We all want what is best for our children and one of the ways we show this is through how we feed them. Food is intricately linked with love and if that’s the case with American parents, we love our kids a lot.
The notion that “food is love” and a way to show our affection, may partly be to blame for the steady rise in childhood obesity over the past 30 years. From 1980 to 2012, the rate of childhood and adolescent obesity tripled and is now a leading health concern among parents and healthcare professionals in the United States. This concern is valid as there are now health problems among our children and teens today that were previously rare – type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and elevated blood cholesterol levels just to name a few.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not placing all the blame for childhood obesity on the shoulders of parents – its tough enough being a good parent and juggling everything that goes along with that title. But, there are times when maybe we are not creating a supportive, healthy eating environment for our kids and that may be one piece of the puzzle to their excess weight gain. The messages we receive daily in our environment affect our food choices. Why do advertisers run pizza commercials late at night with home delivery or why are there chocolate bars when you pay at the counter of a bookstore?
We may not be able to control all the “eat food” messages we’re bombarded with daily but there is one food environment we can have control over – the food environment that begins in the home.
Here are 3 ways parents can create healthy food environments helping curb childhood obesity:
- Don’t make them clean their plate
If any of you reading this are a past member of the “clean your plate” club growing up, you know what I mean. You were made to eat everything on your plate before you could get up from the table. Did you like being made to do so? Of course we don’t. I know parents have this need, this innate feeling of wanting to control what and how much their kids eat. Guess what – that is your child’s job to determine that, not you as the parent.
From the time children are small, they need parents who trust, support and believe in them to regulate their eating habits. When a parent undermines this by being overly controlling on eating, trouble follows. A child who is made to clean their plate each and every time before they can get up from the table, are being set up for a lifetime struggle of never really learning to listen to their body as to when they are full and when they are hungry. The words “clean your plate” repeat themselves every time they sit down to eat throughout their life. Without ever really having learned to regulate food intake by always cleaning their plate even if they don’t want to, leads to eating more calories than necessary and to excess weight gain.
Many parents who make their children clean their plates were often made to do so growing up themselves. Don’t make this same mistake. If wasted food is the issue, put less food on their plate to begin with. Let the child ask you for more or let the child determine which foods they want to eat and which they don’t.
An excellent method by child nutrition expert Ellyn Satter is her Division of Responsibility in eating. If practiced consistently, it works beautifully. It reduces mealtime battles along with helping the child to develop a sense of food regulation that is appropriate for them.
- Don’t offer rewards for eating
When a parent feels it is their responsibility of what and how much their child eats, one tactic often resorted to is to offer a reward for trying a new food or eating more than what they want. But this can backfire as children know when they are being manipulated or forced to eat something they really would rather not.
Studies have shown when a child is left alone to make the decision to try a food or not without any interference from the parent, they end up eating more normally and grew into a normal weight for them. Children who grew up in households where they were rewarded in some manner for trying out a food, had poorer diets because of the family trying too hard to control their eating behavior.
It is better to let children approach food on their own to decide if they want to try a food or not. When we as parents say “Eat your broccoli and then you can have dessert,” it teaches the child that the dessert is more valuable and to like it more than the broccoli. It can set up a child to eat a lot more food than they want at a meal just to get the dessert.
- Do have family meals together while avoiding erratic eating
Family mealtime is so important to building and creating a healthy relationship with food, books and studies have repeatedly shown why they may also reduce excessive weight gain in children. One of the most powerful influences on developing good eating habits is when the whole family eats most meals sitting down together at a table and having the kids see their parents enjoy and eat a wide variety of nutritious food.
Children who grow up in households where at least one scheduled meal a day was eaten together as a family, have better eating habits, better emotional stability, and less likelihood of becoming obese or developing an eating disorder. They learn through consistent and pleasant mealtimes they can try out new foods without pressure and eat as little or as much as they want at a meal, again, learning to trust themselves in regulating their eating. As long as the parents are not forcing, bribing or manipulating their child’s eating behaviors, they will look forward to eating together as a family.
Family meals will only work though, if they are made a priority in children’s lives. If mealtimes become erratic to where there is inconsistency in what time of day meals are served or if meals are skipped altogether, the child can become anxious about eating and overly preoccupied with food and when or how much they will get to eat. Children need structure. If a child has doubts about when and if they’ll get fed, this can lead to them overeating when they are fed and gorging on unhealthy food choices. By having regular meals and snacks throughout the day offering healthy foods, this reduces anxiety and helps children learn they will get fed and not go hungry.
Words to live by
Respecting and being sensitive to your child’s eating should begin on the day they are born. This increases the chance of them developing a lifelong healthy relationship with food. They will view eating as a pleasure and something to look forward to along with establishing healthy eating habits and growing into a healthy appropriate weight for them.