How to navigate healthy eating with kids to avoid problems down the line

Parents are always looking for ways for their children to stay happy and healthy – and food is a huge part of this.

It’s a topic that’s more relevant than ever, too – with the pandemic contributing to soaring rates of childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes and blood pressure, mostly linked to an increase in takeaways and super-processed foods.

But talking to children about food requires a delicate balancing act.  After all, even well-meaning comments can have a knock-on effect on a child’s long-term relationship with food.

So how can parents navigate healthy eating without promoting problems down the line?

Ultimately, it’s all about fostering healthy eating habits – without encouraging disordered eating or food shaming.

Experts have shared some ways to approach healthy eating with kids, as well as some key things to avoid.

Focus on health, rather than weight

Psychologist Dr. Amanda Gummer and founder of The Good Play Guide explains that it’s all about focusing on the health benefits to healthy eating, rather than weight.

She says: ‘The focus when talking about healthy eating should be on growing a healthy body, rather than looking a certain way.

‘It’s likely they’ll be learning about this in school, so start by finding out what they know already, and build on this. 

‘Talk about all of the things your body needs to be healthy, and how a balanced diet contributes to this.’

Don’t ban foods – or label things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’

Banning certain foods, like junk food, fuels the idea that some foods are ‘bad’ and some are ‘good’ – which can lead to a dangerous relationship with food.

‘It’s important to teach children how to eat foods like this in moderation,’ explains Amanda.

‘At some point your child will go out on their own and be responsible for their own diet. 

‘By banning a particular type of food, there’s a risk that they will just binge on this as soon as they are able to, because they haven’t learned how to manage this. Keep in mind that this does not include energy drinks, which are not appropriate for those under 16. 

‘In this instance, I would discuss it with your child and help them understand why energy drinks are not recommended for them.’

Try not to use junk as a reward

Giving a child junk food as a reward also plays into this narrative. 

‘It’s also a good idea to avoid using junk food, such as sweets, as a reward,’ continues Amanda. ‘Instead, use things such as time at the playground, a movie night, or craft activity as rewards. 

‘This is so your child doesn’t see junk food as “good” and healthy food as “bad.”’

Model positive body image

We all know young children are like sponges, they soak up the information and attitudes of the people around them. 

As a result, it’s important to champion positive attitudes to food and a confident body image – so your child can copy you.

‘For example, avoid talking about how you wish you were thinner, or more muscly, less wrinkly or saggy in front of them. Instead, try to love your body the way it is and be outspoken about this,’ adds Amanda.

‘By doing this, you may encourage your child to look for the things they like about themselves too, and respect that everyone looks different.’

Don’t lecture

Studies have shown that parenting lectures are not only boring but ineffective, too

Dr Lynne Green, the chief clinical officer at Kooth, says: ‘Don’t lecture your child on what they should and shouldn’t be eating – this can create resentment and disengagement.’

Instead, try and get kids involved and interested in a fun way – this could be asking them to help you with the food shop or meal planning healthy dinner options together.

Listen to concerns and be honest with answers

‘If your children asks about being thin or fat, or eating disorders, have an age-appropriate conversation with them,’ adds Amanda.

‘If they are asking these questions they deserve an honest, considered answer.

‘One way you can make sure your answers are age-appropriate is to clarify what the question is, to make sure you are giving them the information they are looking for.’

Lynne adds that it’s also important to listen to your child’s point of view and validate how they might be feeling – even if you might be struggling to make sense of it yourself.

Know when it’s time to seek professional help

‘For those who are concerned about a child with a very low calorie intake, worried about making things worse by confronting the issue or find themselves thinking “at least they are eating something which is better than nothing at all,” I would urge you to seek professional help,’ says Lynne.

‘Similarly, if you feel your child is overeating and struggling to maintain a healthy body mass index (a better measure than weight alone), reach out for help. 

‘Put simply, a child who is not well nourished is at greater risk of developing a range of emotional, physical, and social difficulties.’

The NHS website and Young Minds have information and resources for parents in this situation.

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