A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

How to Raise a Child Without an Eating Disorder

If only it were this simple.

If I were writing this for a glossy magazine, this would be a perfect title. First it would grab your attention: what anxious parent wouldn’t want to read this? Having nabbed you, it would then provide you with a peppy list of “Do’s and Don’ts” such as “Do encourage your child to get plenty of exercise” and “Don’t load up on unhealthy snacks.” It would pepper in some encouraging statistics and you’d finish reading the article feeling newly empowered to make the right choices for your child’s future health, both mental and physical.

But it wouldn’t take long for reality to interfere with your optimism and resolve. If raising healthy, happy eaters were this simple, no child or adult would suffer from eating disorders, nor would these illnesses be rising at the steady rate they have been for decades. If only a simple prescriptive list worked, we would conquer not just eating disorders but also obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and all number of serious weight-related problems. No one wants to be grossly overweight, nor does anyone want to suffer from mental illness. Why then do we keep addressing these issues as if they were as straightforward to resolve as that evergreen conundrum of choosing the perfect outfit to transition from day to night? (And are there really so many women who need to sprint directly from the office to a cocktail affair?) Even the redoubtable New York Times regularly publishes articles about eating disorders—in its “Styles” section, as if anorexia were a lifestyle choice.

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The truth, of course, is that no one has figured out how to prevent eating disorders, just as no one has cracked the code on preventing soaring obesity rates in children and adults. There is, in some communities, a growing awareness that choices far beyond the individual level are gravely affecting the rise of weight-related illnesses. Government food policy, the lobbying and advertising muscle of agribusiness, the explosion of cheap processed foods, and media promotion of unrealistic body types are all factors that need to be addressed far more publicly. There is increasing evidence to support treating weight as a public health issue rather than as a personal choice—though the public hue and cry over Bloomberg’s soda initiative shows what a long way we still have to go in this regard.

So while I think it’s best you crumple up and discard every prescriptive article on what to feed or not feed your child, there is a crucial choice parents can make: change the conversation you have about food, with yourself and with your children. This is a somewhat fuzzy recommendation, I realize, and one that doesn’t provide the instant gratification of those old Do’s and Don’ts, but it’s a far more effective way to raise that “healthy eater” you’re told you should be. Try to break all those bad habits of discussing weight and guilty feelings about food, at least in front of your kids. Try not to exert dictatorial control over every crumb that goes into your child’s mouth. Try not to believe that cutting out a food is the answer to healthful living. Try to model enjoyment of food, as best you can, and most important of all, try to let it be, simply, food. Does this guarantee you a "healthy eater"? Of course not—no more than a happy home life or solid education guarantees a child will always be trouble-free. It does mean you're creating a healthy relationship to food for your child, based on stable, parent-modeled attitudes, rather than laying that foundation on the slippery and ever-shifting ground of food fads and conventional wisdom. Depending on you, this lesson may be easy or it may be very hard work; depending on your family and life circumstances, it may take many different forms. But we owe it to our children to engage with this very real problem in a meaningful way.

What I cooked this week and last (lots of holiday dishes!):

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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