Most parents know that when it comes to healthy eating habits, they act as role models for their children. But the messages targeted to parents are usually doused in guilt – “you had better eat healthy – your kids are watching you!”
The last thing any parent needs is more guilt. And furthermore, guilt does a poor job of motivating, inspiring, and changing behavior for the long term. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty useless.
So drop the guilt and consider a different way of looking at – and becoming – a more positive role model for your kids.
Take a walk down memory lane
I’m always surprised when my clients don’t understand the real reasons they overeat. After some digging, I usually find their childhood to be a contributing factor. After all, most food learning occurs in the first 5 years of life.
So think about how your relationship with food came about. How and what did your parents feed you? Were they controlling or permissive or something in between? Did they make you clean your plate? Did they make eating vegetables seem like a punishment and eating sweets the best reward? Did they overly restrict sweets or fatty foods? And if you were bigger than average, did they try to encourage you to diet and eat less?
These questions are important because the answers give you insight into what has shaped your relationship with food. Even though you’re leading your children down a different path, if you continue to struggle with food or weight, they will catch on.
The best way to conquer your issues is to understand where they came from, let go of them and begin a new way of looking at food. For the research on how childhood eating affects adult eating see this post.
2. See food through the eyes of a child
While changing your outlook you’ll want to take lessons from young children. Babies are born a clean slate – they don’t have food baggage. They eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. They don’t see food as good or bad unless they are told or shown it is good or bad. If they snack before dinner they won’t eat dinner (what adult does that?). They are masters at regulating food without counting calories or reminding themselves what they “should” eat.
So don’t diet or “should” yourself into eating healthy. Instead, dust off those hunger and fullness signals that you were born with and start listening to them again. Ask yourself if you’re really hungry before eating and when you do eat stop when your body tells you you’re satisfied and comfortably full.
3. Make feeding yourself a priority
When my daughter started solids I put all my energy into what she ate. Then one day, while picking at her tasty spinach and mushroom omelet, I realized what was going on. I was making feeding her a priority over feeding myself (and my husband – I always seem to forget about him). Before she was born, I’d buy the minimum amount of groceries, rotate the same 4 meals and rarely experimented with new foods.
I knew that a new, fierce love was behind my motivation to provide my daughter with tasty and nutritious food. So I used that love as a catalyst to take better care of myself.
So use love, not guilt, as motivation to take care of you. If you feed yourself well, taking the time to prepare plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, then your child will grow up to be someone who makes feeding herself a priority.
4. Don’t try to be perfect
A friend was just telling me how her parents kept sweets and candy out of the house. She said that she and her siblings would take their weekly allowance and go buy sweets and candy. Her parents provided plenty of healthy food but forgot how to teach their kids how to eat not-so-healthy items.
Eating is not just about nutrition it’s also about enjoyment. Some foods provide pleasure without much nutrition. So show your children that you can enjoy items like ice cream, sweets and fried foods without guilt trips or overeating. And if you can’t do that quite yet, take some time to work on why you can’t.
This takes away the pressure of eating perfectly for your children. They need a role model for how to eat all types of foods so when they are on their own someday they can eat with confidence.
The gift of health
Instead of scrutinizing yourself for missing the mark, remember that you’ve been given a gift. Your children are here to teach you how to be better – and that includes eating well and being active. By working to prevent them from creating bad habits, you end up saving yourself in the process.
I usually only buy “healthy” whole foods for our family. These are also the foods that I prepare for snacks and meals. The only time my children get sweets or treats is on special occasions birthdays holidays etc. or sometimes my husband and I will decide to take the family out for ice cream or pie. Will this cause confusion to my kids? Will they associate the sweets with the fun experiences ? If so how can I change our current situation? I would prefer not to bring too much junk food into our house. Please help!
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
I think it depends on lots of stuff. How old are your kids? Are they okay with the occasional treat? Do they seem to overeat when they finally get one.
You don’t have to bring in junk but you could offer items like dark chocolate or homemade cookies sometimes. Kids have a preference for sweet and overly restricting may cause them to focus on those foods more. But each kid — and family — is different. More about offering sweets here http://www.maryannjacobsen.com/2011/02/managing-sweets-part-6-10-strategies-for-ending-kids-sugar-obsession/