Food & Kids: Are We Doing More Harm Than Good?

Food can be a hot topic among parents and their children and while I understand being concerned, research shows our tactics can be doing more harm than good. Many parents wonder, “Is my child eating enough?” , “How will they eat if they aren’t forced or bribed?” or “My parents had me sit until my plate was clean, why should I not do the same?” If you’ve had these worries, you aren’t alone! But, I promise, there’s another way.

Pictured here is my 4 year old.

Let’s start with bribing. In conversation with other parents this is by far the most used tactic and usually comes from a feeling of desperateness, lack of control, and frustration. I imagine it starts with worry or fear. For example: “If she doesn’t eat her veggies she’ll be constipated again!” It may even come from hurt feelings. For example, “I cooked this meal, and bought this food, how dare she not eat it!”

Either way, our fear, hurt feelings, and need for control does not belong at the dinner table.  While we intend to have healthy eaters, research shows us that bribing and rewards accomplishes the opposite when it comes to eating. An article by the National Center for Biotechnology Information reminds parents that “eating should be an enjoyable activity. Children should not be coerced or even coaxed to eat. Bribes, threats or punishments have no role in healthy eating.”

Saying, “If you eat three more bites, you can play,” may work in getting them to eat three more bites. It won’t, however, build good eating habits.

My youngest with my partner, Bryton.

.Another sensitive topic I hear a lot about from parents is an actual concern about the health of their child. As a mom, I empathize with that deeply. However, I strongly suggest we don’t resort to talking about the physical appearance of our children. If a child is constantly hearing that they are too big, or too skinny, the awareness of their body changes. Instead of noticing how awesome it is that they can jump, dance, or lay in the grass, their awareness is brought to size. When size equals worth, we are missing out on a whole, beautiful person with likes and dislikes, interests, and opinions. Instead, we become hyper-aware of just size, and unfortunately, our children usually follow suit.  An article from the New York Times says, “The study, published in the journal, Eating & Weight Disorders, is one of many findings that parents’ careless — though usually well-meaning — comments about a child’s weight are often predictors of unhealthy dieting behaviors, binge eating and other eating disorders, and may inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes about weight that children internalize.”

While not talking about the appearance of our children is important, it is just as important to be an example through how we talk about ourselves. For example, if your child constantly witnesses his parents speak ill of their appearance, the message that size equals worth is still being transferred.  I am the daughter of a mother who was raised to be hyper-aware of her external appearance. My mother did her best to raise me differently, and to celebrate foos and any size I was. However, it was not lost on me, that she didn’t always celebrate herself.  Imagine celebrating our wrinkles, stretch marks, and other “flaws” in front of our children. How different would our kids view us and themselves?

It is apparent to me that children want and need connection. We build strong connections with our children when we trust them. Changing my perspective on children being these malleable beings who would surely crash and burn without my constant guidance has been crucial in my relationship with my children. They, too, have intuition, even when it comes to food. They know when they are hungry, and when they aren’t, and it is vital in the early years to let that intuition grow and flourish without interference from our well-meaning attempts at control.

Pictured above is my partner and two children.

I’ve talked a lot about what could be more harmful than helpful, so here are some tips to make dinner time (and eating in general) more fun!

  1. Include your children in grocery shopping and cooking- This gives children some control over the food they eat, and what better way to learn cooking skills than at home with your caretaker?
  2. Offer healthy foods throughout the day with no attachment- I often cut up some apples, and throw some hummus in a bowl, and put it in on the table. My kids eat all of it sometimes, and other times it becomes my snack. Either way, it’s totally fine.
  3. Talk about your day, or your interests at the dinner table instead of talking about eating- It isn’t fun for a parent or child when dinner time becomes a time for nagging. Use it as a time to connect. If you are concerned, maybe bring it up later saying, “you haven’t been eating a lot at dinner, should we eat earlier/later, is there something else you want us to make?”
  4. Let foods be foods. Carrots and Kale are delicious and so are cookies and ice cream! (I’ve had a tough time with this one.) Making one food devious and others good encourages guilt and shame when we do eat cookies, and ice cream. ( This doesn’t mean we can’t teach kids about healthy foods. We just don’t want to demonize food groups.)
  5. Finally, model what you want to see in your kids. We can’t very well eat chips for breakfast and expect our children to eat the healthy omelet we made.

There is so much to unpack about food and bodies in a culture that glorifies dieting, control, and “beauty” standards. The good news is that change starts in our homes, within ourselves, and with our children. A fun place to start, is with food. Get inspired in the kitchen with your kids, bake the cookies, steam the kale, fry those platanos, and make that salad. Let’s celebrate each other around the dinner table!