If you want to raise a child who is free from food issues, then it’s time to stop sabotaging their relationship with food. Eating disorders are on the rise, and disordered eating is so common that it’s considered normal.
But true health is found when a person eats according to their preferences and appetite and knows that their body weight will settle into the range it wants to be. This range is often not the same as the range our society deems acceptable or desirable, which is why food and eating have become so fraught.
Parents who want to raise healthy kids who are free from food issues and eating disorders have to work hard to counterbalance the cultural misinformation about food and eating, which is driven by the $72 billion diet industry.
But the effort is well worth it. Kids who are raised with food freedom and body peace are healthier and happier.
Here are nine ways you may accidentally be sabotaging your kids’ relationship with food:
1. Describe food as good or bad
Kids have a simplistic way of responding to parental guidance. When you set up a hierarchy of food, they assume that if they eat/crave good foods then they (as a person) are good. But if they eat/crave bad foods then they (as a person) are bad. This sets them up for a complicated and disordered relationship with food and poor self-worth.
Instead of doing this, make all food choices morally neutral.
2. Talk about other people’s food choices
When you talk about what other people eat as either good or bad, you’re telling your child what you believe is acceptable and unacceptable. They will automatically apply your opinions about other people’s eating behavior to themselves and believe they can show you their goodness (or badness) through food behaviors.
Instead of doing this, keep your eyes on your own plate and don’t talk about other people’s food choices.
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3. Link eating to weight gain
It is completely false that weight is as simple as calories in/calories out. Many people who are smaller eat more calories than people who are larger. Bodies have vastly different metabolic processes, and bodies are naturally diverse in weight. When parents perpetuate the myth that weight is within a person’s control, they set a child up for restriction, which causes harm.
Instead of doing this, tell kids that all bodies are unique, and we should never make assumptions about people based on their weight.
4. Reward good behavior with dessert
Dessert should be available based on your preferences, your kids’ preferences, and lots of other factors. But it shouldn’t be given or restricted based on a child’s behavior. Children are not animals. We have much more complex neural structures, and simple food-based reward systems quickly go awry.
Instead of doing this, offer dessert as often as you feel makes sense, regardless of your kids’ behavior.
5. Punish bad behavior by canceling dessert
When parents use food as a punishment, kids suffer. Food should be given according to preference and appetite, not behavior. Withholding food for bad behavior can have long-lasting impacts on a child’s relationship with food.
Instead of doing this, talk to your child about any behavior you don’t like, but don’t link it to food in any way.
6. Praise kids for making “good choices”
Kids should choose food based on what tastes good, what they want in the moment, and what is available to them. When we moralize the food they choose, we set them up to see food as a reward or punishment, good or bad. Kids who are given a full range of choices will naturally cover their nutritional needs and settle into a healthy weight for their unique body.
Instead of doing this, talk about how food tastes and how much you enjoy sharing food with them.
7. Tell kids they need to limit sugar, carbs, or any other food type
When we restrict food, the most common outcome is binge eating that food. Kids who are not allowed to eat sugar will binge eat sugar. Same with carbs and other foods that are tasty and restricted. Parents who allow all foods notice that their kids rarely (if ever) binge eat because they trust they can always have more.
Instead of doing this, offer a wide variety of foods regularly.
8. Make kids eat their vegetables before they eat anything else
Making kids eat vegetables before they eat anything else is a form of parental control. While parents should be in charge of the options available to their kids, they should not dictate which foods go in their kids’ bodies or in which order they eat it. Dangerous power struggles are much more likely in families where food is controlled.
Instead of doing this, let your child choose the order in which they eat their food.
9. Tell kids their future health is based on what they eat
Telling kids that their health is directly tied to what they eat is factually wrong and harmful. The greatest impacts on mortality and health are genes and environment, neither of which is within a person’s control. Specific food choices have no direct connection to health, but a positive relationship with food is linked to better health.
Instead of doing this, provide your child with an emotionally connected home environment that will support their physical and mental health for life.
The 1 way to raise a child who is free from food issues
The best way to raise a child who is free from food issues is to trust kids to feed themselves the right mix of food based on what you offer them and gain weight according to their unique body’s blueprint.
Our culture wants to prescribe a one-size-fits-all meal plan and moralize about good and bad foods. But that ends up being controlling and unhelpful. Trust the body and the appetite to make the right choices for your child’s unique circumstances.
Our culture also likes to prescribe a narrow weight range for every single body. This is despite the fact that we know that body diversity is natural and expected in any population. We see body diversity even when everyone eats the same things.
Feeding kids who are free from eating disorders and food issues can be challenging in our culture. Trust your child’s body to grow according to its unique blueprint, and avoid any food restriction or moralization.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate their kid’s eating disorder recovery. Ginny has been researching, writing about, and supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.
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[…] we’ve learned on this journey is to not judge anyone’s health based on their weight and to stop labeling food as good or bad. It’s all too common to carry unconscious biases about health in our culture. And we’re all […]