5 min|Rhiannon Lockhart
Fueling the Future: Nurturing Nutritional Conversations with KidsWellness, Nutrition, Family
How we speak to our children about food is important
Our words can leave them feeling empowered on their nutrition journey, giving them space to choose foods that are both good for their body and mind. These words can also help children understand the nuances that come with food choices, including access to food and how other families may eat.
With kids increasingly exposed to outside influences, body shaming and negative thoughts about food can be common. Being a positive influence on their food journey can aid in a long-term, well-balanced approach to nutrition.
Some things to consider when discussing food with kids and adolescents
1. Keep healthier options accessible to young kids
Empower young children to choose their own food. Have chopped vegetables, prepared fruit, yogurt cups, etc. within reach where possible. Promoting nutrient-dense options can help build a child’s palate.
2. No food is inherently good or bad
All food has a purpose and can provide some type of energy, at least in the short-term. Whether it is a packaged product with numerous ingredients or a piece of steamed home-grown broccoli, everything can have a benefit.
Rather than restrict a food that you see as “bad,” model positive eating behaviours and fill plates with more nutritious items that meet your child’s needs. Labelling foods as bad/good or healthy/unhealthy can create shame around meals.
3. Encourage kids to express how food makes them feel
As a child gets older and wants to explore or learn more about nutrition, have them tell you how certain foods make them feel. For example, how do they feel after eating a bag of Halloween candy? How do they feel after eating their favourite homemade dinner?
When a child can identify how something makes them feel, it is easier for them to anticipate certain consequences (i.e., a stomach ache after a box of cookies). This also provides them with the opportunity to make informed choices.
4. Keep body-shaming out of your home (for everyone)
Avoid negative self-talk, partner criticisms, or discussions of weight/body in front of children and teens. We have more influence on our children than we realize, and even a few comments about our own bodies can impact how they see themselves. This can also influence their food decisions now and in the future.
5. Teach food diversity
People eat differently, and that's wonderful! Children will have exposure to a variety of cultural dishes at school, and they may look or smell different from what they have at home. Take this as a teaching opportunity and learn about different cultures. The most important thing is to show children that differences are wonderful and not something to criticise.
Additionally, this can provide you with an opportunity to explore in the kitchen! Include dishes you may otherwise shy away from making or use spices that typically sit at the back of your drawer.
6. Remember, not everyone has the same access to food
I read a story the other day about how a child stopped eating a school-provided lunch because others had deemed it as “unhealthy.” This had been the only meal the child was guaranteed through the day, as their family either didn’t provide food or couldn't afford to put food on the table some nights.
When we label foods as “good” or “bad,” this can also influence how children view others' meals and accessibility.
7. Expose children to nourishing foods, even if they don’t like them
For new eaters (i.e., infants and toddlers), it is often recommended to repeat exposure to foods (1). Some feeding guides recommend fifteen to twenty exposures to certain foods before a child may even taste it, even with older kids! (2) The moral is, even if they don’t eat it once, twice, or ten times, the more they see it, the more likely it is they will try it.
8. Get them involved!
An easy way to get children to appreciate nutrient-dense foods is to have them help! Purchase child-friendly cooking utensils or knives. Have them tear lettuce for a salad, let them play and snack on the way. This exposes them to foods in a different way!
9. Adjust your diet or food protocol when discussing with children
In many cases, patients at Integrative Naturopathic Medical Centre will be advised to adhere to a certain style of eating to support their health needs. If possible, plan your family meals around your dietary needs without discussion. Add what's needed to meet your child’s nutritional needs.
If your child notices or questions your eating style, explain the health reasons behind it in simple terms: “white bread makes my stomach hurt”, “fried foods are bad for my heart right now”, “when I eat [insert food] I don’t have the energy to play with you”. Etc.
Navigating your relationship with food or diet can be challenging with any age, but it is very important that we are aware of how our words can impact our children.
If you feel like your family can use support on their nutrition journey,
Rhiannon is the Registered Holistic Nutritionist at Integrative. She has a passion for making healthy eating easy, accessible and fun, loves getting outside, and enjoys spending time with her dog, Chloe!