Body image is tricky, right? And in a society that is laden with images of models posing as everyday people and constant conversation about how to "get the body you want," it's not tough to see why. As someone who is recovered from an eating disorder, I am not only acutely aware of these messages, but constantly thinking about how to navigate them in our household, especially since it now includes my 2-year-old daughter. I want to show her how to take care of herself, but how can I teach my kid to eat healthy without body shaming?
"We can teach children the importance of healthy food options by sharing the idea that our bodies need to be nourished in order to grow and for us not to get sick, so we can run, feel good, and not be tired," Melainie Rogers, the owner of NYC-based eating disorder treatment center BALANCE, tells Romper in an email interview. "Eating good foods provides our bodies with all of the 'good stuff' that our bodies need to use to keep us strong and healthy."
So, it sounds like I'm on the right track with language like, "I eat kale to make my body strong" or "carrots make us feel healthy." Rogers says, yes, and you can substitute in pretty much any food item when having that conversation. "Say it will help you grow, give you energy so you can play with your friends, or so you won't get sick and have to stay home in bed," she says.
There is, however, one specific thing to consider when having these conversations, Rogers says. "Be careful to also allow children the freedom to explore other foods that are less nutritious — cakes, cookies, and so forth," she says. "We know from research that if we forbid or limit these foods, kids develop a scarcity mentality and have a higher risk of bingeing on those foods when they do have access and/or developing a disordered relationship with those foods."
Dr. Michelle Davenport, co-founder of Raised Real, says there are also some specific phrases you are going to want to nix entirely from your vocabulary, including, "You have to finish this plate or you can't have _______." So, what do you say instead?
"No words," Davenport, who is also a dietitian with a PhD in nutrition, says. "Just leave it on their plate and let them explore it." She even implemented a routine with her 2-year-old daughter to help her enjoy the taste of kale.
"I offered a side of kale next to an item that I knew she already liked," she says. "Instead of telling her to eat kale, I would focus the conversation around learning about kale. We would go through our ritual for new foods: 'Look. Smell. Lick. Bite. Chew.' The first few times I offered her kale, she would only look at it. Then she would only smell it, and eventually she'd get to biting it, and finally chewing it." Today, Davenport says, her daughter snacks on roasted kale, and "begs me to make broccoli chips."
Rogers says it's also crucial to eliminate conversation that involves "good" or "bad" foods, as well as any mention of weight or body shape — other than growing taller, stronger, faster, and so forth. "Kids should not be educated on calories," she says. "Rather they should be coached on hunger and fullness, and validated when they say they're hungry."
Davenport says parents should also encourage kids to spend time in the kitchen, garden, and grocery store where there are ample opportunities to learn about food. "There is an enormous body of research that supports food education as a way to get kids to love eating fruits and vegetables, prevent childhood obesity, and most of all cultivate a healthy relationship with food," she explains. "It all begins with food, and the earlier we start, the better."
Will I be perfect at it? No. But nothing about parenting, or life for that matter, is. What I will do, however, is fight like hell to make it a priority every day. After all, those precious little bodies — and our own — are something to cherish. And that's something I know for sure.
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