How to Speak to Your Kids About Food…And Bodies.
Parenting is tough.
Speaking to your kids about food and about bodies?
I get it. I’m a mom of two girls ages 11 and 13, and I still struggle occasionally with the information I give to them around these things. How are we supposed to be permissive with food, but still set boundaries? How do we talk about bodies in a non-judgemental way?
And most importantly, how do we avoid putting our stuff around food, on them?
The struggle is real. Is that still a popular phrase? I’m so old.
We’ll unfortunately never counteract every negative message around food and eating that our kids will encounter, but I feel like if we raise them to be confident and knowledgeable about these things, they’ll be more likely to let diet and wellness culture BS roll off their backs.
Because none of that is going anywhere, so it’s us who needs to prepare them for it.
Here’s how our family has navigated this rocky path.
Don’t repeat the past. What you say matters.
Negative comments about weight and eating sting, and they can echo in a person’s brain for a lifetime, destroying their relationship with their body and with food.
The following is NOT a judgement, and we’re all trying to do our best as parents. But if you ever make comments to or around your kids about their weight, or about other peoples’ weight, please stop. This goes for comments about what the kids are eating, too. As in, ‘you’re having seconds? Really? Are you SURE?’
These sorts of remarks are most often about the person saying them, not about the recipient. Meaning, if this is you, it’s on you to figure out why you’re doing it and how you can stop.
Did someone say these things to you when you were young? Break the cycle now.
Also: if you have any ‘concern trolling’ relatives, take them aside and let them know that your kids don’t need a running commentary on their weight or what they’re eating, thank you very much. So rude.
Defuse the word ‘fat.’
The word ‘fat’ has become a punchline. It has become a loaded, cruel, derogatory word that’s often used to insult someone’s body.
In reality, ‘fat’ is merely a descriptor, and should never be used to hurt or criticize someone. When we do that, our kids see this:
Fat = bad
Thin = good
I have told my kids that the word ‘fat’ will no longer be used in a negative way in our house. Sure, it’s fine to use the word as a descriptor. But as a judgement or a criticism, nope.
Teach kids that all bodies are worthy, no matter what their size. And by all means, no matter what their size, please talk about weight stigma with your kids: how our society sees larger bodies as lesser, and that this is absolutely wrong.
Set the example you want them to see…and be.
Most of you would agree that it’s important for your kids to grow up having a positive relationship with food and their bodies. But that’s tough to achieve, if what they’re watching is the opposite of that.
Even very young kids observe and internalize our behaviours towards ourselves and food, so don’t fool yourself into thinking that they won’t notice when you weigh yourself four times a day, or when you look in the mirror and say how fat you are.
What often ends up happening in these situations is that kids grow up equating thinness with worthiness, which affects everything from how they see themselves, to their food choices and their physical and emotional health.
If you need to weigh yourself, please do it away from your kids.
If your relationship with food needs help (see the graphic below for some (not all) of the ways you can tell if you do), now’s the time to make changes.
No foods are ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ Strive for self-regulation.
I’ve struggled with this one a lot, because I want my kids to know that food is food, but that they should probably be eating fewer chocolate bars than, say, apples.
Treating certain foods as though they’re ‘bad,’ ‘junk,’ or ‘special treats,’ may lead to overconsumption, guilt, and shame.
Still, as a parent, you still need to set limits, but it’s how you do it that counts.
In order to do that, I landed on the word, ‘nourishing.’ As in:
This apple is nourishing.
This chocolate is less nourishing.
But both apples and chocolate can be nourishing – because both physical and emotional nourishment are important.
We want to choose more nourishing foods more often for the health of our bodies, and sprinkle in some less nourishing foods because we love them, too.
My kids see me eating and enjoying Oreos, salads, ice cream, and berries. I model the behavior I want to see in them (research connects healthy food habits in parents to healthy food habits in kids), and I also buy all foods – and offer the kids tons of fruits, vegetables, and home-cooked meals. There are also chips and cookies in the kitchen on most days.
I don’t stock the kitchen with a wide variety of less nourishing foods, but we always have a few.
Nothing is off limits.
Do my kids overeat sweets sometimes? Sure they do. But on days that I see that they’ve done that, I remind them that they may want to go for some more nourishing foods at their next meal. Then, I shut up about it.
They know how they feel when they don’t eat enough nourishing foods, and they crave them.
I also let my girls choose for themselves what they want to eat, and how much of it. When they were little, I offered them fruits and/or vegetables at almost every meal.
I gave them plenty of cookies, but produce – frozen and fresh – were a constant in their lives. Consistency is so important.
It’s not worth it to stress about how many servings of vegetables your kids are getting. Continue to offer them and have them available.
It may be imperfect, but it works for us.
How about kids and eating and weight gain?
Bodies grow and change, and especially when kids are pre-teens into their late teens, they might see some changes that they’re uncomfortable with.
I always tell parents that kids sometimes grow OUT before they grow UP, and this is normal. But if a kid who gains a lot of weight quickly, it can be a challenge for them in terms of body image. So how do we address it?
Talking to kids about their bodies is STRESSFUL AF. At least, I find it to be, because I never want to say something that triggers them for the rest of their lives.
This 2016 study suggests that being critical of your kids’ weight may increase risk for disordered eating and negative body image. So we need to address these issues with care.
The first thing is to make sure you understand that weight gain is normal at this age. Don’t freak out or put your kid on a diet. Never single them out against their siblings.
Here’s the deal: the first thing to do is to listen to and acknowledge their concerns in a non-judgemental way. Sit down with them and really have a conversation. Don’t pretend the issue doesn’t exist, because for them, it’s very real. Let them lead the discussion. Make sure they know that you love them, no matter what they look like.
Do not have this talk during a meal, when tensions might be high.
Ask your child where they’re getting the idea that their body isn’t good enough. If they’re following social media accounts that make them feel bad about themselves, talk to them about diet culture, and the illusion that is social media.
Suggest some body-positive accounts for them to follow, too.
Explain to your child that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and that nourishing their body is important. Reinforce what their body can do, not how it looks. Have a discussion about hunger and fullness cues, and if they often eat beyond their fullness, what they think is driving this.
Always come at the topic from a place of health, not weight. If you sense that your kid overeats at meals, take a look at what they’re eating the rest of the time.
Are they going through a growth spurt?
Are they skipping breakfast but overeating a dinner?
Is their protein intake adequate?
Is the quality of their diet appropriate?
Are they getting enough sleep?
Are they distracted when they eat?
Is something else bothering them?
The idea is to get at the root of the issue, and to support your kid in a way that both of you can feel good about. Also: check in with them often, to make sure they’re okay.
If you make it a big deal, it’s going to be a big deal.
Please don’t hover. If your kids are small, try not to comment on what they did or didn’t eat. As in, ‘you ate all of your broccoli!! GREAT JOB!!’
Conversely, if you have a selective eater, and you hover around them because you’re anxious that they aren’t eating their vegetables, this is also going to work against you.
If you make a big deal about it, it’s going to be a big deal. Food shouldn’t be a big deal.
Model the behaviour you’d like to see in your children – eat a variety of foods, and enjoy them. Nothing bad is going to happen if the only vegetable your kid will eat is carrots. Try to relax.
No playing games, hiding food, or negotiating.
Making your kids eat when they aren’t hungry, hiding vegetables in other dishes, or bargaining (a bite of dessert for every bite of broccoli, for example) never did anything to improve anyone’s relationship with food.
These behaviours can erode trust, and they don’t teach kids how to enjoy food or to listen to their internal cues.
If kids aren’t hungry, don’t make them eat. Never force your kid to eat something they don’t want. Always offer a food they like, alongside a food that’s new.
The most important thing about talking to your kids about food and bodies is that they come away feeling supported and loved. Health should be the focus for the entire family, not just the kid in question.
Remember: There’s no such thing as perfect parenting. Doing our best is the best we can hope for.
How much water do you need every day? Read my post on it here.