Three Steps to Fostering Food Freedom with Your Kids in 2023 by Sarah

Happy New Year! Let’s make 2023 the year of “food freedom” for ourselves and our kids. This means enjoying a variety of foods, without guilt or restriction and creating a diet-culture-free home. In this post we’ll talk about Food Neutrality (what it is and why it’s important), why and how to ditch the “diet mentality” and why being a food micromanager with your kids is not the best strategy. As The Learning Tree’s resident Registered Dietitian, I’ve created a staff training as well as weekly lesson plans for staff to ensure that diet culture stays out of the programming and mealtimes for your kiddos. Our goal is to help foster positive food relationships and positive body image. Don’t forget that I also deliver quarterly virtual parent workshops on nutrition and feeding – the next one is coming up in late February 2023 – stay tuned!

Diet culture and the new year:

Diet culture and food “fear” is especially evident in the month of January when the media becomes flooded with weight-centric advertisements that parade as health and wellness solutions. What better time to capitalize on selling “health-focused” programs and products than in the new year? Everyone and their dog are amped up on starting their New Year’s resolution to “eat clean” or “lose those last 10 pounds”! The sheer volume of diet programs/pills, cleanses/detoxes, and exercise programs targeted to “burn fat faster” is overwhelming. It’s unfortunately to the point where it makes absolute sense that people feel pressure to join the newest diet trend, or purchase that miracle diet product on their social media feed. Do not feel shame if you have been sucked in too… it is the fault of our diet-culture driven society as a whole.

Why it’s important to ignore the January “diet hype”:

Research is piling up in this area with overwhelming indication that dieting actually does more harm than good when it comes to our overall health. Poor body image, weight cycling, negative relationship with food and even eating disorders are just some of the consequences that have been associated with dieting and diet culture. In fact, eating disorders among children and adolescents are growing at an alarming rate. The good news is that you as the parent, have a powerful influence on your little ones developing relationship with food and body confidence.

You might be wondering what you can do? How do you combat the pervasive diet culture influence in your child’s life? Here are a few places to start:

Step 1: Eliminate pressure at the table

Mealtime struggles, especially with little kids, can be exhausting. As parents we only want what’s best for our kids and their growing bodies. Sometimes this concern can take the form of food pressure comments at the table such as “you didn’t even try it, just take one bite!” or “eat your broccoli, it is healthy for you!.” What if I told you that it’s not actually your job to get your kids to eat? You don’t have to micromanage what goes into their mouths! In fact it’s MUCH healthier (and effective) to let your kids decide if and how much they’ll eat at mealtime. What a weight off your shoulders, am I right?!

Kids are in fact born intuitive eaters, eating with an intrinsic sureness in how much their body needs at any given time, while also honoring their pleasure and satisfaction. It is only with exposure to pressures (often from their own parents) and external influences that they consider eating (or not eating) for reasons separate from their internal cues.

To foster their innate intuitive eating ability, refer to Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding. In this approach, it is our job as parents to decide what is served, when it is served and where it is served. This creates structure and routine for our children who are not yet ready or able to take one these roles yet. Our children then are given the freedom to decide IF they eat, and HOW MUCH they eat, without our interference. This way as the parent we ensure that our child has access to a variety of foods, regularly (I recommended very 2-3h hours) throughout the day. If a child is set up to eat under this pressure-free approach, they will eat what their body needs to stay nourished and grow. It won’t necessarily look perfect – in fact, it will likely be all over the place (eg. eating A LOT one day and hardly eating anything the next)! We need to set the meal structure for our kids, so that they can—over time—learn how to self-regulate and honor their own intuition.

Research shows that over the course of the week kiddos will more often than not get the nutrients they require for growth and wellness. Phew. So, here’s to taking the pressure off both you and your kiddos at meal times this new year (cheers!)

Step 2: Neutralize your language around food

It is not uncommon for us to label foods and place them into categories as an attempt to instill balanced eating in our children. Words like “good” and “bad, “healthy”, “unhealthy”, “green light”, “red light”, or “cheat meal” versus “clean eating” are some common labels. The issue is that these food labels come charged with judgement and shame, and can make a person feel guilt and regret if they eat anything from the negatively labeled category.

This is especially true for kids. Children think in concrete terms and easily internalize these labels as part of who they are. For example, if a child hears an adult say “those cookies are so fattening, I shouldn’t have one.” They may feel like they are bad (or will become “fat”) for eating one, instead of simply savoring the flavor. On the other hand, a child may react in a rebellious nature if they hear “you have to finish your supper before you get any ice-cream!”. Ice cream is suddenly on a pedestal and the food on their plate is perceived as yucky. This not only causes a power struggle at the table, but the child may then overeat with the stipulation that they have to finish their supper to get the ice cream. This is just one example of how morally charged language around food can push a child towards eating based on external pressures and labels versus internal hunger and fullness cues.

Instead, simply call the food by what it is: an orange, a cookie, kale or chocolate. (not healthy versus unhealthy) It’s a simple place to start!

Step 3: Don’t comment on anyone’s body (including yourself)

Bodycentric comments are never a good idea. It only feeds into the notion that our value and worth are determined by how we look and the shape of our bodies. This is not only untrue, but is extremely damaging to a young person’s self-esteem, mental health and relationship with food. Even “compliments” such as “wow…you’ve really gotten bigger since I last saw you!” or “you’re such a skinny mini! I bet you can eat whatever you want!”, can stick with your child and be internalized.

The goal is to get our kids to realize that their self-worth does not come from how they look, how much they weigh or how they eat. Instead we can show our children that we love them unconditionally, we respect them in all ways (including trusting them with the nuances of their own eating) and appreciate them for exactly who they are. Read this blog for more information on how to promote body positivity with your child.