We live in a time where diet culture is palpable everywhere. We live in a world where fat is shamed and food is scrutinized, and children are hearing it. Children are being fed information at home, at school, from social media and from TV shows and its time we start correcting it. Kids are born intuitive. They are born to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. They honor their taste preferences and they don’t judge food. As adults it’s our jobs to keep that going, not to mess it up. Here's how you can help.
Ask about hunger and fullness before judging portion sizes.
Stay away from “don’t eat that much!” and bring in the conversation of “hunger and fullness.” Ask questions prompting children to think about how their bodies feel, like “how hungry is your belly right now?” If your class just had lunch and a child wants more food, instead of brushing it off, ask what the child had. Maybe mom or dad forgot to pack lunch or didn’t pack enough. Children are growing. They may actually be hungry for more food than lunch and one snack during the school day. It’s a shame that they can’t have the freedom to eat when they notice signs of hunger, but as a teacher or parent you can facilitate the conversation. A child may also report feelings of hunger or wanting a snack, when they really want attention. This can be tricky to navigate but honing in on prompting the child to answer questions about how their body physically feels can give you good insight and ability to distinguish hunger from boredom, anxiety or attention-seeking behavior.
2. Don’t make food the reward in the classroom.
It’s important to motivate children, but we don’t need to bribe or reward kids with food. I can understand that it does take a bit of motivation to help children to stay on course with a project, subject or task they aren’t into, but motivating kids with food is risky. Bribe or reward them with time doing an activity that they enjoy. Honor good behavior with something other than food. Tying behavior to candy is confusing to children and creates food rules along the lines of "I can only have (insert food / candy here), if I am good." Whereas children should be able to eat what they crave (yes within reason and parental guidance) whether or not they excelled that day.
3. Don’t bash your body in front of kids.
As an adult, you are the role model. You know kids are sponges. They absorb all the things you say and do. They hear all the times you degrade your body or judge your food, even if it's stated as a joke! Be careful with how you talk about your own food and your own body in front of them. Encouraging children to see their worth and their value in other assets than physical assets is truly helpful and best to be modeled by none other than you!
4. Stay away from “good food, bad food” when teaching about food
Yes, it’s important to teach children about nutrition. It’s important to teach kids about the benefits of fruits and vegetables. It’s important to teach children about the functions of food. The reality is, that all foods have a function. Desserts function in the form of pleasure and satiety, they also function most of the time as carbohydrates and fat. The body needs a variety of foods. Teaching children about variety, creating the idea that so many different foods have so many wonderful benefits, honoring hunger and fullness, learning to taste food and be present with it – these are the lessons children need to hear. They do not need to hear “fat makes you fat” because honestly, when you’re listening to your body – there’s not one specific kind of food or macronutrient that has that power.
5. Call cupcakes, “cupcakes” not “treats.”
Sweet dessert foods are delicious. They are tasty. They are fun. They are yummy. They are not something we have to “deserve” they are not something that should be glorified into the term “treat.” When the label “treat” accompanies anything, it puts it on a pedestal. It makes the “treat” seem like something we can’t have all the time. It put’s charge on it. That messes with a child’s intuition. The more you are told you can’t have something, the more you want it.
Let’s start this school year off on a non diet culture foot. You have the power to help support children in a world that’s filled with harmful messages.
If you want more information or insight on how to communicate with children about food, please reach out. As a dietitian and a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, it is my passion and my goal to help people both young and old to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.