Are You Teaching Your Child Nutritional Curse Words?

As young adults, many of us like to assert our independence.  We test habits that may have been frowned upon while still under our parents roofs: staying up late, swearing, drinking, eating junk food for dinner – just to name a few.  Most of us, once we have kids, make adjustments in order to set a good example for our children – “Shoot!”, “Dog gone it!”, or, “Sassafrass!” might be words we use to express our displeasure in place of our more “adult” versions.

We stop watching violent or racy television shows while the kids are awake, (hopefully) cut back on our alcohol intake, and go to bed earlier (or else pay the consequences in the morning).  So, why do so many of us drag our kiddos into our nutrition pitfalls?

We have all heard that eating while watching TV is a bad idea.  With the boob tube there as a distraction, it is harder for us to read our internal hunger and fullness cues, which can lead to overeating.  We go on and on about how “fat” we feel after eating a piece of cake or a greasy, bacon-loaded cheeseburger, but then we still feed that to our kids.  We try to eat better ourselves, but still buy junk food “because the kids like it.”  We tell our kids how “bad” fat, dairy, or carbs are.  We dislike vegetables ourselves and make our disdain known at the dinner table.

Why are we sabotaging their eating habits like this?  And, more importantly, how can we stop?

For tips on picky eaters, check out this RDN Mama article.

How Can We Fix It?

No one  eats “perfectly” all the time (as if that were even possible – since there is no such thing as a “perfect” diet), but there are many ways for us to eat more healthfully.  Try some of these tips to help your children develop a healthy relationship with food:

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  1. Eat at the table.  That’s why we have tables, right?  Sitting at the table (with no television on) ensures  that the focus is on the family and food.  Distractions, like TV, can drown out our own satiety (fullness) cues and cause us to overeat.  Research has shown that kids whose families eat regular meals together are less likely to develop an eating disorder or become obese.  Other benefits include: higher academic achievement, improved self-esteem, and lower rates of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and depression.  If dinner isn’t an option, try for breakfast, a weekend lunch, or whatever works around your family’s busy schedule.  For more information on family meals, check out thefamilydinnerproject.org.
  2. Focus on health, not weight.  Serve your family a variety of healthy foods from each of the food groups.  By ensuring that your children are getting an array of foods, they will be getting the nutrients they need to grow and develop at a healthy rate.  By eliminating entire food groups for children, they may develop nutrient deficiencies.  Watch this RDN discuss some diet trends for adults that aren’t appropriate for kids.
  3. Don’t make any food “off limits.”  Of course we want our kids to eat healthfully, and the above point certainly stresses choosing healthy foods more often.  However, by labeling foods as “good” and “bad”, we emphasize that we should feel “bad” or guilty if we eat certain foods with added sugar, salt, or fat.  Tying those types of negative emotions with certain foods can lead one to think about the food more often (check out this non-food example), or encourage the mindset of, “I’ve already screwed up by eating one cookie.  I might as well finish the bag.”  Never exposing your child to “forbidden foods” can cause them to overeat these foods when they are available.
  4. Set examples.  We are our children’s first role models.  If our kids see us eating healthfully, they will imitate that.  Before my daughter even had the tiniest bite of solid food, she was lunging for the apple I was holding with my other hand.  Now, at thirteen months, she always wants a taste of her daddy’s breakfast cereal, along with her breakfast cookies and berries.  If we are having a salad for dinner, she wants some, even though she can’t completely chew through the fibrous greens yet.  Not enough to convince you that your kids won’t fall into your nutrition pitfalls?  Kids imitate their parents.  If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be toy kitchen sets, cell phones, purses/make up, tool sets, or any other “grown up” toys.  In that vein, stating aloud that you’re less-than-pleased with the broccoli on the dinner table will make your kids less likely to try it.
  5. Try new foods. If you don’t like broccoli (or another healthful food), look for replacements.  Take your kids to the grocery store (easier said than done, sometimes, I know) and have them pick a food that they think looks good.  Get them involved in the kitchen.  Kids are more willing to try foods that they helped prepare.
  6. Snack smart.  Just like adults, kids are more likely to choose healthier snacks if they are readily available.  Cut up apples, bell peppers, or whatever produce your kids like and put them in single serve containers or baggies.  Fun stickers can help add to their novelty.  If you are choosing a snack for your kids (or yourself), use them as gap fillers (as mentioned in this RDN Mama article) – a food group (or two) that wasn’t covered in your last meal.  Encourage sit-down snacks, and make sure your snack can hold you through until your next meal.

It can be overwhelming to try to change multiple habits at once.  Pick one that you think can work for your family and focus on it.  Best of luck, Mamas!

PS – What has worked for you to feed a healthy family?

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