Much of the work of parenting involves balance, avoiding extremes one way or another. That good general advice also applies to helping kids establish healthy eating habits.
Carmen Alexis Miller, MS, RDN, LDN, outpatient dietitian at Our Lady of Lourdes Women’s & Children’s Hospital in Lafayette, shares about ways to feed our kids well, encouraging good nutrition while maintaining that balance in this ParentingU podcast episode.
Healthier Approaches to Food
Nutrition is key to emotional health, and how parents and other adults talk to children about calories and weight can set them up for healthy or unhealthy thoughts and emotions about food. Keeping language neutral about food is important.
“There are not good and bad foods. There are foods that are a little bit healthier for us and some that make our tummies feel a lot better,” Miller says. “There are also foods that if we eat too much they can really make our tummies hurt.”
A hard part for parents may be dealing with their approach to nourishing their own bodies. “Sometimes you have to pull up and unravel your own relationship with food,” Miller says.
More is Caught Than Taught
“As parents we are the gatekeepers of nutrition in our homes,” Miller says. “How we act around food, the foods we buy, cook and those we refuse to eat—all that sets the stage and example for how our kids will nourish their bodies.”
Words aren’t required for lessons about food to sink in. Miller recommends involving children in the family’s daily food lives. Whether that’s going grocery shopping together, cooking in the kitchen with age-appropriate utensils, starting a garden or even setting the table, all can set the stage for a good relationship with food.
Not a Numbers Game
“Food isn’t always about numbers, nutrition or getting it all perfect,” she says. “Talk about the quality of food and how it makes our bodies feel.”
Numbers of calories don’t mean anything to younger kids, and Miller relates calories or food to energy when working with children. Just like a car or airplane needs gas to work, kids need food to have the energy to power their play and other activities they love to do.
“We don’t have to eat perfectly healthy fruits and vegetables all day all the time,” Miller says. “But you don’t have to eat only Goldfish, Oreos, and mac and cheese all the time either. We can find balance, and our bodies are resilient.”
Food is Passion
In Louisiana, food is central to our culture beyond just fuel to keep us going. The holidays revolve around food, and Miller never lessens the social value of food.
“When we go to grandma’s we get to eat more fun foods,” Miller says. “But then come back to how food makes you feel. It gives you energy, keeps you satisfied and cures that hunger bug.”
Food Choice Autonomy
Miller recommends parents give their children some control over their food.
“A parent’s job is to provide the what, when and where of a meal,” she says. “But the child’s job is to decide if and when I’m going to eat any of this.”
Parents don’t always like that advice—or believe it can work, but allowing a child to make such decisions can create a more positive attitude toward health and food as fuel and nourishment for their body.
An online resource Miller suggests is Alex Turnbull, the Family Nutritionist, who recommends that dessert be served with meals, advice Miller has used successfully with her own 3-year-old daughter. Serving a sweet choice alongside the rest of the meal removes any emphasis from dessert, not something to be “earned” by eating less desired foods.
“Dessert can be eaten just as part of the meal, normal food we get to eat,” Miller says. “Children have a wonderful way of self-regulating their diet without being forced. It may be wonky in the beginning, but they’ll learn what foods feel better to their body.”
Body Image Balance
Even with healthy approaches to food at home, children may experience pressure to look or eat certain ways when they’re away from home. Miller encourages intentional conversations to help make what we do at home stick.
“Body dissatisfaction is the biggest contributor to disordered eating and full on eating disorders,” Miller says. “As parents we need to learn to listen our kids without judgment and without interjecting. Listening when they explain themselves to you and allow them to feel their feelings without trying to fix it.”
In a perfect world, where parents’ emotions can remain neutral, a conversation where a child shares negative feelings comparing themselves to someone else might look like repeating emotions without dismissing them, validating the emotions, bringing your child back to themselves by reminding them of how amazing they are, and reassuring them you’re there for them.
The conversation can become an ongoing series of discussions, allowing your child to come to you as a trusted, safe space, and it’s important to remember: “Your worth does not come from the size of your body, and it’s not healthy to focus a lot of energy on wanting to change your body.”
What If You’re Worried About Your Child’s Diet or Weight?
Parents who are genuinely worried about their child’s diet, whether that’s losing weight or gaining weight, their first conversation should be with their pediatrician.
“A lot of times you can get clarity on what’s considered ‘normal,’” Miller says. A pediatrician can provide reassurance or run tests to uncover possible metabolic or endocrine issues. A primary care provider can also connect families to resources such as a registered dietitian like Miller.