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7 strategies for helping kids and teens develop a positive relationship with food
March 07, 2024
Mother and young daughter making a sandwich in the kitchen

    7 strategies for helping kids and teens develop a positive relationship with food

    For something essential to life, food comes with a lot of complexity. From fad diets to product labels promising a variety of benefits, the information around us can be difficult to decipher.

    “Food gives us enjoyment plus the energy we need for all our daily priorities,” said Sonya Islam, registered dietitian at our Healthy Lifestyles Center. “Sometimes, we can develop a complicated relationship with food, especially if our choices seem to conflict with our health. It's important to encourage kids to explore with a variety of foods that provide nourishment for physical and mental health. This approach sets kids up with a positive mindset towards eating that can last for a lifetime.” 

    Eating for happy, healthy bodies and minds

    Many adults were raised in “clean plate” households while simultaneously being exposed to diet cultures that have been prevalent in recent decades. How can we make changes to help our kids develop a healthy relationship with food from a young age?

    1. Enjoy preparing and eating meals as a family

    Cooking together offers opportunities to talk about the variety of foods and nutrients our bodies need. When kids are involved in planning and preparing meals, they’re more invested in trying the outcome too. As much as possible, everyone in the family should eat the same things. It’s a great way to model healthy eating and try new foods together.

    1. Develop healthy food routines

    Many habits are built around food, so there’s a great opportunity to make healthy routines part of the norm for your family. Maybe that means breakfast always includes a fruit, while veggies are part of lunch and dinner. Or, we drink milk with dinner and water throughout the day. Or perhaps, we don’t have snacks within an hour of mealtime so we’re ready to eat our nutritious lunch or dinner. Decide what works best for your family. Once it becomes part of the routine, kids know what to expect and time and energy put into negotiations are kept to a minimum.

    1. Avoid labeling foods as good or bad

    All foods can play a role in a balanced diet. Aim to serve and eat foods from a variety of food groups, with occasional treats. Labeling foods as bad may make kids feel guilty or ashamed about eating them. When it’s time for a treat, the point is to enjoy it! “Always foods” is an alternative way of explaining which foods we should try to eat more often to best nourish our bodies, while “sometimes foods” are enjoyed more occasionally.

    1. Focus on a healthy lifestyle, not dieting

    Kids’ bodies need a variety of foods to support their growth and development – even through their teens and into their early adult years. Teaching them to ignore hunger signals, cut food groups (unless necessary for an allergy or specific health reason) or put other restrictions on their daily eating habits can lead to nutrient deficiencies and/or disordered eating. Instead, offer a variety of nutritious foods and fun opportunities to be active together as a family.

    1. Choose words wisely

    Words matter and kids are always listening, so the way we talk about our food and bodies is important. Food should be viewed in terms of the fuel it provides our bodies, not the number of calories it has or how it’s going to make our bodies look. When adults speak poorly of our own eating habits or body image, kids may begin to critique themselves. Focus on overall health rather than weight or appearance. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and should be celebrated for all of the awesome things they can do.

    1. Encourage kids to listen to their bodies

    The human body knows what it needs. Babies know to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. Over time, these innate behaviors can be impacted when we encourage kids to clean their plates or eat “two more bites.” When we offer children a variety of healthy foods and allow them to listen to their bodies, we can trust that they’re getting what they need. If anything seems unusual about your child’s hunger or fullness cues, talk with your pediatrician.

    1. Tie rewards and consequences to something other than food

    Taking away treats for fighting or not doing chores, or on the flip side offering a piece of candy for going above and beyond, can be an easy go-to for parents. The challenge is that this strategy ties emotions to food, which can lead to issues with restriction or overindulgence as they grow older. Special activities – such as inviting a friend to play or having a family game night – are great alternatives to food rewards.

    Read more articles about families and food on the CHoR blog.

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