It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of how our culture consistently tells us that we aren’t good enough unless we’re working on our weight and appearance — as if the most important thing we should do is try to “fix” our bodies.
Quite often, people ask me “How do you help your kids develop healthy habits?” I get it. In our country, “health” looks like today’s most popular diets (even when they don’t call themselves diets). No wonder people are confused!
So, how do I teach healthy habits without it being “diet-y”?
I’m sharing some of my secrets in this post, which I’m writing with financial support from Nestlé’s United for Healthier Kids program.
The United for Healthier Kids program is a movement designed to help parents raise healthier and happier kids by encouraging healthy eating, drinking and lifestyle habits for children 4-12 years old.
One thing I really like about the program is that it is designed to be tailored for families based on where they live – it’s currently been adopted in 10 countries, including.
- Middle East: https://www.u4hk-me.com/
- Mexico: https://uxns.com.mx/
- Pakistan: https://www.unitedforhealthierkids.pk/
- Central America: https://www.uxnscentroamerica.com/
- Brazil: https://www.unidosporcriancas.com.br/pagina-inicial
- Egypt: https://www.u4hk.com.eg
1. My definition of health includes mind and body. It’s really about well-being.
Body image problems start young. As young as age 1 kids become aware of their bodies in this world and messages they receive, especially the critical ones, can get stuck if they go unchallenged. By the age of 10, 81% of children are already afraid of being fat (as if fat is the worst thing someone could be) and 41% of 1st-3rd grade girls already want to be thinner.
[source: Feb, 2017 http://www.statisticbrain.com/body-image-statistics/]
This is not “OK” to me. My answer is to not judge anyone’s body. Full on acceptance no matter what. I teach my two girls, 3 and 5, body trust, body respect, and body kindness — of their own and other’s bodies.
In our family, we believe that mind and body health is a gift we nurture. It’s up to us to choose foods we like, movement we like, and discover what feels good to us.
My kids know “all bodies are good bodies” and I believe it’s the best approach that helps all kids feel good about their bodies and want to take care of them, which is essential in pursuing good health in my opinion. Plus, it’s in line with the recent American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines that specifically advises you do not put kids on diets.
2. We Don’t Label Food as “Good” and “Bad” and We Don’t Call Ourselves “Good” or “Bad” for Eating Said Food
It’s only a matter of time before one of my kids mutters something about “good” or “bad” related to food. Right now, they consider Nutella a food group so I’m good for awhile (I think!) But when the day inevitably comes, I’m ready.
In our house, food is just food. We have a fruit bowl on our kitchen table that serves as a colorful decoration and an easy way to grab a snack when you’re hungry. To drink, we serve mostly water and milk and it’s not a fight.
They love desserts and they understand that we decide when it’s being served. (This really does work as long as you don’t serve desserts they love once in a blue moon.)
They have grown up expecting to see balanced meals. We’re pretty consistent offering fruits and veggies at meals and sometimes they eat them up and ask for extras and sometimes they don’t. I have learned to be patient with them. Also, if I’m being honest, there are meals when I don’t want the veggies either! Why should they? The most important thing is that I’m giving them the chance to try them regularly.
3. We Cook Together
Hands down my favorite way to spend time with my girls is cooking together. Yes, it is messy and it takes way longer than it should. But, it matters to me. I know we are making memories.
Plus, they have an interest in trying new foods when they join me in the kitchen. Like when Audrey asked to try the “black pasta” (yes, squid ink pasta!) or when she picked up the can of sardines in the grocery store and said “let’s make this”. We ended up blending with cream cheese for a veggies dip and making pasta primavera with the sardines in the sauce. Suffice it to say, sometimes they are more adventurous than me!
I feel like when we cook together, it doesn’t really matter if it’s roasted broccoli or homemade apple pie. We are enjoying the experience and the food. I think that’s a healthy relationship with food.
4. We Practice Mindful Eating
Last, but not least, is mindfulness. I cannot express enough the importance of mindfulness to all people. When I worked on being mindful, I was able to connect to my body. I was able to build self-compassion and self-acceptance. Mindfulness is how I healed myself from diets (specifically by using mindfulness skills to build intuitive eating skills – learn more about that here.)
Mindfulness is simply paying attention on purpose without judgment. Through mindfulness, I have taught my girls how to grow “interoceptive awareness” (the awareness of what’s happening inside their bodies).
We use the “gas tank” analogy as a way to sense their level of hunger or fullness. This is not them asking me to say “yes” or “no” it’s a check in for their body.
I’ll ask them, do you feel empty in your belly? They are really honest. Sometimes they’ll say, “yes” and other times “not really, but this is so good and I want more.” Either way, if they say they have comfortable room, I trust them. This is also a good question when I notice they aren’t eating too much and I’m worried they just want to move on to the next thing. Turns out, they aren’t “starving” – they just aren’t hungry!
During our meals, we eat at a table with no devices (except maybe some background music). We savor our food. The girls will do thumbs up, down, or sideways to express their preferences. They aren’t judged for their honest answers. It helps me find motivation to add new foods or change up my easy menu items.
This is the part of our family’s structure I advocate for the most when it comes to “healthy, happy” kids. This is where your kids can truly blossom to a place that doesn’t need the food rules, food fears, or food policing. Most of all, kids need to learn about their bodies and their place in the world.