I love food. I love cooking it; I love eating it; I love growing it in tiny spaces like windowsills or on our roof, and I love picking it at any farm that will let me. Food makes me feel good, and helps me feel connected to my roots and to the people I love.Food is also a contentious thing at times, especially in a world where people moralize about food and treat food as something that can be "good" or "bad." That's why I have some rules for talking to my kids about food. Honestly, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched a commercial go on and on about how “sinful” some chocolate is, or how women like me should eat some food substitute so we can enjoy “all the taste without the guilt.” As a mom trying to raise healthy, confident, and body-positive kids in a world that’s weird about food, combating these messages is vital and, well, that means some guidelines need to be put in place.
Like everyone else, I’m not perfect and I’m still working to unlearn a lifetime’s worth of problematic messages about food and bodies. I still catch myself falling prey to what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism,” and scrambling to ensure that I present balanced ideas about food, versus reducing them to their nutrient profiles. However, I'm constantly trying to avoid bombarding my kids with the same messages that most of us got from our families or from our broader culture. I don’t want my kids to have hang-ups about food but, instead, I want them to understand that they’re in charge of their own bodies; a fundamental part of learning about body autonomy and consent in other aspects of life.
Fortunately and unfortunately, I’m not the only person who will ever eat with my kids or talk to them about food. So, talking about certain foods as being “sinful” (even if they're “sinfully good”), saying that they (or you) should feel guilty about eating certain foods, or saying that you’ll need to work out afterwards to “pay for it,” sends a lot of confusing and problematic messages to kids. If you like a food, just eat it and enjoy it. Don’t suggest that people deserve to be punished for liking certain things. Instead, keep the following things in mind, if only to spare me even a few tricky conversations or late-breaking food drama once we get home:
Don’t Tell Them They’re Supposed To Hate Vegetables
I try really hard to expose my toddler to lots of different kinds of foods, so he can benefit from a broad and interesting diet. So far he’s really open-minded, and he loves almost everything he’s tried, including vegetables. The only time I’ve ever seen him balk at trying a new food was when someone said, “Eww! Kids don’t like that.” Really, dude? I’m out here doing everything I can to get my kid to eat well. Don’t trip me up by teaching my kid that certain foods are inherently gross.
Avoid “Fat-Talking” Their Choices
Fatphobia isn’t cool. Neither is suggesting that my kids should avoid a certain food, or eat less than they want or need to, because you associate that with getting fat and you believe that being fat is a bad thing. We’re trying to help our kids eat according to what makes them feel their best, and teaching them to respect all kinds of bodies, not just thin ones.
Encourage Them To Make Their Own Choices…
They’re the only ones who can feel what’s going on in their bodies, so they need to be the ones to decide what does and doesn’t go in it. They know what they like, and what they’re comfortable with trying. Even if they’re being a little bit close-minded, pressuring them to eat something new only increases their anxiety around it, making them less likely to give that food a fair try. Just make sure they know the food is available to them, and then let them make the final choice.
...While Honoring Our Boundaries
If I or my partner has told you a certain food is off-limits for our kids, please trust that we have a good reason (like not wanting them to have an allergic reaction or to spend the night pooping or puking). Don’t try to bond with them by going behind our backs and offering them something you know they’re not supposed to have. That’s not cool, that’s potentially dangerous.
Keep Guilt And Shame Out Of Eating
Food doesn’t have morality and we pay for food with money or work. That's it. Don’t suggest that people deserve to be punished (usually by going to the gym for a certain amount of time) for liking certain things.
Let Them Eat However Much (Or Little) They Want
Again, they’re the only ones who can feel their bodies. If they are really hungry and want to eat a lot, that just means they’re really hungry and want to eat a lot (or they really like their food). It doesn’t mean they’re “greedy” or “little piggies.” If they don’t want to eat that much, they might not be hungry or maybe it’s making them feel a little off or they don’t really like what they’ve been served and they’re trying not to hurt your feelings. Let them make the call, don’t try to force them to “clean their plate" or guilt them into eating more than they feel comfortable devouring.
Trust Them To Know How Hungry Or Full They Are
Just because you’re older than they are, doesn’t mean you magically know how hungry or full they are. Telling them things like, “You can’t be hungry, you just ate!” doesn’t make any sense. It could also cause them to doubt their own hunger and satisfaction cues, which undermines their ability to make good choices about eating.
Don’t Frame Food As A Reward Or Punishment
We believe food should be about nourishment, as well as whatever pleasure we get from eating it and from sharing meals with people we like and love. Offering them something they like as a “treat” for good behavior, or framing their meal as a chore to get through so they can have a dessert, gets food all mixed up with morality (again), sends the message that they should behave well for external reasons rather than because it’s simply the right thing to do, and sends the message that some foods (especially things like vegetables) are inherently less desirable than the dessert. Please, let’s just not even go there.