How Not to Mess Up Your Kids About Food – Oprah Mag

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When a teenage Gigi Hadid called her mom to tell her she was feeling weak and had eaten just half an almond, Yolanda told her daughter to “have a couple of almonds and chew them really well.” After the clip from the 2013 episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills resurfaced and went viral, the hashtag “almond mom” began trending on TikTok—to date, it’s racked up over 200 million views.

None of us wants to be an almond mom. Yet globally, 22 percent of children and adolescents show disordered eating, while 9 percent of the American population will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. “Many parents are navigating their own food issues,” says Jill Castle, a pediatric nutritionist and registered dietitian and author of the upcoming book Kids Thrive at Every Size. “Some of them have residual insecurities or past childhood trauma around food, and there’s a real desire to not pass that on to their own children.” Does that ring true for you? Here are ways to encourage your children to build healthy relationships with both their diets and their bodies.

Kiss the clean-plate club goodbye

Many of us were raised to finish what was on our plates, and, as parents ourselves now, it’s easy to fall into this pattern. But experts agree that it’s a potentially harmful tactic. “What we understand more today is that this really cuts off a child’s ability to use their own internal appetite to make decisions about how much is enough for them,” says Heidi Schauster, nutrition therapist and author of Nurture, a book about teaching children to love food and their bodies. “To listen to somebody outside of their body to decide how much to eat does not make sense.”

Castle agrees: “Children aren’t in charge of what is served to them, but they are in charge of their bodies and what they put in their mouth. Respecting that division is super important. Part of the goal of childhood is to help kids learn to self-regulate.” Try thinking about what your child eats over the course of a day or week rather than over a single meal, suggests Castle, who notes that much of the time, one sketchy meal will be made up for next time they eat.

Ditch the diet

If you grew up around parents who were on and off diets all the time, you probably internalized some hard-to-digest messages around food. Many of us are still battling our own food demons. “One of the best things we can do for our kids is to heal our own relationship with food and our bodies,” says Megan McNamee, a registered dietitian nutritionist and cofounder of the popular Instagram page Feeding Littles. If you feel like you need help in this area, Schauster recommends working with a nutrition therapist, registered dietitian, or psychotherapist who has experience with disordered eating. “Look for providers who are oriented around a Health at Every Size framework, so that they’re less likely to be body shaming in any way,” she says.

How we talk about our own bodies and other people’s bodies is monumentally important.

Castle says she often works with families where dieting parents “pull themselves away from the table with their children to eat separately.” This, she says, is a big no-go: “There are ways to serve a meal where parents and children have their needs met.” Serve dishes family-style, so everyone can take more or less of what they want, rather than preparing entirely different meals. “Seeing the adults in your life eating all the foods and enjoying the process of eating together is very powerful,” she adds.

She also advises against any kind of restrictive regime that cuts out entire food groups; a far healthier approach, she says, is cutting out diet or negative body talk.

Shift into neutral

Rather than categorizing foods as “good” or “bad,” try to reframe your thinking so all foods are neutral and can be enjoyed as part of a varied diet.“If a child hears that something is bad but it tastes delicious and feels really good in their tummy, it’s confusing,” says Schauster.

Says Castle, “Ditch the polarizing, judgmental food descriptors such as ‘unhealthy’ or ‘fattening.’ Keep foods on an even playing field, rather than creating a hierarchy or morality around what we eat.” She adds that if certain foods are overly restricted, children can become “fixated on them and seek them out.”

Watch what you say

“How we talk about our own bodies and other people’s bodies is monumentally important,” says McNamee. “If the first thing we say about someone is how they look, our kids will pick up that that’s how we value people. Plus, kids are learning how to love their bodies by how we model loving our own.”

Instead, teach your kids that people come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s just fine. “We need to counteract our culture, which tends to prefer one body type,” says Schauster. “Let your children know that it’s natural and normal that some people have big bellies and some people have big shoulders.”

It’s also important to make sure all family members are on the same page, which may involve reining in an out-of-touch aunt who comments on your child’s size, or an ill-advised grandparent making a big deal out of the second helping of spaghetti your daughter is reaching for. Castle recommends pulling them aside and asking them to stop. Try saying, “Listen, we know now that it causes a lot of damage when we make comments about what our children eat or their bodies, and we are really trying to protect their emotional well-being. We believe all bodies are good bodies, and childhood is a period of developmental and physical change.”

Teach them social smarts

A recent peer-reviewed analysis of 50 studies from 17 countries concluded that social media usage leads to body image concerns and poor mental health and is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder in young people. It’s estimated that 91 percent of U.S. teens are on social media, and 50 percent check their accounts at least every hour. So what the hell can we do to protect our kids?

First, Castle advises holding off on giving your child access to social media for as long as possible. Although most platforms technically don’t allow kids under 13 to create accounts, many kids figure out a workaround. You can also try a digital parenting app like Canopy, which, for a monthly fee starting at $7.99, lets you block access to websites of your choice and uses AI to filter out harmful content. But it won’t stem the tide of images of unrealistically thin or fit bodies.

That’s where you can step in: “Social media literacy is really important,” says Schauster. “Educate your kids about filters and the ways people might not actually look how they appear to. Encourage them to reflect on whether seeing these images is helpful for them.” And if the answer is no? A swift unfollow.

Aside from filtered photos and videos, there’s another trend to be aware of: #WhatIAteToday has about 1.3 billion views on TikTok. “Kids can have so much trouble with this idea of having to measure up,” says Schauster. “Remind them that they’re looking at a snapshot of a highly curated day of food. Most of the time, you don’t see how influencers are eating the rest of the time.”

Focus on pleasure

If you feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of shaping your children’s relationship with food, Schauster has a simple suggestion: Emphasize the pleasure in eating. “There’s so much morality around food that we can get very stressed about feeding our kids,” she says. “That stress really does them a disservice. Food is fun, and it’s something the whole family can share in.” Get your kids to play or help out in the kitchen, and focus on making mealtimes enjoyable, she says.

McNamee sums it up like this: “Eat together regularly, minimize body talk as much as you can, make sure they’re hydrated, and teach your kids to focus on their body’s cues.”

Headshot of Rosie Hopegood

Rosie Hopegood is Deputy Health Editor at Oprah Daily. She writes, edits, and assigns stories at the intersection of science, medicine, psychology, wellness, spirituality, and fitness. A Brit in Brooklyn, her ‘to read’ book pile is taller than her toddler, but she’s still pinching herself that she gets to read and write for a living.

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