While we all want to raise thoughtful eaters with healthy food habits, the line between helpful and harmful advice and rules can be hard to find. Whether or not you can personally relate to trending “almond mom” phrases like Are you really hungry or just bored?, it’s pushed many of us to take a hard look at how we approach family meals and talk about food with our own kids.
“Parents can intentionally or unintentionally pass on unhealthy eating beliefs to their kids because that’s how they were raised,” says Elise Museles, a certified eating, psychology & nutrition expert, and author of Food Story. “It might come from a place of caring or in the name of health, but disordered eating comes from having unsustainable standards and being overly consumed with being healthy.”
On the flip side, parents shouldn’t feel shame because they’re health conscious. It’s our job to teach our kids about the health relationship between food, body, and mind and to ultimately make healthy food choices. So how do we do that effectively without worrying we’ll accidentally sound like an almond mom? Museles recommends adopting these healthy eating practices–plus reminding yourself that food choices don’t have to be perfect at every meal or snack along the way.
Focus on positive food messages
Take a step back to make sure that the only messages you’re passing along to your kids are those that position food in a positive way. Museles suggests underscoring the power of food. Food can help make you strong, think better in school, and get a good night’s rest. “The mindset should be what food can do for you, not to you,” she says. “It also helps to emphasize all the foods kids can have instead of all the don’ts.”
Shop and cook together
It may be (okay, is) faster and easier to head to the store or prep a meal without your little ones in tow, but getting them involved–even if it’s just once or twice a week–is totally worth it in the long run. “When parents take kids food shopping and cook together, it becomes a positive experience, and it allows kids to feel proud of what they’ve picked out and prepared,” says Museles. Turn it into a fun activity by explaining that every color of the rainbow does something different for the body, then try to put a rainbow into your next meal.
Let them eat and learn
You can teach kids the connection between food and their body by pointing out their energy levels in relation to food. They’ll be more focused when they make healthy eating choices, whereas they may not feel well after eating too much sugar. “Sometimes you have to allow kids to make the mistakes and get the tummy aches so they can learn it for themselves,” says Museles. If your child decided to skip the second helping of cake next time, it’s because they’ve made the connection between food and body. When you do see your child making a healthy food choice, watch their body language to make sure they’re not feeling left out or restricted. “If they move on quickly you know it’s their truth versus what makes you happy,” says Museles. But it’s not a lesson that’s always learned quickly! “Kids are going to rebel, but they can’t unlearn what you’ve taught them, so stick with it,” she says.
Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad”
Parents often say, “that’s good for you” or “that’s bad for you” simply because it’s what we were told as kids. But labeling foods as “good” or “bad” is very harmful for developing minds because it translates to I’m good or I’m bad. Instead, Museles recommends referring to foods as “those that help you grow” and “those that don’t help you grow”, which is a tip she credits to Dr. Natasha Beck (aka Dr. Organic Mommy). With this language, kids are still learning the value of healthy food, but in an age-appropriate way.
Don’t just sneak in veggies
Blending carrots and spinach into spaghetti sauce or smoothies is an age-old parenting trick, but it doesn’t teach kids to choose healthy eating foods for themselves. So what do you do when your kid just won’t eat broccoli? First, Museles suggesting trying another cooking preparation. Ask your child what they like or don’t like in detail about the food so you can adjust accordingly. If kids still need extra encouragement, Museles suggests adding a drizzle of flavor or letting kids dip their veggies into a dressing or condiment. You can monitor how much dressing you’re putting on the table or their plate, but over time your child’s taste buds will adjust so they need it less and less. “Just remember to talk about condiments as the accessory to the star of the show, which is the veggie or the food that helps you grow,” says Museles.
Treat sugar like an equal
Parents often offer sweets as a reward for eating a meal, trying something new, or even playing hard in a soccer game, but this puts a premium on dessert, which is a slippery slope. If you have a child who wants the dessert (sugary or healthy), try the “crowding out” approach in which you put everything out on the table at the same time. “Initially the child will go for the ice cream before the broccoli but after a while, you’ll see that your child will take a bit of it and then start eating the other things,” says Museles. (Don’t be surprised if you win cool parent of the year with this one.)
Avoid creating food rules
“Rules don’t consider the circumstances, and restriction usually backfires,” says Museles. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have suggestions or share your values. “It’s all about how you say it and show it without being so rigid and militant,” she adds. Try giving suggestions and examples instead of rules.
Strive for balance, not perfection
It’s not healthy to make everything about food, nor is it realistic to expect that every meal can be perfectly healthy. So where should you put your efforts? Museles suggests teaching kids that there are three macronutrients we should eat at every meal. “Just the pasta isn’t enough. Our bodies need protein, healthy carbs and fat at every meal to stabilize our blood sugar,” she says. “This helps regulate emotions and moods, which is so important for kids.” But if you don’t nail the trifecta every time, don’t sweat it. “You have to give yourself some grace,” says Museles. “Your role as a parent is to provide your kids with healthy choices, but you can’t always sit down to a balanced meal, nevermind make them eat the healthy foods on their plates.”
Show don’t tell
When you’re teaching kids how important it is to have well-balanced meals, don’t forget to lead by example. “Modeling healthy eating choices is the most powerful thing parents can do,” says Museles. “It’s also an opportunity for parents to also think about how they connect with food and maybe even make a few changes themselves.” It’s also important not to worry too much about what you’re eating and what your kids are eating. “Kids pick up on stress, so having a relaxed attitude about food is huge,” she says. Keep mealtimes more about connection and less about what’s on the plate.