Food for Thought: Cultivating your child's health and mind
Updated: 1 day ago
As parents, we play an important role in shaping our children’s behaviour later in life. Recently, we wrote about how our self-esteem as adults can contribute to weight gain. So, how might our parenting behaviours shape our children’s eating behaviours later in life? Why do we have certain eating behaviours that cause us concern?
As a parent of three, I am guilty of saying ‘I have a lolly jar’ to my children. I find myself, at times, mistakenly using food as a reward to coax my children to follow a request. Most commonly, I tell my six-year-old: ‘I will give you some Oreo cookies once you have cleaned your room’ (they are her favourite!). I am using food to elicit helpful behaviour. Great for me! …but inadvertently, I am teaching my child to perceive food as a reward.
Rules around food can also encourage unhealthy habits. For example: overly restricting food intake, like not allowing your child to ever have McDonald’s, KFC or junk food, rather than teaching them it is a ‘sometimes food’ and educating them about healthier options. Alternatively, we might encourage children to overeat, for example: ‘You must eat everything on your plate!’. Although deceptively useful in a disciplinary sense, parents who want their children to have healthy eating behaviours in adulthood should understand the implications of these rules and avoid them.
Researchers have studied the link between these parental rules about food during childhood and adult eating behaviours. Participants in a study by Puhl & Schwartz (2003) reported the following food rules as the most common when they were growing up:
‘Clean your plate at each meal’,
‘You must eat your vegetables at dinner’, and
‘You have to try at least or taste new foods.’
The researchers found adults who had constraints used around food to control their behaviour when they were children reported more binge eating or restraining as adults, what we could call unhealthy eating behaviours. So, we are likely shaping our children’s adult eating behaviour during childhood.
Some Do’s and Don’ts to help your children learn healthy eating behaviours:
Do Not make eating healthy food a chore. Sure, your children must get a wholesome, balanced meal, but it is also important they learn to moderate their food intake and listen to their body’s cues. If they do not eat all their red meat at dinner, try something else, like letting them snack on steamed beans with a touch of salt or fortified cereals while watching a movie.
Do teach them the benefit of healthy eating in terms of being strong, smart, and healthy. Do not make it about weight or appearance.
Do not use food as a reward. Instead, try having a sticker chart. When they behave they get a sticker. Then, after they gain 5, 10, or 15 stickers (depending on their age), they can have a fun experience.
Do make healthy eating fun and enjoyable. Fruit and vegetables do not have to be boring for children. A little effort in preparation and presentation can greatly assist children to enjoy the experience and taste of eating healthy foods (see pictures above).
Do engage children in growing and preparing food. What a great activity for kids to learn how to grow their own food. We all know children spend too much time on their devices so why not create a small vegetable patch or even grow herbs in a pot. Let the kids get their hands dirty! It's fun!
This is not to say you will make your child overweight or have an eating disorder. It is simply about promoting healthy eating behaviours from an early age.
We all engage in unhealthy eating habits at times in our lives. My favourite is when friends or family say: ‘I went to the gym today so that I can eat that extra slice of pizza’. Yes, go ahead and eat pizza because you enjoy it, not as a reward for completing your weekly gym chore. It is also important to highlight that going to the gym and obsessively over-exercising can be unhealthy too!
In therapy, we aim to make healthy behaviours intrinsically rewarding. That should be enough if we believe we are doing something healthy for our bodies and reflect on the health benefits. Our bodies, physical functioning, and psychological well-being are all worth us striving for optimal health. How many of us have paid gym membership and not followed through with attending on a regular basis, or at all!? Often, this is because we have good intentions but not the motivation to follow through.
There might also be other psychological barriers to engaging in healthy exercising or eating that need to be addressed first. Our goals might also have been inappropriate, like losing weight instead of getting fitter and healthier. If YOU do not set the right goals or fail to believe good health can be achieved and maintained, your attempts will be short-lived.
Success is about establishing healthy beliefs and goals and engaging in lasting changes in behaviour and routines to optimise your health and well-being.
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing difficulty with your children's eating behaviours, support is available.
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(c) 2021 Dean Harrison
Puhl, R. M., & Schwartz, M. B. (2003). If you are good you can have a cookie: How memories of childhood food rules link to adult eating behaviors. Eating Behaviors, 4(3), 283-293.