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  1. Why is it important for parents to model healthy eating?

Social psychologists have long explored how social experiences shape our cognitions and behavior. This type of learning, known as observational learning, provides children with the opportunity to watch a “model” (aka parent, sibling or authority figure) as they react to events in their environment. Observational learning is one of the most natural types of learning that we have available to us. The idea is we watch what the model does in a given scenario and then process that scenario or schema as desirable or undesirable; ultimately our behaviors are shaped by watching how others interact with their environment. We mimic and mirror what we see and have learned is valuable to our family system.

Food is a fundamental aspect of the human experience, we all need nutrients to survive and thrive. Unfortunately in today’s society, we have become hyper aware of image and perfection as a symbol for worthiness, resulting fad diets, preoccupation with weight / image, and a generalized sense of dissatisfaction with ourselves in comparison to a perceived ideal. Despite the negative impacts societal pressures can have on an individual’s image or self-esteem, there are many ways parents can buffer the effects of these pressures, not the least of which is healthy modeling. What does this mean? In short it’s teaching your kids to develop a healthy relationship with food by setting a positive example.

Our kids are watching us all the time (we aren’t as sneaky as we think we are), they see us reading labels and being conscious which is great! It’s a great opportunity for us to teach our children about food, nutrition, and healthy eating. Conversely, they see us cringing at calories, judging ourselves and our bodies in the mirror, and they sense the importance of image. We can be a gateway to a healthy lifestyle or we can inadvertently tell our kids that food is the enemy and image is everything. It’s easy to think this learning would have to be overt, that a dance teacher who pinches her students back would obviously result in an unhealthy relationship with food. But it can, and often does, happen far more subtlety, watching mom choose a salad time and again instead of getting what she really wants because she has attached a value to the food as bad. As with most things, moderation is key, it’s not so much what you are eating or feeding your family as it is the relationship with the food and experiences.

  1. What language should parents use/not use, around kids, to prevent unhealthy eating beliefs and behaviors?

Try to avoid making comparisons or comments, especially image oriented ones. For example don’t say,”Oh, Molly is so small, and I am just fat” or “Your friend Jen is so small and cute” “Comparisons like this aren’t helpful in promoting a positive self-image.

Kids going through growth spurts often grow out before they grow up. When your kids are in these spurts, don’t poke at them or their chubby cheeks. In general, try not to use all or nothing statements. That ice cream will make you fat, or those cookies are going to go straight to my hips. No one has ever died from a scoop of ice cream, just like if you eat a cookie or a few cookies, it doesn’t mean you are no longer loveable because your skinny jeans got a little snug. Kids don’t always have the gift of discernment, that’s another reason healthy modeling is so important. We get to teach them that food can be a wonderful and connecting experience. If you wouldn’t want someone saying it to you, then you probably shouldn’t say it to your child, they’re people too, just younger and more impressionable.

  1. How do our kids (unknowingly) teach us how to eat healthy?

Our bodies have natural triggers that tell us when we are hungry and when we are full. People don’t have to be taught when to eat or not, it’s a natural process that occurs and that we can become mindful of as we develop. Children haven’t yet learned to ignore their inner cues and will often adhere to appropriate portions when they are allowed to choose. Kids listen to their bodies, if they have cravings they typically fulfill them and move on with what they are doing. They don’t assign value or judgement to foods which means they are naturally more healthy in regard to portion control and enjoying the eating experience.

  1. How can we achieve health while feeling care free in the process?

Barring an allergy, one scoop, or cup, or plate of anything is not going to leave an indelible mark on our psyche or bodies. Remaining mindful as you eat and making food preparation a process and an act of love for yourselves and others can be a great way to bring joy and peace to a moment. If you struggle with your relationship with food, affirmations can be a great way to break the negative thought pattern. It may feel artificial at first, but keep saying the words, internalize that sense of peace with the food and the process of being healthy. Exercise can be a great way to mitigate depressive symptoms, as the endorphins released during and after a workout boost mood. Additionally, this can be a great way to channel your energy by doing something positive and active with your body, see what you are capable of, know that you are a blessing and that your body is a gift.

By Ashley Steelman, MSW

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