Encouraging Children to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food: What Does the Research Say?

BY: Tosha Woods Smith, PhD

DATE: July 27, 2016

Raising children who have positive, healthy relationships with food can seem to be a tall order, especially for parents who have suffered from an eating disorder. What can parents do to help children cultivate a healthy relationship with food? Research in this area is still growing, but there are a few strategies that have been identified, which may help parents encourage their children toward a peaceful relationship with food.

However, even as we discuss these strategies, keep in mind that though parents may influence a child’s relationship with food, parents can never entirely shape their children’s views on food. Eating disorders are complex and are influenced by myriad factors, many of which are outside a parent’s control. Although help for parents with eating disorders is beginning to emerge, it is entirely possible for parents to do everything “right” and their children still develop an eating disorder at some point in their life. Additionally, a parent with a history of anorexia nervosa is likely to face quite different challenges than a parent with binge-eating disorder, so no set of guidelines will apply to everyone. The guidelines we present below are general guidelines based on the scientific evidence that many parents may find helpful.

Parents can be a positive influence on our children and do our best to set them up for success with food, even if we can’t guarantee success. The research in this area isn’t conclusive, but these are some suggestions that may help:

  1. Do not hide or otherwise prevent access to certain foods within the household

If a parent buys a highly desirable food (chips, cookies, etc.), but then prevents access to that food either by hiding it or restricting a child’s access to that food, this can create an environment in which a child understands certain foods to be “off limits” or “forbidden.” This is what researchers call “restrictive feeding” and it often sets the stage for disordered eating as children overeat these “forbidden foods” when they are not under the direct supervision of their parents.

For instance, in one study, researchers gave young children (aged 4-6 years) unlimited access to a range of highly desirable snack foods after eating a standard lunch (so they weren’t hungry). Children whose parents scored higher on measures of restrictive feeding both ate more food and felt guilty about eating that food relative to children whose parents practiced less restrictive feeding (reference). Several other studies have found an association between parental restriction and overeating in children.

What can parents do to avoid this “forbidden food” dynamic? Make sure that all of the foods that are in the house are fair game for everyone in the family to eat.

  1. When talking about food, talk about health and vitality rather than weight

Food is a daily factor in a healthy, vibrant life. Therefore, it is necessary for parents to discuss food with their children, and to be intentional about the words that they use to describe food and their interaction with it. When discussing food, it is important to avoid terms such as “good” and “bad” food, and to focus discussions on how healthful food supports a lovable life rather than how food does or does not influence body weight.

Research has examined the impact of food-related conversations between parents and children. For instance, one large research study of 2,700 children and their parents found that adolescents whose parents had discussed food with them as it related to the child’s actual or potential weight revealed that those children were more likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors and binge eating behaviors than adolescents whose parents only discussed healthful eating with them (reference). This particular study underscores the value of healthy eating discussions, as the researchers also found that when parents discussed healthy eating independent of weight concerns, their children were even less likely to engage in unhealthy dieting practices and binge eating even than children who reported no parental discussions about food.

As parents, it is easy to assume that our children don’t listen to us, but research suggests that they are listening, and that how we talk to them about food really matters.

  1. Eat the same things and eat together.

Research consistently shows that the best way to steer children toward a healthy relationship with food is for parents to model a healthy relationship with food. This can be especially challenging for parents who have struggled with disordered eating, but it is possible to steer your children toward health even as you work on achieving and maintaining your own peace with food.

Negatively judging your own or others’ eating habits in front of your children or eating very different meals than those you feed your children (or frequently not eating with your children) can negatively influence how your children view food. Of course if someone in the family has a condition that limits or dictates what they eat (e.g., celiac disease), then why they have to eat differently from the family should be discussed in a matter-of-fact and practical way focusing on medical necessity.

Involving children in the selection and preparation of foods, eating a variety of foods with your children, and serving children the same foods that you yourself eat during family meals are all good strategies for cultivating a positive collective relationship with food. During meals together, it can also be helpful to discuss positive features of the foods that you are sharing, saying things like, “Do you taste how sweet that carrot is?” or helping young children tune into what they’re eating by saying things like, “Take a bite and close your eyes – tell me what is the first thing you taste? Is it crunchy or creamy?” These small practices can help children pay attention to and appreciate the food that you’re all eating together. Additionally, modeling competency in moderation of highly desired foods like dessert foods can set your child up for success in doing the same.

As parents, we cannot be entirely responsible for our children’s attitudes toward food, but perhaps these strategies can support us in our efforts to help our children view food as something that powers our lives, allows us to do amazing things with our brains and bodies, and brings us together for meals that we share.

Bon appetit!