“I want more cake!”
Ten minutes later…
“Can we have more cake tonight?”
These were the very first words out my 3- and 5-year old daughters’ mouths the morning after my birthday. It was 7 AM and their taste buds were already gearing up for chocolate cake with chocolate icing. “Let’s focus on breakfast first” was the best answer I could come up with!
As a parent in recovery from anorexia, conversations with my daughters like this one always leave me feeling a little unsettled. I question if my words and body language came from my heart versus my old “ED head” beliefs. Did I pass judgement on their hunger or the food they want to eat? Did I suggest that a food is “bad” or send the message that their pure passion and enjoyment for eating most foods is wrong or something they need to control, temper, ignore even?
Although my journeys of parenthood and recovery have at times run parallel to one another, they have also intersected and influenced one another in significant ways. I may question my “food parenting moments,” but at the root of my concern is my vigilant and diligent efforts to model healthy and uncomplicated relationships with and perspectives about nourishing our bodies.
My husband and I are equally dedicated to creating positive food and body vibes at home so that our girls have the most solid foundation possible from which to develop healthy relationships with food and their bodies. To help guide positive conversations with our girls, cultivate their self-confidence, respect their hunger cues, and teach them about healthy and balanced nutrition, my husband and I follow these five rules:
1. Don’t punish or reward with food
When you are at your wits end or tired from a long day, it’s so easy and tempting to use food as a motivator: “Stop whining and I will give you a cookie” or “No dessert tonight if you don’t clean up your toys.” But this is risky business, because then behavior becomes linked with food, and usually it’s a dessert or snack food. These associations of praise or punishment with food can follow a child through life and lead to disordered eating and thoughts related to those types of foods. Additionally, if food is held as a punishment or a reward, then food becomes about something other than the basic need of nourishment, which can lead to serious problems, including anxiety, low self-esteem, body image, and eating disorders.
2. All food is neutral
We live in a society that labels food groups as indulgences, fattening, and bad. Obviously, I could elaborate on this list. More important, however, is the message that food—all food—is neutral. It is the charge, labels, and beliefs that we pass on about food that endows it with such power. By calling some foods good and other foods bad, we teach children to be suspicious of food and, by extension, their cravings and appetite. If we teach that food is just food, that it is neutral, that it feeds our bodies and brains and gives us energy, we send a more positive message about food in general. As parents, we have the responsibility to model and teach about portions rather than demonize and/or forbid food groups.
3. Trust that the body knows
Our society also likes to have a say in when we should and shouldn’t be hungry. While children are young and not yet exposed to diet culture and headlines about curbing hunger, we have the privilege of encouraging connection with hunger and fullness cues. By encouraging children to check in with their bellies (ie, hunger and fullness), we teach them to respect their bodies’ needs. If we challenge the legitimacy of their hunger or fullness, we not only risk mucking with their bodies’ digestive system, but also teach them to question, doubt, or negate their own hunger and fullness. In the same way food is neutral, so is hunger and fullness. We serve our children best by not layering hunger and fullness with emotion or debate.
4. Don’t comment on body parts or shape
Because of my eating disorder, my family and friends have the advantage of knowing to never comment on my body. That rule carries over to our girls’ bodies as well. And we teach our girls to not comment on others’ bodies. Most children begin with a carefree feeling about their bodies; they move without worry. They don’t see separate body parts or feel limited by the shape of their bodies. Instead, they live to the fullest in the moment. We serve our children best by praising them for all things big and small. If we build up their inner resilience, they are more likely to withstand the pressures they will face about their bodies as they grow up.
5. Don’t question each other’s preferences
We work very hard to not second guess our daughters when they express a desire or need. Whether it’s food, what they want to wear, the TV show they want to watch, or the color crayon they ask for, it is imperative to hear that request and not challenge it with questions like: Are you sure? What about this one? Don’t you want this instead? Do you want that or do you want X instead? When we question our children’s preferences, we send the message that we don’t trust their decisions or judgement. In turn, they may become less confident in their ability to connect with and articulate their needs. They may also become hypersensitive to pleasing the parent rather than fulfilling their own desires.
These rules have been extremely helpful in making sure me and my husband are on the same page when it comes to teaching and modeling positive food and body messages at home. For sure, raising children is a work in progress, and I imagine we will add a few more rules to this list, especially as we approach the teenage years! I’d love to hear how you and your family creates healthy food and body vibes in your household. Please feel free to email me with your suggestions and share about your experiences. I’d love to hear from you!
Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, E-RYT 200, RYT 500, is a yoga teacher and yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image. In recovery herself, Jennifer is extremely passionate about helping others reconnect with their bodies and be empowered in their lives. Jennifer works with clients in person and via Skype. She also teaches yoga at the Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia and is a partner with the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. She leads trauma-sensitive yoga classes and teaches weekly flow yoga classes. Jennifer contributes regularly to eating disorder and body image blogs and the YogaLiving Magazine. Website