Helping Your Kids Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food

Family (mom, dad and child) eating a family meal together at the table - Helping Your Kids Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food

Children are like sponges! They watch everything you do and develop habits much like your own. The earlier healthy habits and a positive relationship with food are introduced the greater the chance they will become life-long. Helping your kids develop a healthy relationship with food can start from the very beginning. Read on to learn more.


The Importance of Modelling a Healthy Relationship with Food

There are many ways you can model positive behaviour, and there are many reasons why this is important when it comes to food. Here are a few reasons why your behaviour around food can help your children develop healty food relationships.


Family meals:

    • are associated with improved nutritional health in children and less fussiness in infants, toddlers, and pre-school aged children (8)
    • provide role modelling opportunities
    • promote healthy behaviours (8)

Conversations duringfamily meals are associated with improved vocabulary in children. This is because they are able to practice their conversation and social skills in a comfortable environment (8). 

Family meals can aide in developing many different skills such as: 

    •   Communication
    •   Self-esteem
    •   Positive values
    •   Performance in school 

By having your little ones help prepare meals:

    • they learn about food (2)
    • are willing to try more (2),
    • are more likely to eat what they help make (2),
    • and develop life long skills (2)


How to Model a Healthy Food Relationship

Now that we’ve established why healthy food relationships are important, how can you help develop a healthy food relationship for your children? If you’re interested in working on your food relationship first, check out our recent blog post Building a Healthy Relationship With Food

 The thought of your child’s relationship with food being modelled by you may sound intimidating. But don’t worry! There are small things you can do to start implementing healthy habits that will build the foundation to a healthy relationship with food.

Tasting Food:

One way to begin building a healthy relationship with food for your child is to include regular and frequent taste exposures (8). How can you do this? 

    • a good time to start taste exposure is when you start introducing solids to your baby
    • eat a variety of foods together (7)
    • incorporate familiar foods with new foods (5)

Challenge yourself to:

    • try a new food once a month
    • allow your child to choose one new food when grocery shopping
    • be open to trying new foods, including the ones you may be fearful of! 

Get rid of Distractions:

 A simple strategy: having no distractions during mealtime. Try to keep TV and electronics during mealtimes to a rare occasion if possible (7). 

    • Doing this increases the focus on food.
    • It allows for connection and conversation.
    • It also helps children to focus on fullness cues, helping them learn to listen to their body


Let them be decision makers: 

Let children decide if they eat and how much they want to eat (4). Trust them to know when they are hungry and full. You can help their choices by teaching them to start with small portions. This strategy helps with:

    • Their self-efficacy and autonomy
    • Teaching them to trust themselves 
    • Providing an opportunity for them to learn by doing 

Get Your Kids Involved: 

Did you know that children as young as 2 can help prepare meals (1)? They can safely:

    • Count ingredients
    • Add ingredients into a bowl
    • Wash vegetables and fruit

The more your kids help out in the kitchen, the more they are likely to eat what they helped prepare. And BONUS, they build life-long skills!


Talking About Food With and Around Your Children

Without realizing it you may be talking about food in a harmful way. The most common example is talking about “good” and “bad” food, when there isn’t such a thing! It seems so normal in everyday language to use these phrases that you may not even recognize the negative implications. It’s important to start being mindful of how you talk about food, eating, and your body.

Avoiding Negative Language Around Food

Diet talk can be harmful to anyone listening, especially your children. Diet talk can include phrases like (11):

    • “I feel fat”
    • “You look amazing! Did you lose weight?”
    • “I can’t eat that, it’s so bad for you!”
    • “You’re so lucky you can eat stuff like that”
    • “It’s my cheat day” 

Avoid phrases like these because they may imply that eating is bad, that you should look a certain way, and that dieting is normal and healthy. If you want to help your child develop a healthy relationship with food, positive language around food needs to become part of your everyday life. 

Using Positive and Neutral Language Around Food

So, what can you do to be more positive or neutral when talking about food?

    • Be mindful anytime you catch yourself thinking or speaking negatively, stop and rephrase.
    • Don’t comment on anyone’s weight. Not yours, not your friend’s, and not your child’s.
    • Don’t comment on how much people are eating.

Rebuilding how you think and speak is challenging. But with practice it can be done! You’ll start noticing how common it actually is and you may even realize how it affected you as a child. Reflecting and building this skill for yourself will help develop your child’s positive relationship with food and will also help them avoid disordered eating.

BONUS: your child won’t have to rebuild their thought process in the future because you’ve already set them up to think positively about food!


Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility

The Satter Division of Responsibility is about trusting your child during feeding times. This will help them develop a healthy relationship with food over time. The Division of Responsibility is a great way to kickstart your child’s ability to trust their own body and its natural hunger cues.

Satter Division of Responsilbility

During feeding times the parent responsible for (6): 

    • what food is offered 
    • when fod is offered
    • where food is offered

The child responsible for (6):

    • how much they decide to eat
    • whether or not they eat (from what you have offered)

The division of responsibility continues through early years to adolescents (6). In more detail it is your job to choose and prepare food, provide regular meals and snacks, lead by example when eating, and be considerate of their hunger or lack of hunger (6). Part of your job is to trust that your child will eat the amount they need, learn to enjoy different types of food, and grow into the bodies that are meant for them (6).

Things to Remember 

Remember, no one is perfect and not every idea is going to work right away for you and your family. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you start building a healthy food relationship for your child. 

    • It may take 10-15 (or possibly more) tries to before your child accepts a new food (7)
    • Your positive attitude about food helps your child develop good eating habits; the early years set the stage for life long habits (7)
    • If your littles ones see you enjoy the food, there’s a greater chance they will enjoy the food too (5)
    • Pressure, forcing, or rewarding often results in food refusal (5)
    • If your child doesn’t eat, IT IS OKAY!!
    • They can eat at the next meal or snack time
    • Trust your littles ones, and trust the process

Final Notes from The Nest

Overall, what you do as a parent greatly affects your children and the choices they end up making with food. It’s important that you help them along, but also allow them to be decision makers in the process. Simple strategies that will help you model a healthy relationship with food include: eating family meals, tasting new foods, using the Satter Division of Responsibility, and getting your kids involved in the meal preparing process. 

Implementing these strategies as often as you can sets children up for healthier relationships with food in the future. You can show your children that trying new food and learning how to prepare food is fun and exciting! Your children will learn from your relationship with food, so help them develop a healthy one from the very beginning.

~ Article written by Spencer Wentzell

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  9. Touyz, L. M., et al. (2018). Parent-targeted home-based interventions for increasing fruit and vegetable   intake in children: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition reviews, 76(3), 154–173.