, in this very same study, parent-teen discussions focused on healthful eating protected against the development of disordered eating habits.
So what strategies should you use to discuss eating healthfully with your child?
- Let your actions and your words model healthy behavior: Parents are among the most important influences on their children. By modeling healthy eating behaviors first hand, your child may be more likely to mimic these behaviors and make healthier choices. Research suggests that young children’s food preferences are often related the preferences of their mothers. So if you are trying to teach your child to eat a balanced diet, be prepared to illustrate these habits first hand.
- Select for active activities: Exercise helps us in all kinds of ways. It strengthens our bones and muscles, and helps us regulate mood, anxiety, and sleep. In kids, activity is especially helpful with improving concentration, learning how to follow instructions (from a coach), and working with peers (on a team) towards a shared goal. Be open to learning what kind of movement your child likes and why. When encouraging your child to get moving, or talking about your own desires and plans to exercise, be mindful to focus on aspects other than weight and burning calories. Instead of saying, “I need to walk off that big dinner,” you might choose to say, “Wow! It would feel so good to get out and move and get some fresh air.”
- Try and try again: Children’s taste preferences change over time. Encourage children to keep trying foods even if they don’t love them their first time. Research informs us that foods need to be presented to a child around 10 to 15 times to know if the child actually likes the specific food.
- Eliminate the clean plate club: Children typically have a better sense of hunger and fullness than adults. Pushing children to eat based on an external cue instead of their own hunger and fullness may teach them to ignore these internal sensations over time. If you are concerned about whether your child is eating enough or too much, look to indicators such as whether they are growing as expected or sleeping through the night. When in doubt, check in with your child’s pediatrician.
- No more labels: It’s easy to fall into the oversimplifying trap of defining “bad” or “good” Food is not a moral issue, and labeling it as such can lead to inappropriate guilt or pride in decisions about what to eat. Food judgments may also lead to avoidance, which, in extreme forms, are unhealthy and likely to backfire. If it’s hard to find a new language to talk about foods, consider a shift from “good/bad” to “always/sometimes” food. This emphasizes that nothing is off limits, rather that moderation is key.
- Kids can be chefs too: Another way to change the dynamic around food at home, is to get everyone in on the action. Allowing kids to choose what they want to eat, and getting them involved in the cooking/ prepping process can be a great way to foster a multi-dimensional relationship with food.
For additional resources check out the following websites:
- Nutrition Source (Harvard University School of Public Health), Kids Healthy Eating Plate
- Choose My Plate (US Department of Agriculture)
- Healthy Food for Kids by Helpguide.org