I knew my attitude toward food was creating problems when my 6-year old daughter sat across from me and matter-of-factly stated, “I’m only going to eat one cookie because I know those are bad, but then I’ll eat lots of carrots instead because those are good.”
“…ooor maybe I’ll eat some more cookies, but then when I’m a grown-up I won’t eat them anymore because I know they’re bad, right Mommy?”
All I could do was stare at her, and wonder if she already had an eating disorder in her future. Because that’s what it sounded like.
And the worst part? I was hearing my very own words come out of her mouth when she said those things.
Our Kids Inherit our attitude…and relationship…with food
Where did I go wrong?
All I wanted to do was teach my kids to make good decisions about what they ate. I hoped they would learn to make better food choices, grow into well-balanced adults, and avoid all the lifestyle-related health problems that are becoming waaaay too common.
Basically, I didn’t want them to become adults that appeared to make good food decisions by the light of day…
…only to wait until their kids go to bed to pull out the secret stash of ice cream and chocolate while binge watching Netflix.
(Side note: When I was a kid, I always suspected that my parents waited until after my bedtime to pull out the junk food and eat whatever they wanted…now that I’m an adult, I’ve learned that I was right)
Once I noticed my daughter’s mixed feelings related to food, I started (guiltily) seeing all the ways that I contributed to them:
- I bought special “Mama-only Chocolate” that they weren’t allowed to share
- The kids noticed the differences in what Mommy cooks for dinner, versus what Daddy cooks for dinner
- Birthdays and other celebrations were largely centered on favorite foods, regardless of our routine eating habits
- Everywhere we went…church, kids activities, stores, banks…other adults were offering my kids sugary “treats” as rewards, and I was constantly fighting to find a good balance
And can we talk about Halloween for a minute?
You know, the holiday where all sugar restrictions get thrown out the window as we encourage our kids to collect as much free junk food as possible…then go home and tell them that they can’t eat most of it because it’s not good for them (but by the way there’s a Mommy/Daddy tax and so we’ll be eating most of the candy that you don’t).
I was beginning to see where my kids’ mixed feelings towards food might be coming from.
And since I don’t want any of my kids to end up with an eating disorder…
…then I’m going to try to prevent it! Just like I know you want to.
Because we all want to be good parents.
My own attitude towards food
I quickly realized that I had my own mixed feelings about “good” versus “bad” foods, and that my kids were smart enough notice it through my behavior as well as my words.
For example, I realized that I often considered “treats” more like “bad foods that I want to eat anyway”. And that I often felt guilty while eating them.
At the same time, I had been raised eating a lot of sugary “treats” in my own childhood, and I had a lot of fond memories of them! Snowballs with marshmallow creme topping, walking to 7-11 with my friends to spend my allowance on goodies, special cookie recipes handed down by family members, favorite snack items included daily in my school lunch…even the ice cream truck!
I discovered that I was entangling the positive emotions of those childhood memories with the food they were attached to.
And I realized that it was making me feel guilty that my kids might “miss out” on having the same experiences that I did.
Seriously…is there anything about being a Mom that doesn’t make us feel guilty?!?
Once I identified that internal struggle, though, I realized that it was ridiculous!! There were so many other positive experiences that my kids could have and remember, that I didn’t need to off-load all of my own childhood experiences on them.
Especially now that I knew the serious health consequences that many of those childhood “treats” could cause over a lifetime of regular consumption.
How to change your kids’ relationship with food (and your own!)
So, how did I start “fixing” how my kids thought about food?
First, I became more aware of what my behavior towards food was teaching them.
Can you hide a bowl of ice cream faster than an underage teenager can drop a cigarette (or is that an e-cigarette nowadays?) when you hear the kids sneak out of their room after bedtime? I’m raising my own hand here…and I know you are, too.
But don’t fool yourself…when you do this, your kids are getting the message loud and clear: junk food is actually the good stuff, and when parents say “no” it’s because they just want to keep more of it for themselves.
Another example: do you ever tell them that sugar is “poison”…then reward them with candy for good behavior, birthdays, or as a “special treat” on family night? Your kids know what that means: if sugar was really that bad, then it wouldn’t be such a prize.
Change your vocabulary
Food is not a moral judgment. At least, it shouldn’t be.
Like money, food is neither good nor bad…it just is. How you use it (and how much you use…) is much more important.
How many times have I told my kids that candy is “bad for you”? But then refer back to my Halloween story to guess how much they really believe me…
It’s so easy to fall into that trap, though: Vegetables good, desserts bad. Very cut and dry, black and white, everything’s in a neat little box.
It’s not actually that easy, though.
Like, is carrot cake good or bad?!?!
This line of thinking quickly takes me down the rabbit hole, and sucks away all remaining decision making power in my brain. Which is little enough to begin with, since I’ve got 5 going on 6 children at the moment.
That’s why I had to change the primary question that my family asks about food.
Instead of asking “Is this food good or bad?”, we ask:
“How nutritious is this food?”
Making the decision this way removes a lot of the guilt, yet still gives us a healthy framework to make better food decisions.
See, if I know that I ate highly nutritious foods for breakfast and dinner, then maybe it’s not so bad to eat the carrot cake for dessert. And if I now that my kids also ate a highly nutritious breakfast and dinner, I don’t have to freak out as much when the nice lady at the grocery store hands them a lollipop.
But if I know our breakfast and lunch were seriously lacking nutrients today…then it’s easier to accept that maybe I should save the carrot cake for tomorrow. And it’s easier to lose my guilt when telling my disappointed kids that eating the lollipop needs to wait for another day.
Two rules for nutritious eating
It’s pretty simple to start eating more nutritiously:
1) Eat less added sugar.
2) Eat more vegetables.
Simple, of course…but not always easy. It’s one of those concepts that feels easy to say, but difficult to actually do.
But trust me! It’s totally worth trying, even if you do it imperfectly. After all, even if you only increase your family’s veggie intake by 1-2 servings per day, that’s still pretty amazing!! And I can help you with tips on how to do that without extra time or effort on your part through this blog!
Plus Follow the “80/20 rule”
Have you ever heard of the 80/20 rule? It goes like this: eat as nutritiously as possible 80% of the time…then don’t worry about the other 20%.
This has helped me soooo much when dealing with all of the “out of the house” junk food that my kids receive.
Instead of being that “crazy mom” who never lets her kids eat the candy they get at church (kudos to you if your kids can stick to that, but my kids will Wear. Me. Down…), I can let them have a piece or two and save the rest for later.
I find that they’re much more cooperative when I allow this, because they don’t feel as excluded from their friends (and they also trust that I’m not just going to take their candy away and eat it myself after bedtime…)
And when we’re home, I make sure to offer them as much nutritious food as I can manage, which more than makes up for the few pieces of candy they get when we’re out and about.
Educate your kids as to why you eat nutritiously
Educating our kids on nutritious eating is the most important part of the puzzle, but it’s not going to happen in a single conversation.
In fact, it’s probably a bit more like brainwashing than educating…
*But the truth is, you’re kids are going to be brainwashed by someone. If it’s not you*, then it will be all of the marketing and advertising going on around them. Are you comfortable with that? I’m not!
So what does “brainwashing” look like?
- Reminding them why they only eat 1-2 pieces of candy after church, while many of their friends gorging themselves.
- Talking about how different colored veggies contain different kinds of nutrients that are important for our body.
- Driving around town explaining how our bodies are like cars…and if you put the wrong kind of fuel in a car, it will breakdown.
Now, don’t expect your 3-year old (or 10-year old, or teenager…or husband…) to immediately jump on board with you. But with time, consistency, and gradual changes, you will get them all good and brainwashed. I promise.
What happened to my daughter’s ambivalent food attitude…
It’s been about 2 years since I first noticed my daughter’s ambivalent attitude towards “eating healthy”. And we’ve been making these changes in fits and spurts, imperfectly, but always trying to head in the right direction.
I rarely notice her making comments about “bad” foods anymore. Instead, she seems to have gotten much better at talking about the nutrients in foods, and how they make her body feel.
It took two years so far, but I like to take some credit for those changes.
And I’m also starting to notice signs in my older kids that they are learning “self-regulating” behaviors…where they will voluntarily limit the amount of junk food they eat, and save the rest for later.
(Don’t get me wrong, they are not little angels and will still gorge themselves most of the time, I’m just sayin’ that I’m starting to see baby steps in the right direction…)