A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Modeling Healthy Eating for Children

Pulling back the curtain on parents' bad eating habits.

Last week, I wrote about the steady erosion of institutional trust in America, and about how that strands parents, leaving them unsure of whom to trust to help them feed their children the right way. It's equally important for children to have someone they can trust to act in their best interests, and feeding is an area where this is especially true. The way so many parents eat and talk about food lets children down over and over again.

Children trust their parents by default. Unlike adults, who can decide whether or not someone is trustworthy, children are hard-wired to trust their parents—they have no choice—and that relationship becomes a template for the rest of their lives. The effects of untrustworthy or inconsistent parenting on children is increasingly acknowledged and understood, from the children of alcoholic or mentally unstable parents to those who grow up without parents at all. Yet one area where children of even healthy, highly functional parents are often let down is food and eating, and this is too rarely discussed. we have become so caught up in what we eat that we've forgotten it's just as important how we eat.

Food is, or should be, a part of family life. Children can't feed themselves without adult help, whether that's in buying the food, cooking, or, for infants, actually feeding them. Eating is and always has been, by definition, a social activity. Once we become adults, it's easy to forget this, as we eat hunched over our desks, eyes glued to computer screens, or gobble up a stir-fry for one in front of the TV. But when we become parents, the social importance of eating reemerges, and it seems like an excellent time to begin examining how we can be more trustworthy as parents. If you want your children to grow up to be healthy eaters—and by this I mean with a healthy relationship to food, not merely eating healthy food, which is what many parents think they want—there are a few important steps you can take.

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The first suggestion I have may sound obvious, but I suspect there's a very high number of people to whom this applies: The most important change you can make to help your children be healthy eaters (by my definition of the term) is to eat with your children. That's right: Sit down with them and eat. Don't nibble an apple or sip a juice smoothie while you harangue them to eat their whole-wheat pasta with kale: You need to eat, too. There's been so much emphasis recently on family meals (how can the educated classes resist research showing family meals to be a high predictor of academic success?) but how many parents, having painstakingly re-jiggered their work schedules to be home for the all-important Family Dinner, forget that they are supposed to eat, as well? So many children these days grow up watching parents (especially mothers) not eat; is it any wonder they grow confused about the place of food in our lives? Children watch and learn from us, and if what they learn is that Mommy or Daddy doesn't eat, trouble lies ahead.

My next suggestion is stolen from a preeminent modern-day sage, Douglas Adams: DON'T PANIC. When your child does or says weird things about food, stay calm and don't assume the worst. If a child says something odd about their food or weight and a parent picks it up and runs with it, that is only going to confirm and exacerbate the behavior rather than stemming it.

Finally, and this may be the toughest suggestion of all to follow, don't apply your own anxieties or concerns about weight to your child. A slightly chubby seven-year-old is not inevitably going to grow into an obese adult, and signing this chubby kid up for twenty-five different sports isn't going to help him either. Growing children pass through so many different stages of weight and body shape—try to resist the temptation to view them through the prism of adult concerns on weight. Comments on a child's "figure" are minefields, whether or not you mean them to be: don't talk about a child's body shape or weight other than to tell them how beautiful they look. I once watched a friend fall into bulimic behavior when she overheard someone commenting on her weight, and she was a young adult at the time; parents' words to children carry far greater weight.

We all know that modeling behavior for our children is important, but too often the insanity surrounding weight and food in our society blinds us to the importance of modelling healthy eating behavior for our children. To raise a generation of healthy eaters, we need to make a radical shift in our own actions and words. It's not always about what we eat, but about how we do it.

What I cooked this week:

 

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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