young girl eating happily

What does a healthy relationship with food look like?

If like many parents you would like your child to grow up with a healthy relationship with food you might be wondering what you need to help your child get there. But before we get to that, we really need to have a think about what a healthy relationship with food really looks like. It may surprise you that it isn’t just about the food, it’s also about how we feel about ourselves too.

It might sound obvious, after all we are programmed to eat when we are hungry. However,
sometimes throughout life for various reasons we can end up in a position where we are eating for lots of other reasons. We might be meeting our emotional needs with food – both good and bad.

Whilst it’s human nature to do this, when we find ourselves doing it regularly it can become a
problem.

If you allow yourself to eat foods freely without self-imposed restrictions (that are not medically necessary) and without guilt then this is a healthy approach to food. What are some of the things we might tell ourselves if we don’t have a healthy relationship with our food?

“I can’t eat that, it’s bad.”
“I feel ashamed for eating such a big dinner.”
“I should cut out carbs.”
“I need to go back on a diet.”
“I need to stop eating before my holiday.”

Ok, so it’s almost impossible to love our bodies all of the time. There’s so much pressure on us from what feels like every area in life to look a certain way. Not to age. To lose weight after a baby and so much more.

But, we can have an appreciation of our body and focus on the positives as much as we can. Over time if we don’t already we can learn to love our body.

Children love their bodies when they are small and they unlearn that. So a healthy relationship with our body comes from not breaking down that natural love we have for ourselves and the way our body works, feels and looks.

If you often eat beyond fullness you aren’t alone. Listening to our body and understanding when we are full is a skill that can be lost during childhood. Sometimes this can go wrong and we over eat, and then we have a much more problematic situation where people binge eat.

We bring our childhood with us

There’s a reason that I talk a LOT about letting go of generational feeding myths. Science changes and the way we feed children should change too. Unfortunately, it’s natural to pass down parenting behaviours from our childhood often without even thinking about it. Our parents were our first teachers so what they teach us can be very difficult for us to unlearn.

Have a think about your childhood – can you relate any of the way you behave around food with the way food was approached when you were growing up? If not right now, perhaps you will by the end of this article.

So, with that in mind, what can we do to help our child grow into an adult with a positive and
healthy relationship with their food. Lets aim for them not to have many of the negativity that many of us have grown up with.

Don’t talk negatively about yours, your child’s or anyone else’s body.

Instead help your child to see that as humans we come in all shapes and sizes.

Your child should be in charge of how much they eat.

Are you guilty of saying any of the following phrases to your child? “Just one more mouthful”, “Finish your meal and you can have pudding”, “You need to finish what is on your plate.”

All of these phrases are designed to encourage children to eat more than they want to, often
because parents are worried about nutrition. The problem is, the negative effect of these behaviours far outweighs the nutritional benefit you get of one more mouthful of food.

If your child regularly eats more than their body needs, they start to lose those natural signals that tell them when they are getting full. Over time they will start overriding them and when they get older they may find that their signal to stop eating becomes an empty plate rather than a feeling of fullness.

Try to have a routine around food

It is good to have a routine with food so that children know when food is coming and that food is not available at all times of day.

Allowing our bodies to follow their usual pattern of getting hungry and then satisfying them is a good pattern to get into. When children are allowed to eat whenever they want they may get used to eating because they are bored.

young boy eating an avocado

Don’t offer foods as rewards or as a consolation.

It can become habitual to you give your child food whenever they do well at something or to ‘treat’ them for achievements or good behaviour. However, this may lay the foundations for your child growing into an adult that finds themselves rewarding themselves with food when they do well at something.

Or if you console them with food when they are feeling sad, they may grow up to turn to food for comfort when they need to deal with their emotions.

Don’t make foods forbidden

Do you remember during the Covid pandemic, when they told us we wouldn’t be able to get toilet rolls? What happened. People went mad and really bought all of the toilet rolls. They really couldn’t get enough!

The same principle applies to food. If we make things forbidden they become far more interesting and appealing to children. By trying to protect children we can sometimes, without knowing it, make them way more interested in the foods we are trying to keep them from.

young child eating corn on the cob

Offer small amounts of foods like chocolate, cake, sweets, biscuits etc
alongside other foods.

By not putting them on a pedestal and allowing regular access to these foods you will reduce how exciting these foods are. The less exciting they are, the easier your child will find it to regulate themselves around those foods as they get older.

Follow the Division of Responsibility

Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility should be the foundation of how you feed your child and allow everyone to have their own role when food is being served. The more you can stay in your own lanes, with your own roles, the better your child will eat (and over time it will reduce any stress levels you have at mealtimes).

Parent/caregivers role: To decide what, when and where.
As hard as it can feel for many parents; our role as parents is to provide. Not to ‘get’ our children to eat.

Children’s role: Whether to eat and how much to eat.

In conclusion, nurturing a healthy relationship between your child and their food involves more than just making nutritious choices. It’s about promoting a balanced approach to eating by recognising hunger cues, avoiding restrictive eating habits, fostering a positive body image, and respecting signals of fullness.

As parents, your attitudes and behaviours significantly influence your child’s eating habits. Avoid negative talk about body image, don’t enforce unnecessary eating rules, and refrain from using food as a reward or consolation. Establishing a flexible routine around meals and allowing children to self-regulate their intake encourages them to trust their bodies.

Following Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility model can reduce mealtime stress and support a healthier eating environment. Parents decide the what, when, and where of feeding, while children decide whether and how much to eat.

Breaking generational patterns and myths about food requires mindfulness and patience. Reflect on your experiences and aim to provide a positive environment free from negative connotations and restrictions. By doing so, you can help your child develop a healthy, intuitive relationship with food, supporting their overall well-being.