Kids + Food: How to Have Conversations About Healthy Habitsby Elise Museles
Nothing makes me happier than seeing my boys in the kitchen preparing platters of veggies, whipping up their own smoothies, enjoying homemade versions of protein bars…and even cooking dinner for the family willingly. But it wasn’t always this way.
There were many years of complaints about too many Brussels sprouts and not enough “white” pasta…and lots & lots of eye rolling and “Oh, mom!” comments. More often than not, I sounded like a broken record reminding everyone to “eat your veggies.” And my constant pleas about “finding something else to do besides playing video games” fell on deaf ears.
But something shifted. And because summer is here, which means more togetherness (and more meals) with our children, what better time to talk about kids, and food, and the tricky dynamics of talking to kids about food.
Even the most diplomatic, well-intentioned parent knows that food and eating are especially touchy subjects. Speaking with our children about their healthy habits can lead to conversations about weight and body image (touchier, still!). And while these sensitive topics may or may not come up often, how we handle them can shape our children’s relationship with food and their bodies for years to come.
Here are my best strategies, which I use with my own children:
Lead by Example
Kids. Notice. Everything. That means when we push huge helpings of leafy green salads on our kids while our own plates are free of greenery, they take notice. When we tell our daughters they’re beautiful and then complain about the extra five pounds we’re carrying around or scowl at ourselves in the mirror, they notice. Of course, it also means that when we talk excitedly about strawberry shortcake smoothies, tahini toast or cauliflower fried rice, they notice that, too. When we eat how we’d like them to eat and model positive body image, it has an enormous impact on them. (And on us, too, of course!)
Focus on Health, Not Weight
Worries about weight flood kids’ minds at a lamentably young age. TV, movies, social media, and magazines are all packed with messages about bikini bodies and thigh gaps. As parents, we can steer the conversation away from weight and toward health, where it belongs.
If your teenager complains about her giant thighs, remind her how useful those powerful muscles are when she runs across the soccer field. If your son worries about his belly, point out that healthy people come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Remind them that low weight doesn’t necessarily exemplify perfect health, and that eating healthy foods and staying active are far better than obsessing about a number on a scale.
One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to experience the jolt of moving our bodies. Healthy movement includes team sports, but also solitary activities such as yoga, running, biking, and adventurous options, like rock climbing or kayaking. Movement strengthens the mind-body connection and is a positive way to communicate with our bodies. “Exercise” can mean a wide range of things, and when we help our kids find movement that they love, we set them up for longer, healthier lives.
Involve Them in the Process
Inviting kids into the kitchen helps them take ownership and feel in control of their own choices. Encourage them to pick out produce at the farmers’ market, thumb through cookbooks for recipes, show them what a colorful plate looks like, and let them know their input is welcome and valued!
We’re older and wiser (of course, we’re the parents!) but in addition to taking active steps, we’ve got to really, truly listen when our kids talk about food, weight, and their bodies. They may have questions we can’t anticipate, or wonder about topics we’ll need to research, and their food-related worries and interests may surprise us. But truly listening builds trust and openness into the conversation, and when they trust us, it’s a snap to become a positive influence on their eating habits and behaviors.
It’s scary, as parents, to know that what we say and do with respect to food and eating habits has such a huge (and lasting) impact on our kids. But being open and encouraging can change their lives. We all know how much anxiety, stress, and confusion we’ve endured in this arena—let’s change the story for our children.
Now it’s your turn: How do you approach conversations about food, weight, and health with your kids? Tell us one tactic that’s worked for you in the comments. The more resources, the better!