Is it “good” or “bad” for your child? Removing morality from eating

A mother and her child give each other a high five as they prepare food in the kitchen
Letting your child help you choose and prepare healthy foods teaches them skills for the future. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Teaching our children to eat well is not a simple task — but perhaps that’s because we are looking at it from the wrong angle. Often, we focus on statistics about obesity or eating disorders rather than fostering a positive relationship with food.

However, it’s crucial that families understand the seriousness surrounding disordered eating so they can be proactive. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), 28.8 million Americans — about 9 percent — will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. Only a third of these people seek treatment, according to the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness. While it’s important to know the health effects of disordered eating, sharing that with your child isn’t necessarily the most effective way to communicate the importance of nutrition with them.

Photo of Sarah Robbins
Sarah Zombek

To create a positive relationship with eating, we must remove the concept of morality from food, because foods are not actually “good” or “bad.” As Sarah Zombek, a nurse practitioner at Lexington Pediatrics, explains, “There really is no such thing as bad food. There are foods that are there for fuel and give us the energy for the day and other foods that do not.”

We asked Zombek and other Boston Children’s Primary Care Alliance providers at Lexington Pediatrics how to teach kids to have a positive and healthy relationship with food, without also inspiring them to obsess over numbers like weight, calories, and clothing sizes. Here are their recommendations.

  • Be conscious of the language you use to talk about food. Instead of saying “that’s junk food” or “this one is so bad for you,” try using language like “this one does not give us as much energy for the day” or “let’s think about the best option to fuel us for the day.” We want to help children understand that there are foods that are there for nourishment and energy, while others are just tasty.
  • Follow the “no thank you bite” rule. If your child thinks their meal doesn’t look great or they don’t want to eat it, they must take one bite to taste it. Often, they’ll be surprised and end up liking it! This encourages them to keep trying new foods and while giving them the freedom to say “no thank you.”
  • Demonstrate good eating behaviors. Create structure and routine around mealtimes. At every meal there should be something healthy, as well as something that they like. Try not to battle over it. Show your kids that you eat a rainbow of colors: If you don’t eat your fruits and vegetables, you cannot expect your child to. By setting an example, they won’t think twice when making a choice that mimics yours.
  • Encourage your child to participate. Including them in food shopping and preparation helps them feel involved and gain skills to take into adulthood. Allow your child to look in the fridge, pick out healthy food that works together, and make their own meals. Dr. Jesse Lock of Lexington Pediatrics brings this philosophy into his own home. “I have a 12-year-old daughter and since she was very young, we’ve encouraged her to participate in the process of making food,” he says. “Her famous meal is salmon, skin side down; broccoli roasted in the oven; and potatoes pan-seared, then baked in the oven.”
  • Strike a balance. When it comes to eating, moderation is key. Pick one or two vegetables that your children like and include them in meals. This makes healthier choices easier and more accessible.
  • Give your child the power to choose. With toddlers, that could mean offering two healthy options and allowing them to choose which one they want. For a teenager, that could mean allowing them to choose what they are eating and how much, but encouraging healthy options.
  • Prepare snacks in advance. Have a container of crunchy vegetables or sweet fruits at the ready that your kids can munch on anytime. This makes choosing healthier options easier.
  • Keep a reasonable sleep schedule. This is crucial in the context of eating because a good sleep schedule helps prevent missed or rushed meals. Skipping meals is a common but detrimental habit and can perpetuate a bad relationship with food. Even if breakfast is something small, it’s important fuel for the day. Encourage your kids to have breakfast, lunch, a sit-down afternoon snack, and dinner. With the sit-down snack, include two food groups, such as yogurt and blueberries or apples and peanut butter.
  • Avoid screens. Encourage your kids to sit at the table, with others if possible, while eating. It’s so important to not have a screen — TV, phone, or computer — in front of you while you’re eating. Otherwise, it’s easy to get distracted and your brain won’t know when you’re full.

Removing morality from eating will benefit your child for the rest of their life. Eating disorders have the second-highest fatality rate of all mental illnesses, so being a resource for your child is crucial. “It’s not just a matter of teaching that broccoli is good for you and corn flakes may not be so good for you,” explains Dr. Lock. “It’s about giving your child the opportunity for independence and fostering a healthy relationship with eating.”

Ask a Boston Children’s Primary Care Alliance provider about fostering a positive relationship with food today.

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