As parents and educators, we have the opportunity to make a big impact on young children’s relationship with food, eating, and their bodies. Most of us know this, and want to do our best in shaping healthy eating habits in our children, yet often we have our own issues with food that impact what we say and do. In writing this post, I am acutely aware of my own tendencies to over-control what and how my child eats.
Early childhood research supports the critical importance of the language we use when interacting with children about food. We can use verbal cues to help them recognize their hunger and satiation and even support self-regulation of the food and drinks they consume, often encouraging healthy eating decisions (McBride & Dev, 2014). Instead of saying, “Are you done?” we can say, “Are you full?” and instead of saying, “When you play with your cup, you’re showing me you are done” try, “If your tummy is full, you can put your plate on the counter, wash your hands and then play” or “You can eat until your tummy feels full and then you can play.” These may seem like minor tweaks, but the intention behind them is huge. When we attempt to control the amount of food our children eat at mealtime (even with the best intentions), we are communicating to them that we do not trust their internal cues of when they are hungry and full. Instead, we want to do all we can to support and encourage their connection to their internal hunger and satiation cues- a healthy skill they need for the rest of their lives.
Children are always watching what we do and say, and we have an opportunity to guide them towards healthy eating habits by modeling them ourselves. Sitting and eating with children during mealtimes is a simple way to model healthy behaviors with our language and actions. Showing our own enthusiasm (even if it is a little exaggerated) about a food’s color, shape, texture and taste can make a big impact on a child’s willingness to try new foods, and to interact with their own food in a more meaningful way. Talking about how food grows, where it comes from or who made the food brings children to a deeper relationship with their food and may even increase the likelihood that they want to try more nutritious options. I remember sitting with the Pre-K children at Shady Oak Christian School years ago eating my lunch with them, and those around me would express curiosity about my kale salad that I ended up calling “dinosaur skin” because of its rough texture. I would talk about how my body feels when I eat healthy foods- more energy to play, feeling happy and making my body stronger. I later heard from several parents that their child wanted to try some of these healthy foods at home.
We can model listening to our own body’s cues by saying when we are full and pushing our plate away or putting our food away even if there is still food left. These actions are just as powerful as the language we use when guiding children and can certainly benefit our own health as well.
We also want to watch the way we tend to control children’s food choices by saying things like, “Eat your protein first” or “You need to eat your veggies first before I give you some fruit.” Instead, keep offering a variety of foods and model trying new foods yourself so children will be more familiar with them. Although we usually have the intention of encouraging children to eat healthy foods, restricting certain foods can often have the opposite impact, leading to picky eaters and overeating.
In a culture of large portions, distracted eating and lots of processed foods marketed heavily to children, we have our work cut out for us with encouraging healthy eating practices. Thankfully, there's no better place to practice than around your own table.
McBride, B.A. & Dev, D. A. (2014). Preventing Childhood Obesity: Strategies to Help Preschoolers Develop Healthy Eating Habits. Young Children, 69 (5), 36 – 41.