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Don’t Pass On Your Bad Eating Habits

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Your relationship with food can have a huge influence on your children, so what can you do to ensure you’re leading by example?

Don’t kid yourself – your children are watching everything you eat. This is not a bad thing if you generally enjoy food, eat balanced meals, indulge in the occasional chocolate bar without guilt and consistently reach for nutritious snacks. But what if you eat poorly or your relationship with food is difficult what impact can it have on your child’s eating habits if you skip meals, pass on the green vegetables or reach for that third donut when you’re stressed? Here, experts explain what you need to do to ensure your kids grow up with the healthiest eating habits.

The ‘Do as I say, Not as I do’ attitude

As your children’s primary role models, it’s up to us to set the standard. Mothers who led by example when it came to making good food choices were found to have children with healthier diets, according to a recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Description: “You can’t expect them to eat their fruit and vegetables if they can see that you’re not snacking on these foods during the day.”

“You can’t expect them to eat their fruit and vegetables if they can see that you’re not snacking on these foods during the day.”

“You need to practice what you preach,” says advanced accredited practicing dietitian Melanie McGrice. “Kids are perceptive. You can’t expect them to eat their fruit and vegetables if they can see that you’re not snacking on these foods during the day.”

The same goes for drinking soft drink when you’re serving them water or milk, wolfing down meals while telling them to eat slowly, or insisting they sit down to eat while you’re constantly eating on the run.

“Parents will often say to children, ‘Eat at the table and be good’ and then they’ll have their dinner later in front of the TV,” says McGrice. “But your children are more likely to sit at the tablet and eat well if you eat with them.”

In the end, giving out mixed messages will only make it harder for your children to adopt healthier habits and keep them up in the long-term. It’ll also undermine any positive food attitudes you do model. It’s simple, really. If you want your children to sit down, enjoy dinner and eat their peas, sit down, enjoy dinner and eat your peas, too.

Create ‘calm’ around food

It’s a parent’s job to model healthy behaviours and provide healthy food choices, but also to “establish an environment that’s calm and settled around food,” says Dr Rick Kausman, a director of The Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders and author of If Not Dieting, Then What? (Allen & Unwin, $29.95). This isn’t easy when you have food anxieties or diet demons left over from your own childhood.

“As a dietitian, I see adults who say, ‘I was yelled at and told I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until I ate everything on my plate. Now I feel like I have to eat everything’,” says McGrice.

To help our children avoid such counterproductive messages, we can start by changing the language we use around food. “If we talk about food using words such as ‘junk’ or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or if we tell a child ‘you’ve been naughty today’ for eating a high-sugar or high-fat food, they will almost always fell like they’re doing something wrong,” says Kausman.

He advises calling a high-fat or high-sugar food a ‘sometimes’ food. And when you’re eating ‘sometimes’ foods together, make sure to take pleasure in it, he adds. “If you savour a ‘sometimes’ food, rather than stuff it down quickly or guiltily, then it’s impossible to eat too much. Your children will pick up on the amount you’re eating and, just as importantly, that you’re enjoying it, so it’s a positive behaviour to model.”

Don’t insist they clean their plate

Many parents do it, but forcing kids to ‘eat it all up’ can potentially affect their appetite and weight in the long-term. “The problem with insisting children eat everything on their plate is that it gets them into the habit of not listening to their bodies, which often leads them to eating more than their body is actually asking for,” says Kausman.

Description: We need to make sure the portion sizes are reasonable and appropriate for their age

We need to make sure the portion sizes are reasonable and appropriate for their age

When left to decide themselves, most kids get it right regarding their fullness signals, although we need to make sure the portion sizes are reasonable and appropriate for their age.

There also have to be guidelines and limits on what they can eat between meals, says McGrice. “For instance, a child can’t say ‘I’m not going to eat any of my main meal’, but then be allowed to eat chips after dinner. The only thing that should be available after dinner if they decide they’re hungry is the leftovers from their meal.”

Temper your control issues

Often parents who are struggling with their own weight can overly restrict their child’s food intake or completely cut out food groups in a bid to protect them from obesity. Other parents, in a well-meaning attempt to promote a super-healthy environment, try to keep their children from developing a taste for sweet, salty, processed or fatty food by eliminating them altogether. Think of the kid at the birthday party who isn’t allowed a piece of cake or the one who’s terrified of ingesting artificial colours.

Description: Many parents who they put too much pressure on their children to eat in a way that’s just not normal in the type of environment we’re living in

Many parents who they put too much pressure on their children to eat in a way that’s just not normal in the type of environment we’re living in

“When a kid is not able to live like a kid, you risk finding wrappers under their bed,” says Kausman. “They’re now sneaking food because they haven’t been allowed to have food other children eat. I’ve seen many parents who thought they were doing the right thing but, inadvertently, they put too much pressure on their children to eat in a way that’s just not normal in the type of environment we’re living in. depending on a child’s personality style or genetics, having a fear associated with certain foods can then tip them into disordered eating or an eating disorder.”

Rather than banning foods, parents need to restore balance by explaining why eating a range of healthy foods is important. “Explain why some foods are better choices than others,” says McGrice. “For instance, ‘A piece of fruit is going to help you concentrate better at school while most processed foods containing artificial colours can affect your mood. It’s not that you can’t eat them, it’s just that we want most of our diet to be full of these healthy foods which give us the nutrition we need’.”

 

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