At first it’s cute when your infant or toddler starts adding “seriously?” to the end of everything they say. Then it hits you: They got that from you. And they’re likely getting a lot more, because our kids adopt our behaviors, often without us realizing or intending for it to happen. Whether you find this to be funny or annoying, most of the time, it’s relatively harmless. However, some of our behaviors and language may unintentionally influence our kids in not-so-great ways.
Research shows that children model their parents’ eating behaviors, eating-related attitudes, and satisfaction or dissatisfaction about their body image. Additionally, studies link dieting in front of your kids with the children restricting food, having concerns about their weight, and being at risk for weight gain.
“When a parent is talking about needing to diet, in particular, children are picking up the message that their body is not OK or acceptable just as it is,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Amy Isabella Chalker, RDN. “If the parent is talking about their appearance, the child will learn that their body is an object meant to be changed and controlled.”
But it’s not just what you say, it’s also what you do. “Every time we don’t eat something at the table, they take that in,” says Alexis Conason, Psy.D., CEDS-S, a licensed psychologist, certified eating disorders specialist-supervisor, and author of The Diet-Free Revolution. “They see what goes on for us with our food and body, and they tend to model after us.”
This news may make you feel torn—of course you want what’s best for your kids and you’d love for them to avoid any challenges you’ve faced with food and body image. Yet you also want what’s best for you. Luckily, experts say there are ways you can work toward your personal goals and also foster a positive food relationship for your child.
7 Ways to Positively Influence Your Kids’ Eating Habits
Keep in mind that the exact conversations you have with your kids will depend on how old they are, so tailor any suggestions below to their level.
Nix the negative body talk. Even if you don’t feel good about your body, try to be cognizant about not verbalizing that in front of your kids. “Any language you say out loud to yourself about your body, you may as well be saying that to your child,” Chalker says.
Focus on eating for health, not weight loss. If your goal is to drop a few (or a lot of) pounds, save those conversations for your doctor, dietitian, therapist, friends, or family. “Just as parents would not discuss financial or marital concerns with their child, there’s no need to involve your kids in [talks about your weight-loss efforts or diet],” Chalker says. And when you’re trying to encourage your kids to make good choices, emphasize the positives: how healthy ingredients can help their bodies run faster, jump higher, and their brains smarter.
Stop food labeling. There are no “good” foods and “bad” foods. “This kind of language can develop a hierarchy of foods, and there are layers of shame and guilt that develop if a child eats those foods,” Chalker says. This can result in restricting or a cycle of yo-yo dieting, she adds, which can interfere with their growth, leading to long-term health problems.
Work on your relationship with food. In our society, “it’s accepted that we want to try to change our body because we feel our body is flawed; it’s not good enough in some way. We are indoctrinated with that message since we are children,” Conason says. She encourages recognizing this as a false message and working to unlearn these beliefs by educating yourself about diet culture. Reframe your approach to eating as a form of self care.
Never encourage your child to diet or clean their plate. “Kids naturally are pretty mindful, attuned eaters,” Conason says. Trying to restrict how much your child eats, forbidding anything that has sugar in the household, or having low-fat everything impedes a child’s natural ability to determine hunger and fullness cues, Chalker adds.
So provide them with balanced meals and snacks and encourage them to listen and connect with their own bodies to guide their eating. That includes foods with sugar, which they’ll be exposed to outside of the house if you don’t offer them. Incorporate things like berries and chocolate or milk and cookies as snacks or part of meals along with other options. “If you can introduce these foods in your household in a neutral way, that can really help a child’s relationship with food,” Chalker explains.
Let them decide. If you aren’t dieting to lose weight but instead follow a diet such as vegetarianism or gluten-free for ethical or health reasons or personal preference, your child will likely want to know why you eat burgers but Daddy doesn’t. It’s less useful to focus on you in these situations. Flip these conversations back to your young one, using as neutral of language as you can.
Something like, “Mommy chooses these foods because she’s an adult and has her own preferences just like you do. What tastes good to you? Why do you enjoy those?” may help, Chalker says. Or, if your kids notice you had a smaller piece of birthday cake than they did, you could ask them how they feel after cake and ice cream as well as a fresh salad and the grilled chicken they devour. Which foods make them feel energized and which give them a bellyache? The point is: Don’t limit these conversations to only certain types of foods or make it a moral discussion of “best” foods.
Also educate your child about why you choose to eat only plants (if that’s your thing) so they can decide what their values and beliefs are. And for a medical condition like celiac disease, simply explain that certain foods make you feel bad—and that there’s no reason your kids shouldn’t eat those foods because they may feel great enjoying them.
Avoid rewarding kids with unhealthy food. Rewarding good behavior with sugary treats makes unhealthy choices more desirable. Use time together, cuddles, and praise as rewards instead.
Ultimately, you may want to seek out professional help. “You can’t address food concerns and body concerns in children without addressing it in yourself. And that’s tough,” Chalker says. Consider working with a professional (such as a registered dietitian or therapist) who specializes in family and children feeding or disordered eating, she recommends. Also, if you notice your child adopting any dieting behaviors (or have concerns they might be), seek out guidance from a specialist to help them explore body acceptance and reestablish a healthy relationship with food, she adds.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.