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The Eating Journey, Nutrition, Food Parenting

Food with thought: Encouraging a healthy relationship with food.

By Diana K Rice, Nutrition, LLC, RD, LD, CLEC

Starting solids poses such a challenge because we’re not only trying to sort through all of the available information and opinions on the topic, but also fit a brand new feeding and food preparation routine into our already busy lives. And, in the hustle to get this done, we often forget the most important element of introducing our children to food: Helping them foster a healthy relationship with food for life.

Many parents that I work with as a pediatric dietitian believe that a healthy relationship with food means that their kids like to eat all the conventionally “healthy” stuff: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc. and understand that “junk” or “fun” foods should only be eaten in moderation. And while that touches on the truth, there’s a lot more to understand about it: 

A healthy relationship with food is: 

Food neutrality: The child doesn’t view any food as ‘bad,’ whether it’s broccoli or marshmallows. All foods can play a positive role in our diets, whether through nourishing our bodies, minds or spirits.

Trusting their intuition: Humans are the only animal on the planet that rely on external cues to decide what to eat. But when we raise our kids to trust what their bodies are telling them – How hungry are they? What does full feel like? What sounds satisfying right now? What does it feel like when our food choices aren’t balanced? – they’ll be resilient against messages from food advertising, diet culture and peers. They’ll preserve their innate sense of what to eat and when and choose foods to help their bodies thrive.

Autonomy over their bodies and appetites: Children with a healthy relationship with food understand that they are the ones who choose what goes into their bodies. That’s why ‘you provide, they decide’ is so important to keep in mind when feeding. They’ll learn the ability to self-regulate and stop eating when they’re full.

A positive attitude about the healthy stuff: Our kids won’t believe there’s anything to dislike about vegetables if we remain neutral about them ourselves. Indeed, they’ll want to eat a diet full of healthy foods because they’ll enjoy the taste and know it helps their bodies feel good.

A positive attitude about the fun stuff: Children who have a healthy relationship with food will generally not go overboard with foods we typically consider ‘fun’ or ‘junk,’” but not because they believe it’s not good for them. Rather, it’s because they know that too much of those foods don’t feel good in their bodies. And there will be exceptions – Halloweent, birthday parties, etc., when they do eat a lot of the ‘un’ stuff, and these will become learning experiences for them.

Separating food from weight: Of course, as parents, we know that it’s the foods that our children eat that help them develop strong, healthy bodies. But it’s actually important that we don’t emphasize this too much to our kids and instead trust that their innate appetites will do the work of fueling their bodies. Children are black and white thinkers and putting too much attention on the ‘food equals growth’” message can lead kids to worry about the consequences of not eating exactly the right foods.

What you can do right now

If helping your kids develop each of these elements of a healthy relationship with food as you start solids seems like a tall order, don’t despair! Remember that helping your kids foster a healthy relationship with food is an ongoing process that will happen over the course of their entire childhood. Here’s what you can do right now to get on the right track: 

Veggies first and veggies often. This will help them learn to love the flavors of the healthy foods they need to thrive. 

You provide, they decide. This approach helps you both learn the dynamic that will support a positive feeding relationship.

Provide consistency and routine. Just like with bedtime, in order to learn to eat well, kids need a regular structure that you can provide. Eating in the same place, at the same time day after day will provide this for your child.

Eat family meals and model a healthy relationship with food yourself. In addition to contributing to your routine, modeling the above elements of a healthy relationship with food yourself will give your child a positive example to follow.

Your baby’s feeding journey is your feeding journey as well. It’s not uncommon for parents to re-evaluate their own relationships with food once they become responsible for feeding their child. If putting the above in place feels extremely challenging, consider reaching out to a therapist or dietitian trained in intuitive eating to help you through the process.

Disclaimer: The information provided is the opinion of Good Feeding, it has not been evaluated by healthcare professionals, and is for educational purposes only. Before starting any new foods or feeding practices, please consult your baby's healthcare professional.

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