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You’re not the boss of my body! How to support healthy habits in children

Michelle May

You are not raising children. You are raising adults.

While there’s an abundance of advice on developing healthy habits in children, it is often restrictive, shaming, and counter-productive. Building healthy habits in children is less about what they eat and how much they exercise, and more about how you support their healthy relationship with food!

Bad advice about healthy habits in kids

Several times a week my coaching clients share stories about the weight-based teasing and bullying they endured in childhood, both at school and at home. One shared that her pediatrician started her on a very strict diet that began a lifelong cycle of yo-yo dieting. Personally, I remember my doctor telling my mother to “stop giving her milk and give her Tab instead”!

Nowadays, you don’t have to look far to find a “campaign against childhood obesity.” And while likely well-intentioned, they send the wrong message to children, their families, and their health care providers by singling out a child based on their body size. It produces worried parents who attempt to micromanage their child’s eating and ashamed children who learn that something must be wrong with them.

But aren’t all children (and all adults) at risk for being overfed, undernourished, and under-active? All of us benefit from balanced eating and physical activity regardless of weight, so let’s leave out the weight-based messaging and focus on building a lifetime of healthy behaviors.

Remember, you are not raising children. You are raising adults!

Born to thrive

We live in an abundant food environment. Food is fast, convenient, and often highly processed. To thrive in this environment, we must make sure children have the tools to support healthy habits.

Children are born with the instinctive ability to know how much food they need.The good news is that children are born with the most important skill they need for managing their eating: The instinctive ability to know how much food their body needs.

Instinctively, babies cry to let their parents know when they’re hungry. Toddlers in perpetual motion eat small amounts of food but manage to eat frequently enough to meet their needs. During periods of rapid growth or activity, children seem to be hungry all the time. When their energy requirements decrease, their interest in food adjusts.

The bad news is that we can impair their instinctive eating skills with our good intentions. If parents or other caregivers feed a baby to calm every cry, the baby may learn that eating can soothe any discomfort. When they’re given food to keep them quiet or busy, they learn they can distract and entertain themselves with food.

Once a child is old enough to sit at the table, well-intentioned parents will play games and praise the child to encourage them to eat. They may say “Good boy! You ate all your dinner!” While this may create positive feelings about mealtime, it also teaches the child that eating makes mommy and daddy happy.

Parents may also coerce older children to eat everything they were served by saying, “Clean your plate or you don’t get dessert.”

The message this sends to children is that if their parents have to bribe them to eat it, the dinner must be the “yucky stuff” and sweets are the reward for eating more than they were hungry for. The result is a lifetime membership in the Clean Plate Club.

The bottom line is that although meeting the basic nutritional needs of children is essential, it’s important to provide meals and snacks in a way that respects their hunger and fullness cues and teaches them that eating is nourishing and enjoyable. If not, the stage is set for eating issues in the future.

How to Support Healthy Habits in Children

Keys to helping children thrive.
  • Children are born with the ability to naturally regulate their food intake to meet their energy needs.
  • You are not the boss of their body! Learn the difference between what you are in charge of in feeding and what they are in charge of in eating. (An excellent resource is the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding: You are in charge of the whatwhen, and where of feeding; your child is in charge of the how much and whether of eating.)
  • Pay attention when they say they are hungry or full.
  • Don’t force children to clean their plates or bribe them with dessert for finishing their meal. You’ll override their ability to know when they’ve had enough.
  • Don’t use food as a reward. Reward desired behavior with praise, extra attention, and privileges.
  • While food can be a healthy way to nurture and comfort one another, it is not a replacement for understanding words and hugs.
  • Help your child develop interests and skills that increase their success and pleasure, so they will be less likely to turn to food for fulfillment.
  • Help your children learn to recognize and manage their emotions effectively.
  • Don’t impose stringent food rules since research has shown that this can lead to feelings of deprivation and rebellious eating when your children are out of your control.
  • Avoid labeling some foods as “good” and others as “bad.” Instead, teach your children to balance eating for nourishment with eating for enjoyment.
  • Building-healthy-habits-in-childrenInvolve children in shopping, meal planning, and preparation. This is a great opportunity to teach them the simple nutrition principles of balance, variety, and moderation. The added bonus is they’re more likely to try new foods they picked or helped prepare!
  • Sit down and eat together as a family. Mealtimes should be a pleasant time to reconnect with one another and model balanced eating and engaged conversation.
  • Help your child build a lifetime activity habit. Plan fun activities like bike riding, swimming, walking, hiking, or sports that provide everyone with movement, enjoyment, and time together.
  • Reduce the amount of time your family spends in sedentary activities like TV and video games. Play board games, do arts and crafts, and get outside.
  • Be a positive, encouraging role model for your family. When your children see you enjoying balanced eating and physical activity, they are more likely to do the same.
  • Be very careful what you say about your body (and other people’s bodies)! When they overhear you criticizing yourself or others, they will assume you judge them too.
  • Expect and respect body diversity!

The development of lifetime balanced eating and physical activity habits begin in childhood. But it’s never too late to learn these skills as an adult! (Looking for help? That’s what we’re here for!)

This article has been updated from a previously published version.

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you:

Halloween Candy and Kids: A Fearless Approach

What My Kids Taught Me About Eating Mindfully

In Charge or In Control: Which Are You?


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