It’s that time of year again where the hope and promise of a new year encourage us to commit to all sorts of changes to improve our health. This year though, in addition to making some positive changes for yourself, why not also make it a point to consider your child’s health too?
A good place to start is by addressing their relationship with food. Eating habits are formed at a young age and they can significantly impact health later in life. It’s important to ensure that the habits your child forms with food are good ones so they grow up to become healthy eaters.
Here are a few resolutions you can make this year to improve your child’s relationship with food.
Stop using food as a reward
“Wow, you did really well on your test today. Let’s go out for ice cream”. Most parents have said things like this at one time or another, but in order for your children to develop a healthy relationship with food, you should minimize the use of food as a reward. Not only do food rewards encourage the overconsumption of junk food (because let’s face it, that’s what most food rewards are), but they also teach kids to eat as a reward to themselves even when they’re not hungry. Food rewards also tend to undermine the nutrition education being taught to them at home and school. This doesn’t mean you should never allow your child the occasional treat, but a good game of football or a great report card shouldn’t be used to justify a stop at their favorite fast food restaurant.
In today’s fast-paced society, cooking has become somewhat of a lost art. Yet there’s no better way to develop positive connections between your child and the food they eat, by having them learn to prepare their own meals. This may mean you need to re-familiarize yourself with the kitchen too, but don’t be afraid to dust off some of those old recipes and get the kids involved. Depending on their age, they will be able to take on varying levels of responsibility in the kitchen. Younger children can help you by washing vegetables and measuring ingredients, while older kids may be able to prepare part of the evening’s meal before you get home from work. It may mean that meals will take a little longer to prepare, but the skills they develop along the way will last a lifetime.
Don’t make them clean their plate
I know when my brother and I were kids, we weren’t allowed to leave the table until we had finished eating everything on our plates. I’m sure this house rule came from my parents’ desire not to waste food. While this is understandable, it’s not a good idea to force a child to finish their plate when they’re not hungry. If you encourage kids to rely on environmental indicators, like the time of day or how much food is on their plates, rather than their own internal cues they’ll lose the ability to know whether they’re hungry or full. Instead, start by serving them smaller portions and allow them to eat more if they wish. Children, particularly those that are younger, can have wildly different appetites from day to day. Some days they will eat a lot, others they will have a little appetite at all. This is completely normal. Allow them to listen to their hunger cues. If they’re hungry, they will eat.
Kids today are involved in more and more activities. As a result family dinners are often pushed aside in favor of grabbing something on the go. This is a shame because not only do meals made at home tend to be healthier but eating around a table is an opportunity to teach your children important lessons about portion sizes and the pace of eating. In fact, recent research has shown that sharing three or more family mealtimes per week reduces the chances of your child being overweight, consuming unhealthy foods or engaging in disordered eating.
Toss the scale
Very little good can come from regularly weighing your child, particularly when it comes to their eating behavior. The problem with weighing your child is that weight alone is actually a pretty poor indicator of health. It doesn’t tell you if your kids are eating a nutritious diet or how active they are. Unfortunately, what weighing your child can do is promote a concept of self-worth that is determined by a number on the scale. If their weight isn’t what they consider to be desirable, body image issues can arise, which in turn can lead to disordered eating. If you do have concerns about your child’s weight, by all means, bring them to the attention of your pediatrician and they will help you address them in a constructive manner.
Many children have a poor understanding of where the food they eat comes from. As more children grow up in an urban environment, it’s increasingly rare for them to have ever even stepped foot on a farm to see how the food they eat every day is actually produced. An easy solution to this – start your own garden! I realize that green space in Cairo is at a premium, however, if you have access to land make use of it. Even if you live in an apartment, it’s easy to plant some vegetables and herbs in pots on your balcony.
Get the kids involved from the beginning. Have them choose some vegetables they’d like to eat and help them plant the seeds. Make them responsible for watering the plants and ask them to help harvest when they are ready. The smile on your child’s face when they’ve picked their first ripe tomato off the vine will be priceless. Starting a garden won’t mean you’ll never have to buy produce at the market, but it will help to strengthen your child’s connection to food, which makes it worth the effort.
Given today’s food environment, it can be a challenge to get your child to develop a healthy relationship with food, but following these resolutions can go a long way towards avoiding issues that can have a huge impact on their long-term health. Happy New Year!