Food is not simply sustenance to keep us alive; it is part of our culture, our family histories, and our daily lives. Food also elicits emotions, memories, and symbolism. If I tell you to think about cake, several things may come to mind. You may think about how cake makes you feel happy, the memory of your child eating cake on their first birthday, or how it is not a party if there is no cake.

We all have a relationship with food, whether good or bad, and this relationship impacts daily life. Just as parents are responsible for feeding their children, they are also responsible for building a healthy relationship with food in their children. It is important to note that a healthy relationship with food is not just about eating well – it is about having balanced attitudes toward food and not developing a diet mentality.

Why should parents teach their children how to have a healthy relationship with food? Building a healthy relationship with food in childhood can set the foundation for healthy habits and attitudes throughout life. It can help prevent the later development of guilt and shame towards food, the urge to diet, and even eating disorders.

Intuitive eating is a framework to help foster happy and healthy relationships with food. Intuitive eating is the alignment of food with the mind and body, where you put trust in your hunger and fullness cues to guide your eating.

The foundational premise of this framework is that the human body naturally knows what types of food and how much food to eat to maintain health and weight. According to one model developed by registered dietitian nutritionists, there are 10 main principles to intuitive eating:

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  1. Honoring your health

  2. Reliance on internal hunger and fullness cues

  3. Making peace with food

  4. Unconditional permission to eat when you feel hungry and eat the food you desire

  5. Rejecting the diet mentality

  6. Finding pleasure and satisfaction in eating

  7. Challenging the food police

  8. Respecting your body

  9. Finding joyful movement

  10. Coping with emotions in other ways than eating.

Eating intuitively is naturally what our bodies want to do. But the problem is that in modern American culture, we do not operate in an intuitive way. We let outside cues dictate what we eat and how much, such as having a set dinnertime or advertisements telling us to eat even when we are not hungry.

Society also tells us that to be healthy is to be thin. These messages bombard us every day. This is diet culture – a system of beliefs and values that promote rules and restrictions for “health.” The presence of diet culture prevents us from eating intuitively because diet culture tells us to restrict what we eat, when to eat, and to feel guilt or shame about eating certain foods. Diets are representative of an unhealthy relationship with food. Dieting has been shown to be ineffective, and it is associated with body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. Our bodies do not want to be on a diet.

While most research and applications of intuitive eating have been with adults, teaching and modeling principles to children may be an act of prevention against unhealthy eating behaviors, body dissatisfaction, and eating disorders. In today’s culture, this is important since dieting behaviors are seen in young children and many are unhappy with their bodies, which may lead to the development of an eating disorder. So how can parents begin teaching their children intuitive eating? Here are five tips for teaching children how to have healthy relationships with food.

Tip 1: Be a model of behavior

Parents are models for behavior. Children learn from watching their parents, and they are sponges, picking up on many signals. So, it is important for parents to also build a good relationship with food and model that behavior for their children. One way parents can model a healthy relationship is by not participating in diets, such as the Keto diet, Paleo diet, Atkins diet, etc. for the purpose of losing weight. By seeing parents participating in diets, children will learn that to be healthy means to restrict and eliminate certain foods. In fact, research has found that children as young as seven years old have tried dieting behavior. This, in turn, also signals to children that foods are good and bad. This leads to the second tip.

Tip 2: Do not assign labels “Good” or “Bad” to foods

Language about food matters. It is the positive or negative associations people attribute to food that creates feelings of guilt or shame. Labeling also enforces restrictive behavior by pressuring you to not eat so much of the “bad” foods. Labeling can also increase the desire to eat those forbidden, “bad” foods, which can lead to overeating and emotional eating.

Children can learn this language about food, building these associations which follow them into adulthood. Instead, practicing food neutrality could prevent these negative associations.

Tip 3: Food is not a reward

Similar to labeling food as good or bad, giving treats (often highly palatable food like ice cream) as a reward can also create unhealthy associations to food. Offering foods as a reward increases the liking of those highly palatable foods. Conversely, it creates the association that non-palatable foods are not enjoyable and not rewarding.

An alternative option to offering food as a reward could be watching your child’s favorite movie or doing a special activity such as going to the museum.

Tip 4: Teach your child to notice fullness cues

Parents often feel the need to control what and how much their child eats, which comes from good intentions of wanting their child to be healthy and eat enough. However, children’s bodies are capable of knowing when they have eaten enough, and children should be given the agency to listen to those fullness cues.

One practice that parents can do to help their child notice their own fullness cues is to not say or do anything once the meal is presented to them. Let your child tell you when they feel full and do not force them to eat everything on their plate.

Another practice is to eat meals without distractions such as the television or cell phones. Without those distractions, children can better pay attention to their fullness cues.

Tip 5: Do not discuss weight

Children are far too young to be concerned with their weight, and it is unhealthy for them to experience dieting at such a young age. Children are growing and their bodies will undergo many changes over time, so it is unnecessary for parents to be overly concerned with their child’s weight status. Criticizing your child’s weight and discussing weight with them can be harmful for their self-esteem and body image as they grow up.

Fostering a healthy relationship with food by way of intuitive eating in children may be highly beneficial for them. As opposed to being an adult untangling years of damage, building healthy attitudes and behaviors from early childhood may prevent negative outcomes like poor body image and eating disorders. Indeed, recent research has shown that eating intuitively over time is connected to healthier eating habits and better mental health.

With the prevalence and harmful effects of poor body image and eating disorders in the United States, it is crucial to address our relationship with food, or rather, heal our relationship with food. Parents are a child’s first teachers, and teaching about healthy food relationships is just as important as any other subject.

Kerrie Leonard is a PhD student in developmental science at North Dakota State University. Her interests include intuitive eating, social media effects, and racial differences in body image. Dr. Elizabeth Blodgett Salafia is an associate professor in the department of Human Development and Family Science. Dr. Salafia leads the Healthy Eating and Body Image Lab, where she studies how sociocultural factors impact body image and eating behaviors in adolescents and emerging adults. Dr. Salafia and her graduate students aim to spread awareness on body image issues and find ways to foster healthy body image and eating behaviors in youth.

Pick up a copy of the summer On the Minds of Moms magazine on stands this week in area grocery stores in Fargo-Moorhead, West Fargo and Grand Forks.