Not only can parents help instill good eating habits in children, but they also have significant influence over a child’s mental perceptions about food, a CHOC Children’s psychologist says.
“Food does more than just fulfill our basic needs for sustenance,” says Dr. Cindy Kim, a psychologist with expertise in pediatric feeding disorders. “Food also gets associated with a sense of comfort, fullness, safety and pleasure.”
Dr. Kim advises parents against linking food to rewards or consolation, as well as punishment. For example, consider a father taking a child for ice cream after a rough day. This activity might seem benign, but it can encourage children to turn to food in future tough times.
“It’s getting associated in our brains, memories and emotional states, and the food gets paired with the memory of my dad comforting me,” Dr. Kim explains. “That’s when those indirect meanings behind food can get formed.”
Avoid labeling, banning foods
Conversely, parents who label certain foods as bad, or outlaw specific foods, can set their children up for overeating and bingeing, Dr. Kim says.
“When you start banning a specific food, it can lead the child to have an unhealthy relationship with that food,” she says. “It’s human nature: If you tell someone they can’t have something, they usually want it even more.”
Children most definitely pick up on parents’ attitudes about food, and will notice if mom or dad obviously dislikes or avoids certain foods. This can be especially tricky for parents who are dieting or working to overcome food issues.
“When you’re teaching a child that you should eat all your food groups, but then you sit down and only have a smoothie, kids form an opinion and a concept about food that’s not mirroring the value that you’re intending to promote,” Dr. Kim says.
Strive for lifelong healthy eating
To reinforce positive mental associations with food for their children, the best thing parents can do is work to model good eating habits that a child should emulate.
Think beyond diets, and instead focus on good nutrition, Dr. Kim says. The former implies temporality, but the goal should be lifelong healthy choices, living and eating.
Further, parents should be mindful of their verbal and nonverbal cues about food: A child will notice if a parent grimaces when presented with a disliked food, and the child will assign a value to that food based on his parents’ reaction, she says.
Also, parents should try to speak neutrally about food, she adds.
“We encourage parents to frame things positively: ‘Your dad likes hamburgers, but I like them a little bit,’” Dr. Kim says. “Stay away from, ‘You’ll get fat if you eat that.’ Words can have a long lasting effect on children and how they see food and their bodies.”
Other tips for healthy food attitudes
Here are some other tips from Dr. Kim to help cultivate a child’s healthy mental food associations:
- Eat family meals – Children are more likely to try new foods if they see parents enjoying them.
- Work together – Encourage healthy eating choices by food shopping and preparing meals together. This presents an opportunity to talk about nutrition. Also, children are more likely to try a new food if they help prepare it.
- Don’t clear plates – Emphasize that children should eat until they’re full – whether or not their plate is clear.
- Eat with structure – Discourage sitting in front of television and eating mindlessly, as well as grazing throughout the day. This prevents children from noticing physiological cues of satiety/fullness.
- Offer choices – Giving kids options between foods can help steer them toward new and healthful foods without infringing upon independence.