Children’s first impressions of food and mealtime often come from what they see and hear from their parents and caretakers. These influential adults can make all the difference in the kind of language children use around food, how they feel about mealtimes, and how these experiences shape their relationship with food throughout their developmental years.
Let’s take a look at five ways that parents can foster safe emotions and behaviours around food.
1. Embrace The Nuance Around Food and Eating Habits
It is essential to teach kids that some foods are nutritious—while others are delicious—and both are equally important in shaping a beneficial and enjoyable relationship with food. People can have positive or troubling relationships with food depending on that balance. Most importantly, it’s okay for them to communicate when something feels off.
When parents create a "black and white" mentality around food, children can feel guilty about eating or desiring certain foods, leading to disordered eating patterns. Instead, parents can encourage their children to focus on how food tastes, how it feels in the body, and how it satisfies hunger.
2. Create Pressure-Free Experiences Around Food
It can be frustrating when children refuse to eat the food their parents prepare. However, parents should avoid responding with anger, threats, bribes, or negative consequences to eat. This response can lead to negative feelings towards mealtime.
Instead, parents should make a variety of foods available to their children, as well as allow them to determine if and how much they eat. This creates more flexibility and openness to new and different foods, along with limiting the development of picky eaters by always feeding kids the same foods. Parents can also work on creating a relaxing atmosphere at the table, a predictable time when family comes all together to share in conversation, connection, and food. Focusing mealtime beyond just food, helps position food as part of the many prices of life, not the piece that must be front and centre.
Ahead of mealtime, parents can also involve their children in preparing and cooking food, talking about the purpose of different foods, story telling, sharing family recipes, all create meaning about food beyond just eating it. One way to make beans more appealing, for example, is by talking about how they help you gain energy and swim faster in the summer. While cooking, asking them about the texture, smell, and taste of food can also help them to make food interesting and magical and fun!
3. Help Kids Learn Hunger Cues
The common practice of enforcing the "clean your plate" rule during mealtime can have negative consequences on children's ability to self-regulate their food intake. Finishing everything on one’s plate isn’t necessarily the sign of a successful meal. Sending this signal can actually interfere with a child's natural ability to recognize hunger and fullness cues—compromising their autonomy and their relationship with food.
Instead of pressuring children to finish everything on their plate or eat a certain amount of vegetables, parents can encourage their children to tune into their bodies and learn to stop eating when they are satisfied—not when their plate is empty.
4. Check Your Own Biases
It’s not a perfect world, and nobody has a perfect relationship with food. We all carry some level of baggage when it comes to food and body image due to the pervasive influence of diet culture and fatphobia. Parents must be aware of these unconscious influences and actively work to break free from their grip.
To avoid instilling harmful thoughts or patterns around food, parents should avoid talking about things like wellness trends, weight loss fads, or comment on the food behaviours and body weight, whether of themselves or others. They should avoid calling cookies “treats” and carrots “what you need to eat before you can get a treat”. Referring to food in neutral terms—by avoiding imbibing “good vs bad” labels—can shape kids’ perceptions, too.
Children won’t be completely immune from external pressures from peers or television, but parents can create a safe space where food is celebrated for providing nourishment and pleasure rather than judged based on calorie content or aesthetic effects on our bodies.
5. Know That It’s Okay To Ask For Help
The final step in fostering safe emotions and behaviours around food is recognizing that it's okay to ask for help when signs of struggle emerge. Parents may struggle with their own relationship with food or have difficulty navigating that of their child's. In either case, it’s extremely brave to recognize one’s own limits and when it’s time to seek help from an expert.
A note from our team
If you or your child are struggling in their relationship with food and body, we invite you to reach out to us to ask questions, share part of your story, and determine if this is the right place for support. The Kyla Fox Centre treats the entire spectrum of EDs and disordered eating through an individualised approach. Healing children, regardless of age, means healing parents and families overall. We are committed to educating you about EDs and expectations of recovery—and fostering openness, transparency, and active engagement in the process.