We all want to raise our kids to live the best lives they can. We want them to be safe, happy, healthy. This is especially true when we talk about bodies and food.
As a licensed therapist specializing in eating disorders and anxiety, much of my work has been to support patients and their families in navigating the world of food neutrality and body positivity, which can feel like an impossible task.
Bombarded with marketing messages that promote thin body ideals, dieting, weight loss, and trends in “healthy eating,” layered with the internalized shame we carry as caregivers to “get it right”, many of us are overwhelmed. Add to that our own dysfunctional relationship with food and our bodies — which introduces bias into each of these areas — it can feel like a game we can’t win.
Are they eating too much? Too little? If I talk to them about what they’re eating, am I shaming them or helping them? When do I intervene? Should I talk to them about their body or appearance — even if it’s good? Do we talk about weight? At what age? Is their weight a concern?
The biggest thing I tell parents and caregivers is that there’s no “right” answer. We’re all going to screw up. I specialize in this, and I still say things that I look back on and realize are rooted in internalized biases of diet culture.
In Part 1 of this story, we are going to focus on modeling and habits. How do we model the ideas of food neutrality and body connectivity? How do we create habits and routines that are founded on these ideals?
In Part 2, we will dive deeper into how to talk about some of these difficult topics and how we can hold space for our kids to experience and sort through these complex relationships.
Start by getting clear on your own story.
What stories do you have about your own body? Food? What messages and experiences did you have growing up? What was modeled to you? I grew up surrounded by family members with poor relationships with food and their bodies — using food to cope, constantly dieting, hoarding food and body shaming. My weight and appearance were talked about frequently not only with them, but with peers, as well. These messages and deeply embedded shame systems left me feeling like my body was a problem. I spent years battling a severe eating disorder and work actively every day to maintain recovery. This dramatically changes the way I view food, consciously and subconsciously. Knowing this helps me show up with greater awareness and intention with my daughter, Everly.
Consider what was taught to you by your parents and caregivers. What messages did you get from your peers? How were people in different bodies treated? What connection did this have to other aspects of your identity?
Model body positivity — honestly.
Every time you pinch a part of your body or make negative comments about your appearance, your kids absorb it. Your self-loathing can become the basis for their own. It’s important not to shame yourself for doing this. Give yourself grace and compassion and consider what shifts you can make to show up differently.
That doesn’t mean to pretend that your relationship with your body is a daily dose of unicorns and rainbows. Pretending is not healing and perpetuates silent suffering. Focus on creating awareness around when you feel uncomfortable in your body. Talk about it. Even with my two-year-old, I tell her if I’m having a bad body image day and normalize it. I tell her that it can make it hard to feel like I can show up in the world in the same way and that I am working on trusting that I’m worthy of showing up fully every day, no matter how I feel about my body or how it looks.
You can also talk to them about the impact of internalized biases and messages in our culture. Talk to them about the perpetuation of -isms and introduce the concepts of fatphobia in age-appropriate ways. Let them know our world is founded on the belief that thinness is superior and that this is tied to race, gender identity and expression and more.
Extend this modeling to food.
What rules and beliefs do you have about food? What shame do you carry about what you eat? What priority have you given food in your daily life?
The goal here isn’t to pretend you feel great about food and everything is wonderful. The goal is to be honest. My mother-in-law struggles a lot with vegetables. She had a lot of negative experiences with food growing up, which is something that she still struggles with. She spends a lot of time with Everly and she makes an effort every day to eat vegetables with her. But she talks to her about how this is something she works at. She shares with her what vegetables do for the body and why they are great fuel sources but is honest with her about her experience with them. Whatever struggles come up for you, it’s okay to share them with your kids.
Reinforce to your kids that every day is not picture perfect with food either. Some meals you will have in the car. Sometimes, the day will get away from you and you order takeout, instead. Show them what it means to find balance in this, and that it’s okay when the plans around food change.
Let go of the binary around foods — shift from “good” and “bad” foods to all foods fit.
We have been inundated with food binaries our whole lives. Foods are labeled as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. This binary system place a moral value or hierarchy on food and can lead to shame if we eat foods low on the ladder or send messages that foods are dangerous or scary. In some cases, this may lead them to eat these foods in secret and can lead to shame-based eating patterns.
There is nutritional value in much of the foods we label as “bad” or “treats” — even a lollipop has carbohydrates. I know this feels tricky and no, I am not saying that every time Everly wants cake for breakfast I give it to her. Instead, talk about the role different foods play and what it looks like to fuel your body. Sesame Street does a great job with this for parents of younger kids and talks a lot about “sometimes” foods and the idea that there are some foods we don’t eat as often because they don’t give us as broad a range of nutrients and energy as others.
Be mindful of using food as a reward or punishment.
Comments like, “If you do X then you can have a cookie” or “If you don’t eat your dinner then you can’t have any dessert” connects foods to experiences and emotions. If they do X, then they earned or deserved this food. If they feel angry, sad, or do something “wrong, ” they do not deserve food.
It also becomes a way of food scaling, where foods are treats or chores. If we train them to see eating vegetables as a chore that then earns them a cookie, they are not actually building a relationship with the vegetables, but are ridding themselves of the obstacle to get to the cookie. Shifting away from this is another way to eradicate the “good” and “bad” food systems.
Let go of the notion that they have to finish their plate.
I am betting that you were told to finish your plate growing up. The comment I was most familiar with was, “think about the starving kids”. It was a way to shame me into eating that ultimately did nothing to help kids without proper access to food. Instead, it focused my eating on satisfying someone else’s idea of “enough” without identifying this for myself.
This may show up in your household with comments like, “Let’s take a few more bites before we get down from the table.” Kids are inherently intuitive eaters — think back to their infancy. Our job is to help expand upon that intuition and connect more with what hunger and fullness look like for them. When we tell them to eat more or to stop, we can erode those cues. Instead of telling them what to eat, focus on encouraging them to think about how their belly feels. Explain what hunger and fullness mean and remember that ebbs and flows with food are normal*.
*There are some instances when this is vital to supporting kids in getting adequate nutrition, including kids who may struggle with disordered eating. And, for many kids, this level of supervision is not necessary. I tell parents who worry about what their child is eating to notice trends rather than get fixated on each experience. If you are concerned, watch for trends and talk to their pediatrician.
Prioritize eating together
Studies have shown that eating meals together is a protective factor against developing negative relationships and patterns with food. It also allows your whole family the ability to reset and focus on priorities of connection. Whenever possible, sit down at the table, distraction-free, and enjoy a meal or snack together.
Involve your kids in the food decisions.
Have them help you with meal planning. Bring them with you to the grocery store or
farmer’s markets. They can help make food. Everly gets so excited to be my “sous-chef” and loves telling people what she does when she cooks. Make it fun and get them excited to immerse themselves in food.
These habits and ideals take time to develop. Be compassionate with yourself as you work on developing systems to support your children. There will be days you don’t have a meal together. You will absolutely say “the wrong thing” at some point; we all do. You will hit bumps in your own relationship with your body and food, making this work even more challenging. That makes you human. Lean into a growth mindset as it relates to this topic. Instead of trying to get it right, be open to what you can learn and how you can grow.
Join us back here for Part 2 where we will be discussing the ways we can talk with our kids about these difficult topics and learn to shift our perspectives and challenge biases we may hold.