I am super excited about today’s episode because it’s a topic that I needed help with as a new mom. Figuring out ways to encourage our kids toward healthy eating can seem like a full-time job for Mom.
Megan McNamee MPH, RDN, CLT, is one half of the team over at Feeding Littles on Instagram.
She and her partner, Judy, specialize in pediatric nutrition, and their IG account provides information on nutrition and ideas for feeding your little ones a balanced diet with no condemnation.
If you need some new ways to encourage healthy eating in your own kids, you need to go follow them on IG!
We Need a New Food Vocabulary
For far too long, we have had people telling us what to feed our babies and children and how we are failing. If your child eats sugar, ever, you’ve been condemned as a bad parent.
It’s time for us to take a more balanced look at what we are expecting of ourselves and our children. There is a huge need for intervention where parents can feel good about what and how they feed their own kids.
Growing up with a negative view of food causes so many problems as an adult. I work with women every day who have been taught that there are bad foods and good foods. And all this does is cause self-condemnation and self-hatred or either a false sense of pride.
When we’re trying to find ways to encourage healthy eating in our kiddos, we need to teach them a new language regarding food. We need to give them words to replace “good” and “bad.”
Let’s help them understand which foods make them feel good and which foods make them feel bad. We can show them how much sugar is in a food by measuring out the number of grams of sugar in that food. (*we did this with a soft drink recently in our home and my daughter was stunned to see the amount of actual sugar in the drink she was asking for.)
Ask your kids, “What does this food do for us?” If you’re eating strawberries, talk about what strawberries do for your bodies. Talk about the protein in meat, the sugar in cookies, or the fiber in fruits and veggies.
When we give our children a new vocabulary surrounding food, they grow up with a better relationship with food and with their own bodies.
Helping Teens with Food and Body Awareness
I was on a call with a mom recently and she was telling me how she was restricting her daughter’s food and also requiring the girl to track her food at school and at home. And I’ll be honest, that was super concerning to me.
Megan shared that she has adult clients who can’t identify the feelings of true hunger. They don’t know when they are full. They’ve been so disconnected from the actual signals of hunger and fullness for so long that they can no longer identify them.
Even as our children grow and reach their teenage years, we need to continue to use a gentle approach when we discuss nutrition. We can ask them again, how do these foods make you feel?
We can discuss what a balanced meal looks like, how protein keeps us full longer, how sugar may give us a boost of energy but will cause a crash soon after. Talk about which foods have protein, which foods are more sugary, and which foods help us do the things we have to do.
It’s important to educate ourselves on which foods help us in which areas so that we can educate our children. Even if this doesn’t come naturally to you, you can learn!
How to Get Your Child Involved in Food Education
One of the surest ways to get your child involved in learning more about food is to get them in the kitchen or the garden, but if you want a teen to learn about food, send them to the grocery store.
Young kids love to help out in the kitchen. They love to garden and see their food grow. Allowing them to cook foods they’ve grown is sometimes all it takes to move them toward healthier choices.
For teens, if they have a driver’s license, they will probably be all too happy to make a trip to the store for you or to drive you there and help out.
Touching food, growing food, cooking food..all these things help your children to feel more comfortable around food and to understand more about it.
And keep in mind, our kids are receiving negative messages from all around on what they should and shouldn’t be doing. So, try to keep your home a safe place to talk about and learn about food.
Experiment with foods you’ve never tried and keep the vocabulary positive, no matter what food they want to try.
Helping Your Picky Eaters
I hear from moms all the time about how their kid is such a picky eater and what a struggle it is to get the kids to eat anything besides junk. What I have discovered is that many times, one of the parents is also picky and the child is following right along in Mom’s or Dad’s footsteps.
As in so many things in parenthood, we truly set the example.
We need to be aware that developmental stages in babies set the tone for a lot of their likes and dislikes, and how we handle those stages can create picky eaters or children who enjoy a variety of foods.
If we label our kids as picky eaters, you better believe they will fulfill that prophecy we just spoke over them. So, even if you think your kid is picky, don’t verbalize it in front of them. Give them a chance to enjoy food without saying they won’t like it because they’re picky.
Think about your own picky child; do you make a separate dinner for him? Is he allowed to eat pb&j while the rest of the family eats the dinner you prepared? When given a choice, kids (and adults) will always choose the thing we like the best over an unknown.
If you want your child to eat a variety of foods:
- Serve them a variety of foods.
- Don’t make a completely separate meal for them, even if they have certain food sensitivities or allergies.
- Try to make their meal look as much like yours as possible.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
By the time a child is around 6 or 7, some of the pickiness should be going away. But for some kids, it just doesn’t. If your child is getting older and is down to only eating a few foods, you may need to get some professional help for him.
It’s not your fault if this is happening. This is not that abnormal, where you have a kid who only eats 4-5 foods. But if the child has no food sensitivities or allergies, it’s time to set some healthy boundaries around what will be allowed as far as refusing food.
The first boundary to consider is not allowing screens during meals. If the only way your child will eat their food is by sitting in front of a video, you aren’t teaching them about food, or how to know when they’re hungry or full. They need to learn to recognize the hunger and fullness cues their body gives them.
If you’re using things like screens or serving “kid food” in order to get them to eat, you’ll have to make a decision to change those behaviors. Once you decide to change the behavior, stick with it. If you give in, it will be so much harder to try to change it later.
When Family Doesn’t Get It
So, you’ve set some firm but loving boundaries around what is and isn’t allowed in your home regarding food and meals. The kids are coming along nicely, trying new foods and learning to eat without staring at the iPad.
And then, you spend a week at Grandma’s house. And it all goes out the window.
How do we get our families on board with our boundaries so that we don’t lose any ground we’ve gained? And what do you do if your extended family or friends bribe your kids with food?
Bribing children with food is especially problematic because it sets food apart as a reward or treat. “If you do this thing you don’t want to do, I’ll give you a cookie…” teaches kids that food is something to be used for personal gain rather than nutrition for our bodies.
When dealing with grandparents or other relatives or friends, we need to start with grace.
They are working from the set of tools they were given by their own parents. Attacking their methods is a great way to cause them to feel defensive and like they have failed you and your children.
If you have to talk to your parents about this issue, remember first and foremost that they absolutely adore your child and they are coming from a position of love. They would never want to harm their grandchild.
Education is the key in these conversations and Megan has had many grandparents say that they wish they had known some of these things when their own kids were young.
Explain your boundaries in a kind way, using research, the nutritionist, or the pediatrician as the “bad guy.”
When it comes to extended family, think about the aunt you see once a year or even less often.
It’s okay to not say anything and just enjoy what they offer. If your child is otherwise healthy, a few extra cookies or chocolate candies aren’t going to be the end of the world if given a couple of times a year.
If you want support here are some amazing resources for you:
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