How to Create Healthy Eating Habits for Your Kid

Like most challenging feats of child-rearing, raising kids with a healthy relationship to food starts at home. While that may sound like yet another thing on your plate, what it really means is modeling good behavior — which can end up benefitting you, too.

By Dana Epstein Altman
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The facts

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), children of mothers who are overly concerned about their weight are at increased risk for modeling their unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. Worse, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any identified mental disorder. To help parents navigate this minefield, we sought the expert advice of three registered dieticians — all of whom are moms of teens.

CHILD NUTRITION VS. ADULT NUTRITION

“Raising a healthy kid means understanding that throughout childhood and adolescence, our kids are growing and developing and require proper nutrition to do so,” explains Lisa Brown, MS, RDN, CDN, who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders at her NYC private practice, Brown & Medina Nutrition and is the mom of an 11- and 14-year-old. “Kids don’t have the same health needs as adults and should not be expected to exhibit the same restraint or desire for healthy foods as a health-conscious parent does,” she says. Brown takes a “non-diet” approach in her own home, which she says is non-negotiable. What does that look like? Maintaining a weight-neutral, health-focused attitude toward food. Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD, and mom to 5 teenagers ranging from 14-18, agrees. “With kids, the focus should always be around healthy eating, and never ever about weight management or dieting,” she says.

MODEL BODY POSITIVITY AND GOOD EATING HABITS FOR YOUR CHILD

“Kids see and hear everything,” says Keri Glassman, MS, RDN, CDN, mom of a 14- and 17-year-old.  “Actions always speak louder than words. You can’t tell them to do something, while you’re doing something else entirely — it sends mixed messages.” Which is why Glassman is a big advocate of sitting down to eat with her kids. A few of her tried-and-true tips include enjoying a healthy breakfast together (avocado toast and egg scrambles are family favorites), putting out raw vegetables for all to graze on, and making it a habit to serve two vegetables with dinner. Glassman also warns against negative self-talk. “You can’t expect your kids to develop a positive body image if they hear you saying, ‘I look awful in this’or ‘Ugh, I’ve gained so much weight’.”

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JUST SAY NO TO FOOD POLICING

For most kids, eating well is part of a selfcare process that develops over time, which is why Brown recommends that rules around food be more about parenting, and less about food. “Encourage behaviors that support healthy eating habits,” she says. “For example, avoid mindless eating in front of screens and aim to have family meals more frequently.” At her home, Brown limits eating to the kitchen or other designated dining areas; bedrooms are off limits. 

Zuckerbrot adds that all teens really want in every aspect of their lives is empowerment and autonomy. “If you try to control their intake, they’re most likely going to rebel,” she says. Instead, she follows a balanced, “everything in moderation” approach in her house where foods are never labeled as “good” or “bad.” She cautions that an all-or-nothing mentality can set kids up for disordered eating, including restricting and binging. 

COOKING WITH KIDS: ENCOURAGE PARTICIPATION IN NUTRITION

Zuckerbrot points out that roughly 70% of a child’s weekly meals are supervised by parents since breakfast and dinner are typically eaten at home. One of the most impactful things she does with her own teenagers is involving them in that process. “Rather than buy the foods you assume they’ll like, take them to the supermarket so they can help make some of their own choices. It’s a small act of empowerment that helps them continue their healthy relationship to food,” she says. Her kids also enjoy helping out in the kitchen with meal planning and cooking. “It gives them a real sense of pride to know they contributed to a family meal. That ownership makes them feel good about themselves and, in turn, their relationship to food.

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A LITTLE EMPATHY GOES A LONG AWAY

As children become tweens and teens, their bodies are in a constant state of change, which can cause insecurities and, quite often, discomfort. If your kid shares feelings about his or her body, Brown urges parents to do one simple thing: listen. “As parents, our tendency is to want to fix everything but usually kids just want to be heard,” she says. “Don’t try to trouble shoot by sharing your own weight management methods for their struggle. Be empathetic as they go through the awkward stages of puberty, assuring them that these changes are perfectly normal, and most importantly, they are not alone.”

WHEN TO CALL FOR BACK UP

If you suspect that your child is exhibiting unusual eating behavior or patterns, Brown recommends speaking with your child’s pediatrician; if he or she is not fully equipped to discuss what may be going on, seek professional care from someone who is. “Most clinicians experienced with this population can assess a child’s relationship to food, weight and body image during an introductory session,” she says. Zuckerbrot adds, “It’s critical to remember that any type of eating disorder is a disease and should be treated as such.”

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