The Importance of Building your Child’s Positive Relationship with Food

Written by: Kaitlin Cushman, Nutrition M.S. and In-House Nutritionist at Healthy Height

Children need good and balanced nutrition to support their growth and development - but how can we teach children good habits that will carry over into adulthood? Parents have the important role of shaping a child’s diet and giving them the knowledge and confidence to make good choices when they are left to choose on their own.

The following are some guidelines parents can use to help shape their child’s positive relationship with food.

Introduce new foods in a hands on way

Some children may experience fear of new foods - which in some instances can lead to picky eating. Parents can build their child’s confidence and expand their dietary horizons by introducing new foods as a family cooking in the kitchen. Edwena Kennedy, Registered Dietitian, shares with us “Creating in the kitchen not only gives your child a sense of pride and accomplishment, but it creates a positive experience around food!”. Children can see, touch, and taste new foods with a parent - which creates a fun and positive time for family bonding.

Kennedy continues, “Your child may have not had enough experience with a food yet to get them to a point where they willingly want to eat it. And even more than that...usually for picky eaters... most of those experiences haven't been positive ones (always hearing "try this" "one more bite" etc.). So the first step is creating some positive, fun, no-pressure food experiences and kicking those not-so-great memories to the curb.”

Get started with a fun snacktivity like dipped apples or simply have your kiddo add his or her smoothie ingredients to the blender.

If picky eating is already a struggle, this interaction can happen outside the kitchen or dining room, as suggested by Feeding Specialist, Catherine Callahan, “Playing with food away from the table (without the pressure to eat) offers your child the opportunity to look at, touch, smell, and (hopefully) taste challenging foods while having fun. De-sensitizing with a smile = success!” Catherine recommends this type of “Food Play” should be practiced with children who have feeding difficulties at least once per week.

Don’t use food to alter behavior

Emotional eating is quite common among adults, whether they be positive or negative emotions - it is a habit that often develops in childhood, but can be avoided. “Eating feelings” or emotional eating is usually born out of associating eating food with reward or punishment.

To prevent these habits in children, parents should avoid using food as a bribe or reward to change behavior.

Ashley Smith, a Pediatric RD suggests that parents “don’t use food to manage or calm your child when he/she is upset, fussy, angry, hurt, or bored. This can create habits of emotional eating long term.” As children reach adulthood and have more control over their eating choices, they can struggle with weight issues if eating as a reward becomes a frequent habit. Additionally, if a parent always forces a child to ‘clean their plate to leave the table’, a child may eat beyond being full and have tendencies to overeat as they get older.

Don’t label foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’

While there are foods that are objectively are more nutritious or healthy, we want to avoid denoting foods to children as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. Foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients should not be labeled ‘bad’, but instead denoted as foods that should be eaten less frequently. Parents should be demonstrating balanced eating by consistently serving healthy foods, limiting unhealthy snacks, and role modeling portion control.

Smith highlights two important things when it comes to creating healthy eating habits in children in her article about parent feeding styles:

  1. Role Modeling: “Demonstrate a healthy relationship with food in your food choices and eating behaviors. This will encourage your child to mimic such behaviors from a young age through adolescence and into adulthood.”
  2. Managing Food Choices: “Don’t enforce strict limitations on your child’s access to foods or opportunities to consume those foods. This is usually done to control child’s intake of unhealthy foods but instead, it can create an increased interest or obsession with such foods and greater tendency to overeat for the child.”

Consistent and focused meal times

Family meal time is important for families to be together and connect. While picky eating or other feeding difficulties can make meal time stressful, the goal should be to reduce anxiety and stress at the table as much as possible. Some of the ways we can reduce stress at meal times are:

  • Consistent meal times: children don’t need to worry about what time meals will be served - the age of a child can help determine appropriate time and frequency of meal times.
  • Limit excess snacking: if kids are snacking often, they may not be hungry at meal time - which can cause stress if the child isn’t hungry and won’t eat their dinner.
  • Avoid distracted eating: keep TV and other electronics off and away from the table - distracted meal times often leads to over-eating or none at all.
  • Rachel Rothman, a Pediatric Dietitian notes that “Children thrive on predictability and routine. Most toddlers and preschoolers do best when they are offered food every 2 to 3.5 hours, and 3 to 4 hours for older children. When you set times for your children so they know when food will be available, you help create a routine throughout the day, and maximize their hunger and satiety.”

    “Think of eating like a gas tank: if we’re constantly filling up or topping off that gas tank (I.E. grazing throughout the day), we aren’t allowing it to empty (digest our food) and then fill up (feel hungry) again” Rothman continues in her Healthy Height article on mealtime changes for picky eaters.

    Balance is key

    The goal is happy and healthy kids who can manage their own food choices when they get older. With some of the practices outlined above, parents should be able to build their child’s foundation to have a positive relationship with food. In the meantime, if you have a picky eater lacking a balanced diet or kiddo that is struggling to get the quality nutrition they need, consider adding a supplement like Healthy Height.

    Our shake mix helps provide the right combination of protein, vitamins and minerals to fuel a child’s growing body, so you can rest assured your kiddo is getting the nutrients they need while working through feeding issues or learning to love protein, fruits and veggies. Healthy Height’s versatile powder can be served as a drink with meals, or even added to your kiddo’s favorite recipe. Find growth-boosting recipe ideas on our blog to get started.

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