Funambulism and the Childhood Diet; Safety Net Sold Separately

Wobbling along the high wire between healthy food choices and a healthy body image.

As parents, we walk a tightrope every day striving to raise happy, healthy well-adjusted children. We teach them to be friendly, but not to talk to strangers. We encourage them to make friends, but not to fit in at any cost, and we cheer their interests — as long as they fit into the budget and carpool schedule.

When it comes to feeding our children, similar issues present themselves that make proper nutrition somewhat of a conundrum. We want them to be healthy and maintain a normal weight, but not to develop an eating disorder.

In my practice, I constantly hear the same vocabulary used to describe kids’ palates: “He’s so picky.” “She’s a sugar addict.” “He won’t eat that.” At some point, this narrative begins to define our kids. When they hear over and over again that “they’re a sugar-bug,” they begin to believe it.

In order to nurture our children and rewrite their internal narrative, a tightrope must be carefully walked to ensure two main outcomes: One, that our children have access to healthy options consistently; and two, they see their bodies as unique and beautiful.

Elementary school students can’t grocery shop or cook without help. It’s our job as parents to create a safe (i.e. healthy) environment for our kids at home and at restaurants.  By providing healthy options and allowing our children to choose between two or three healthy things, we maintain a necessary level of autonomy for our young adults.

Body image is a crucible that shouldn’t be shirked; we come in many shapes and sizes. The bombardment of images our children face — highlighting a particular aesthetic ideal — makes our jobs both harder and mission-critical.

Knowledge is Power

I find many children are hung up on the fact that it’s simply “unfair” they are expected to eat baby carrots while their best friend is enjoying a sleeve of Oreo cookies. Knowledge is power in this journey.

When counseling families on how to create healthier lifestyles, I see kids’ faces light up when it’s explained to them the reason they always feel hungry and tired are because of their food choices. They are almost relieved to learn that by eating differently they will both look different and feel different.

Here’s the million-dollar question: When is being “too” strict crossing the line regarding eating healthy?

While your intentions may be good, it ultimately lies within the child to make a good choice. We cannot — nor should we — shame our children into eating healthy, but we can love, empower and motivate them to do so.

As adults, most of us can agree that we are less than perfect when it comes to our own diets. We learn how to adjust our exercise and daily intake to maintain a healthy weight. However, these skills are not a part of an average third grader’s repertoire. Thus, the age-old adage about all things in moderation certainly applies to food in their case.

Serving as a role model for your child in all aspects of eating will help to communicate this concept. Include sweets occasionally as part of your balanced diet. Exercise with your children each day. Create a menu wheel on the fridge and allow them to help choose what’s for dinner.

Albeit time consum

ing, bring your kids to the market and let them pick the fruits and vegetables. Make meal and snack time fun by using kabobs, cupcake holders, cookie cutters and blenders to create nutrient dense, colorful and fun-to-eat options.

This one is important: Avoid rewarding your children with food. Our society perpetuates the emotional connection we develop with food by matching every happy occasion with a sugary treat.

Start new traditions of activity rewards like rollerskating, bowling or bike riding. The reality of this multi-dimensional and complex issue is that most poor food choices we make have more to do with our own self-esteem than anything else.

Raise your children up in every way so that they strive to honor the person that they are — and the body that they own — through balanced nutrition and plenty of physical activity.

— Julie Feldman MPH, RD is a registered dietician in Oakland County.

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