The rules for how you live change (usually) the very minute you become a parent. Before kids, you could get away with partying all weekend, or having sex in the living room in the middle of the day, or watching horror movies all night long. Once you’ve got a pint-sized audience member, however, you tend to start paying attention to your actions. One important lesson those little ones are learning from us, is how to develop healthy eating habits. While you might not notice them yourself, you probably partake in plenty of small, unhealthy food practices your child will notice.
It’s difficult, of course, when you’re a new parent, to completely change any potentially harmful habits you've called your own since always. Sleep deprivation and the demands of a newborn, make it hard to cook nutritious meals or watch what you say about food or not fall back on previous routines you'd rather avoid altogether. Hell, eating anything that isn’t quickly microwaved or delivered to your door takes effort when you can barely stand. And trust me when I say, it doesn’t get all that much easier once you have a rambunctious toddler going wild in your home. It's hard, moms, and no one will (or should) chastise you for faltering from time to time.
Still, as parents, it’s our job to try and model good eating habits. We also need to model good attitudes toward food in general, as we frequently run the risk of making comments about our kids eating that are harmful. So what are some things we should take note of and alter accordingly? Well, the following is definitely a solid start:
It’s so easy to skip meals, especially when you’re a parent. Between mountains of dishes, sorting through toys, getting to your day job (if you work outside the home) and cooking for your kids, when are you supposed to have time to sit down and help yourself to a healthy meal? It's understandable, to be sure, but kids notice if we’re frequently absent from the breakfast table. You wouldn’t let your kid go hungry, so why do it to yourself?
Talking About Foods In Terms Of “Bad” Or “Good”
There’s no such thing as bad or good food. Portions are what matters, and a small scoop of ice cream or a bite-sized chocolate isn’t going to do a load of harm. A bucket of fries or a whole jumbo pack of candy, though? It’ll definitely hurt. Teach kids about how to eye appropriate portions for them, so they don’t develop a guilt complex over eating “bad” food. It's not a thing. They can eat for pleasure. They can eat for substance. The most important thing, is that they eat until they're full.
Calling Foods You’re Not Used To “Weird” Or “Gross”
You want your kids to be open-minded about food. Just because a new dish features ingredients you don’t recognize, or have never tried, doesn’t mean it’s "icky" or not worth trying or "weird" or worthy of any other negative reaction. In fact, you’ll often surprise yourself if you just keep an open mind. Encourage your kids to be open to new foods from different cultures, and they will likely develop a much more extensive palate and appreciate differences.
Eating past the point of satiation is never a positive thing, and if you’re going through periods of eating everything in sight, your kids will take note. Binge eating can hurt the gastrointestinal system, by forcing it to work harder to process all the food you’ve eaten. This can cause stomach aches, acid reflux, gas, nausea, even vomiting. You wouldn’t want that for your kid, would you?
Always Measuring Out All Your Foods
On the flip side, being so particular about how much you eat at every single meal can be exceedingly damaging. While an obsessive habit like this isn’t exactly contagious, a young child watching it happen daily might interpret it as completely commonplace, and do it themselves, limiting their intake potentially to the point of harm.
Eating On The Go
It happens to the lot of us. We’re late for school or work or a meeting or a playgroup, so we grab a shake or a protein bar and run out the door. Eating on the go is OK once in awhile (especially if you’re making healthy choices), but making it a habit teaches kids not to prioritize their own meals.
Avoiding Certain Food Groups Altogether
Humans need a wide variety of vitamins and nutrients to stay healthy, and meeting that need can be facilitated by maintaining a well-balanced diet. Avoiding all breads or never eating vegetables or holding yourself to some other kind of diet (that isn't medically necessary) can be detrimental to your health. Health problems often come from avoiding certain groups, and unless you’re doing it for particular reasons (and then using suitable replacements like, for example, vegetarian who makes sure to eat plant-based proteins and take a B-complex supplement), it’s not wise.
Going on a strict diet one week, then binge-eating the next, can encourage disordered eating. Kids and adults should both eat healthy meals regularly and in moderation. Trying to “make up” for eating too much or too many fatty foods one week, by starving yourself the next, will teach kids this is how you’re "supposed" to eat.
Most of us partake in mindless eating to some extent. We catch up on e-mail or watch our favorite Netflix shows or swipe through Instagram. However, studies show that we often eat more than we need to, and focus on external cues to stop eating. If we commit to at least turning off our phones and other distractions, for at least one or two meals a day with our kids, it will make a world of difference.
Never Drinking Water
I absolutely love water, but I know many folks who can’t stand it. Science tells us that water helps prevent headaches, keeps our digestive tract moving, gives us energy and, well, that’s just the tip of the benefits of drinking water. If we never drink water around our kids, they’ll think it’s perfectly fine to avoid water altogether, which may result in everything from constipation to fatigue to premature aging.
Obsessing Over Your Weight (And Then Blaming It On Food)
As feminist parents, we want to raise our kids to be body-positive and fat-positive, and obsessing over how much we weigh, which is really just a number, completely contradicts those fundamental beliefs and principles. Worse still, it teaches them that weight is something worth constantly worrying about and fretting over. When you talk about how "terrible" food is, and how awful gaining weight is, they internalize these messages and can often develop eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
Only Chowing Down On Non-Nourishing Snacks
If you only keep potato chips and sugary cookies (both often full of empty calories) in the house as snacks, without balancing it out with fresh fruits and veggies, bean dips and hummus and other more nutritionally-dense snacks, your kids won’t realize how they’re inadvertently damaging their health. Snacks, just like meals, need to be balanced and we can start teaching our kids this lesson by eating some apples and celery sticks right in front of them.
I’m terribly guilty of this one. If anything in my life goes wrong, I often run for the chocolate. Yes, I know that emotional eating isn’t the best habit to have and I want my son to realize that food isn’t going to make his problems go away. It might feel good in the moment, but so do a lot of things we shouldn’t indulge in.
Constantly Counting Calories
Much like measuring out your food on a scale, counting the calories of every meal can become a negative habit that’s hard to shake. While calorie-counting apps exist (and hell, I’ve used them) and are good for adults who have a better understanding of how to use them, without allowing the app to run their lives, kids might have trouble differentiating what's healthy from what isn't. Keep any calorie counting away from kids, who are still growing and need not worry about such things.
Criticizing Other People’s Meals And Eating Habits
“Worry about yourself” is a good rule of thumb when it comes to sitting down to a meal. Of course, as parents, it’s our responsibility to have a good and healthy dish placed in front of our kids, but calling them picky or making fun of the way they (or anyone else that the table) eats, is not okay at all.