Raising children to have a positive relationship with food

What discussions about food do you have with your children?

Do you talk about good foods and bad foods?  Healthy foods and junk foods?  You most likely answered “yes” to this and I too am guilty because these messages have been ingrained in us.
Rigid rules around food groups is not normal or healthy.  As my learning around nutrition and diet culture has grown, so too has my understanding of how these types of labels can set our children up for a disordered relationship with food and their bodies.  I chose to study nutrition because I was a confused parent.  I had lost sight of what foods would nourish my children.  I became too focused on what not to eat – no sugar (yes, I did Quit Sugar), no grains (yes, Paleo for a while), no dairy (actually just no milk,  I couldn’t live without cheese and yoghurt!).
The language of “good” and “bad” perpetuates diet-culture, and the stigma associated with weight.  It perpetuates body dissatisfaction. It perpetuates a lack of acceptance of diversity in body shapes and foods from differing cultures.
So then, what is appropriate language?  How do we teach a healthy relationship with food to our children (and perhaps ourselves)?
In the pre-school years, the focus should be on exposure to a wide variety of foods.  Explore the appearance (colour, shape), texture, smell and taste.  Play with food, count with food, make simple things like pancakes, stewed fruit, omelettes.  Read books. There is no “good” food or “bad” food, just a diverse range of food to choose from.
In the early primary years, children are still not able to think in an abstract way.  Continue with exposure to a variety of foods, tasting (without pressure to do so), and talk about where foods come from.  Read stories.  Encourage curiosity.
By upper primary, children are able to think in more complex and abstract ways.  For example, they can start to link a food with a food group. They can understand the lifecycle of fruits and vegetables.  There are still no “good” or “bad” foods.  Now is the perfect time to explore cultural diversity in food and appreciate that all families are different. You could try making foods from cultures other than your own.
During the teenage years, diet culture and society’s messages surrounding food come to the fore.  It is therefore very important that food and body image are discussed from a place of non-judgement.  Encourage and observe diversity.  Bodies are changing and self-esteem can take a dive.  Remind your daughter, for example, that weight gain (in particular fat gain) is NORMAL and EXPECTED during this time.  Perhaps you could encourage your teen to prepare a family meal on a regular basis.  Continue to enjoy foods from different cultures, appreciating the pleasure we receive from food.  Avoid all talk of weight, calories or comparison with others.  All bodies are good bodies.
I still find myself talking about “healthy” foods and “junk” foods to my family on occasion.  It is a difficult habit to break, borne from years of living in a diet-obsessed world.  But I am working on it, and I have loosened the reigns a lot on eating foods that give us pleasure but very little nourishment. I often find that parents feel the need to tell me what my child ate when on a play date, or “confessing” that they had lollies or ice-cream.  So, let it be known that I don’t care what they ate, as long as they were offered food when hungry!  

For further information on raising children to have a positive relationship with food, check out
If you would like to read more on diet culture and the non-diet approach, this book is a great place to start:
“Health at Every Size” by Linda Bacon