Food is, for most adults, a loaded subject. The language we use to talk about food and our bodies has such great power to influence whether children grow to be confident and competent eaters. I have written this piece for early childhood educators, but it is 100% applicable for parents, grandparents and anyone who has contact with young children.
Fly on the wall number 1 is in the childcare staff lunch room and just overheard this:
Liz: “Oh look, someone brought in cake to share!” (says excitedly)
Amanda: “Yes, it looks dee-licious. But I just quit sugar this week” (says dejectedly)
Liz: “I just can’t trust myself when it comes to food. Oh well, I’ll be bad today. Just one piece.”
Amanda: “Yes, seriously. I know I’ll feel guilty after, but what the heck!”
Fly on the wall number 2 in the kindergarten room just overheard this exchange between two under 5’s:
Jimmy: “Mmmm, I love grapes. They’re sweet and juicy”
Sam: “I love cake. My mum made chocolate for my birthday. It’s my favourite.”
Jimmy: “Mmmmm chocolate.”
Do you notice the stark differences between these two conversations?
The adult conversation is brimming with judgement, fear and guilt. Judgement about making a good or bad choice. Fear and guilt over eating too much or too much of the “wrong” foods. In contrast, the children’s conversation is simple and uncomplicated. Their only concern is talking about food they love to eat. That’s it!
What happened between childhood and adulthood?
How do kids shift from a simple love of pleasurable food in early childhood to judgement, fear and guilt about every food decision as adults?
The sad truth is they learn it from us. Parents, grandparents, early childhood educators, family, friends and the wider community.
Each throw away comment we make about food, our bodies or the bodies of others chips away at a child’s food enjoyment, body acceptance and love. It happens ever-so-slowly through the millions of interactions our kids have with, about and around food. And sometimes it happens in the blink of an eye.
Research with adolescents has shown that how parents talk about food matters. Children are at far greater risk of developing disordered eating behaviours when the focus is on judgement of food (e.g. classifying food as good or bad) and judgement of different body shapes and sizes. Even more worryingly, children begin receiving these messages much earlier than adolescence.
Thankfully there’s no need to cue the ominous mood music and dim the lights. Every day we have opportunities in childcare settings, at home and everywhere in-between to help preserve children’s child-like appreciation food and even restore it for ourselves. I believe it is possible to free the next generation from the burden of food judgement fear and guilt. And in doing so we can also free ourselves of the same.
Our children learn to feel bad about food and their bodies when we teach them 5 of the most common FOOD AND BODY MYTHS …
Myth #1 – Dieting (and other kinds of food restriction) help control weight. We need to diet because we can’t trust ourselves to make good choices about food.
“Don’t eat too much of that. You’ll get fat!”
“I don’t have chocolate in the house. I can’t trust myself around sweets.”
Myth #2 – Boys need to eat more to be big and strong. Girls shouldn’t eat too much.
“Finish your dinner or you won’t grow up to be a big, strong boy.”
“You can’t possibly still be hungry. Girls don’t eat that much!”
Myth #3 – Some foods are good/nutritious/healthy. We should feel good about eating them.
“You need to finish your healthy vegetables before you get any sweets.”
“I was good today. I just ate a salad for lunch.”
Myth #4 – Some foods are bad/unhealthy. We should feel guilty about eating them.
“_____ is bad for you. If you eat that, you’ll be unhealthy.”
“Eating cake is my guilty pleasure.”
Myth #5 – You can tell whether a person is healthy or not healthy by looking at their body shape and/or size. The shape of my body determines how I should feel about myself.
“Look at that fat boy. He must be really lazy.”
“You look so healthy and amazing. Have you lost weight?”
“Does my butt look big in this.”
What if every adult did a stocktake of their default food and body talk? What if we could eliminate language that causes our kids to question their food choices, their bodies and themselves? What if we said these things instead:
“All foods are good foods.”
“Our bodies are happiest when we eat many different foods.”
“Sometimes we eat a little and sometimes a lot and that is OK.”
“I’m feeling really hungry today.”
“I’m not feeling very hungry today.”
“Cake is a delicious celebration food. Everyone gets to share it.”
“I love ___________” (insert: ice-cream/ strawberries/ broccoli/ chocolate/ roast dinner/ curry/ carrots…)
“I’m still learning to like ___________” (insert: ice-cream/ strawberries/ broccoli/ chocolate/ roast dinner/ curry/ carrots…)
“You can’t tell whether someone is healthy just by looking at them.”
“It’s so wonderful that we don’t all look the same. That would be really boring!”
“Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. All bodies are good bodies.”
“I am so proud of you for trying your best.”
“_________ is a great friend. He is so fun to play with.”
“Your body is amazing.”
“My body is amazing!”
Do you share food and body peace with all children? What a gift to give!