You’re a health-conscious mom who wants the best for your kids. You work hard to make sure they eat well and get plenty of exercise, because you want them to live long, happy, healthy lives.
As a health coach and former school wellness teacher, I applaud you. If all parents made healthy eating a priority, we wouldn’t be facing the childhood obesity epidemic we are today.
However, I know that teaching healthy habits can be trickier than it sounds. In an ideal world, we would all naturally gravitate towards healthy foods instead of choosing them because we think we “should.” In this post, I share three essential “Don’ts” and “Do’s” to help you confidently navigate the waters of empowering your kids with a healthy relationship with food.
DON’T: Label foods as good and bad.
Kale. Cupcakes. Blueberries. Candy. Admit it – as you read these four words, you automatically labeled each of these foods as “good” or “bad” in your mind. Of course you did, because we all do. We’ve learned that healthy foods are good and unhealthy foods are bad – and most likely, we’re teaching our kids this same mentality. When I was a wellness teacher, I certainly did.
Here’s the catch: when we label foods as good or bad, we’re associating our food choices with morality. As in, “I was good; I had a salad for lunch,” and “I was bad; I ate fries last night.” Yes, certain foods offer more nutritional value than others – but WE are not good or bad as a result of what we eat. Our self-worth has nothing to do with our food choices.
Labeling foods as good or bad has another unintended consequence – it makes the “bad” foods much more appealing. We’ve all had the experience of wanting something just because it was off limits. By calling unhealthy foods “bad,” we give them more power. Food companies are already doing everything they can to make junk food highly desirable to kids. Let’s not make their job even easier.
DO: Emphasize how healthy food makes you feel great.
Luckily, all you have to do to change your messaging around healthy eating is implement a simple shift in language. Instead of labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” talk with your kids about foods to eat more often and foods to eat less often. Explain that your family eats nourishing, whole foods most of the time because these foods help kids and adults to thrive. A healthy diet gives kids the energy to play and to do well in school. It puts them in a great mood so that they get along with their siblings and friends. It helps them to grow big and strong. Ultimately, a diet made up of mostly healthy foods allows their inner light to shine.
At the same time, explain to your kids that there is nothing wrong with unhealthy foods. They taste great and give us pleasure. However, your family chooses to eat these foods less often because they don’t nourish us the way healthy foods do.
By shifting our language to foods we eat more often and foods we eat less often, and removing morality from the picture, we put food in its proper place. It’s a source of nourishment and pleasure – nothing more, nothing less.
My next tips focus on a dynamic that can play out when well-meaning parents try to guide their kids towards moderation and healthy choices. For the sake of simplicity, I refer to girls in this section, although this is certainly an issue that can affect boys as well.
DON’T: Make judgmental comments about what’s on your child’s plate.
“Do you really need another serving?” “Are you sure you want to eat that piece of cake?” “Wow, you must be really hungry.”
Before we dive into why these types of comments are harmful, I first want you to know that I get it. If your child is on the heavy side, you want to do everything you can to help her reach a healthy weight. You know that life can be socially harder for heavy kids. And you worry about her future if she continues to gain weight into adulthood. Or, on the flip side, perhaps you have a healthy-weight daughter who is a dancer, gymnast, cheerleader – anything in that realm. For better or for worse, bodies that look a certain way are basically required in those arenas. You want your daughter to excel, which means fitting in with the norm.
Regardless of the undoubtedly valid reasons you have for expressing concern about what’s on your daughter’s plate, your comments are not doing any good. Even if they result in her eating less in that particular instance, in the long term, you’re most likely giving her a food complex. You’re telling her that she’s only “good” when she eats healthy foods in moderation. Even worse, the underlying message is that she is unworthy if her body is too big.
I’ve seen this dynamic play out first-hand. When we first started working together, Abby* (not her real name), a quiet, empathetic 16-year-old client, shared with me that she can’t remember ever NOT stressing about healthy eating. Her well-intentioned mom, who struggled with her weight when she was younger, had been adamant since Abby was born that her daughter would not have to face the same battle. She stressed healthy eating (and made comments about unhealthy choices) throughout Abby’s childhood. Over time, these comments caused Abby to feel bad about herself – and, paradoxically, to seek comfort in food.
DO: Model a healthy attitude, and make it easy and desirable for the whole family to eat well.
How do you encourage your kids to eat healthfully without giving them a complex? My suggestion is two-fold. First, model a healthy attitude. I like to think about it in terms of the 80/20 rule. A habit is something we’re doing 80% of the time. If you exercise on 8 out of 10 days, exercising is the norm, and your body will experience great benefit from that habit. Likewise, if you eat healthy foods 80% of the time, healthy eating is a habit. Your habits determine your long-term outcomes. What you do the other 20% of the time will have little impact on the big picture.
Practice modeling the attitudes of “I choose healthy foods most of the time because they give me energy and allow me to thrive,” AND “Sometimes I eat foods for the sole reason that they taste amazing and give me pleasure.” Try not to express remorse or the idea that you’ve been “bad” when your choices aren’t so healthy. If you eat a cookie (or a few), enjoy it, and then move on to the next life experience. Keep in mind that your habits – what you do 80% of the time – will be the biggest determiner of your outcomes. The other 20% of the time? Take pleasure in foods that delight you, in a way that nourishes you on a soul level.
My second suggestion is to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Full disclosure: when I open the fridge and see fresh fruit, or carrots and hummus, or other healthy snacks I enjoy, it’s easy to choose them – unless I know that there are cookies in the pantry. If I know that there cookies in the pantry, I will most likely not even stop to consider the healthy options.
Let’s face it – it’s much harder to make a healthy choice when tempting unhealthy options are readily available. My strategy? Simple: I rarely keep unhealthy foods around. When they’re not around, I don’t even think about them, and I’m totally content with my apple and almonds. Do your family the same favor – make the healthy choice the easy and desirable one.
My third and final tips are about you – the mom. In a society where 75% of women practice some level of disordered eating, it’s a good idea for moms to take an honest and compassionate look at their own thoughts and behaviors around food.
DON’T: Pass down your own food and body image issues.
Did you know that many thought patterns and behaviors that we consider normal are actually signs of an unhealthy relationship with food and body? For example:
- Feeling guilty after eating a “bad” food
- Measuring your self-worth by how “good” or “bad” you’ve been with food (or by the number on the scale)
- Being constantly dissatisfied with or ashamed of your body
- Ongoing inner and outer chatter about what you should and shouldn’t eat
- Comparing what’s on your plate to what’s on other people’s plates (and feeling superior or inferior, depending on the match-up)
- Bonding with other women over what you dislike about your bodies
- Judging other women’s bodies (whether it’s hating them because they’re perfect or thinking mean thoughts about their perceived imperfections)
I know each of these behaviors intimately, because I used to practice them. To be honest, they pretty much ruled my life for years.
As I’ve shared my journey with others, I’ve found that almost every woman relates to it on some level. It doesn’t take an eating disorder to make an unhealthy relationship with food. If one or more of the points above resonated with you, it might be time to take a gentle look at your thought patterns and behaviors. I promise that you’ll feel much better when you’re free from food-and-body chains.
Perhaps more importantly, you’ll show your kids what it looks like when a woman is happy, healthy, and confident in her body – regardless of whether she meets society’s “perfect” standards. Wouldn’t it be great if your kids grew up with the message that being healthy is easy, fun, and joyful, instead of an elusive goal driven by force, deprivation, and obsession with looking a certain way?
DO: Commit to honestly work on cultivating a happy, healthy relationship with food and eating.
I’ve come a long way in my own relationship with food. I’m no longer chained to the above behaviors. I now eat whatever I want, and, paradoxically, I’ve found that when I give myself this permission, I naturally want healthy foods most of the time. I like to share this lesson with my clients: “Be careful not to should too much, because eventually you’ll end up should-ing all over yourself.”
If you’re interested in embarking on a journey towards a healthier relationship with food and body, I would be happy to talk with you about coaching. I coach moms as well as teens – and sometimes I even work with moms and daughters together! If you’d like to learn more, please don’t hesitate to contact me to schedule a time to chat.
Annette Sloan is a health coach, speaker, and yoga teacher on a mission to help girls and women make peace with their relationships with food – and with themselves. Her business, (w)holehearted, specializes in compassionate health coaching for teen girls. As a certified mind-body-nutrition coach and speaker with 13 years of experience in working with youth and health, Annette aims to co-create a world in which all girls believe that they are worthy. To learn more, visit www.healthyteengirls.com and www.fb.com/healthyteengirls.