Family health

How to avoid passing food hang-ups onto your kids

We all want to raise healthy eaters, but are we practising what we preach?

How to avoid passing food hang-ups onto your kids

Photo: Masterfile

For Marianne Melnyk*, it’s the microwave popcorn and fast food that do her in every time. The Saskatoon mom of a nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter works part-time in the evenings so she can home-school her kids during the day and prepare family meals. That’s the theory, anyway. The reality is that juggling teaching and extracurriculars, then dashing off to work just as her husband gets home means dinner is often a scramble. She resorts to picking them up something at the drive-through more often than she likes to admit. “Then I go to work and eat popcorn for supper,” she says.

Melnyk has seen first-hand how attitudes toward food can be passed down. She remembers her mom sometimes having a chocolate bar for dinner or eating nothing all day only to binge on junk food at night. She knows she inherited this tendency to overindulge and now worries about passing it on to her kids. When their birthdays roll around, the food is almost as important to them as activities or gifts. She’s also noticed her son eating mindlessly while watching TV, just like his mom. When Melnyk isn’t stressed about her kids adopting her poor eating habits, she’s concerned about pushing them too far in the other direction. During a recent stint on Weight Watchers, for example, Melnyk served the kids their meals at the table and then secretly dished hers out with measuring cups, worried about fostering an obsession with portion control.

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to raise healthy eaters, but we’re often the ones with food issues. Postpartum weight stress, anyone? Obsessive calorie counting? Carb bans? Or how about a lifetime of yo-yo dieting, weight-loss programs or pickiness? It’s tough to tell kids to eat their veggies when you’re replacing meals with diet cola. And some of us still find our way to the bottom of a pint of chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream on a bad day. How many of our children are growing up in a “Do what I say, not what I do” environment—and which message is winning?

Passing down unhealthy habits

According to physician Cathleen Steinegger and psychologist Robyn Legge, who run the Eating Disorder Program at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, saying one thing but doing another simply won’t hold up. “When a daughter hears her mother say things like ‘Beauty is on the inside; don’t diet, you’re beautiful just as you are,’ but observes her mom berating her own body, exercising and dieting with the expressed purpose of attaining an idealized body shape, and doing things to try to hide her natural self, that daughter has learned it’s important to compliment others, but she’s also learned that she should criticize her own body and work to change its natural shape to fit into idealized definitions of beauty.”

While some kids are genetically predisposed to developing issues around eating, Toronto child and adolescent psychiatrist Kevin Gabel agrees that eating behaviour is about more than just what’s on our plates. “It’s also about the way we talk about food, weight and health,” he says. “Kids pick up on their parents’ habits, but they also see what their parents value. If you’re disproportionately valuing weight or appearance, they may notice that, too.”

What’s a normal indulgence?

Eating to cope is a common strategy for adults, and kids can definitely pick it up, Gabel says, though he stresses that every indulgence isn’t an eating disorder in the making. If your kid occasionally turns to food for comfort, don’t make a big deal of it. If you have concerns, look at patterns of excessive eating rather than her pile of mashed potatoes at Easter dinner. He warns that being hyper-vigilant about healthy eating can backfire (we’ve all heard about the kid who goes wild at the birthday party candy table because he’s never allowed sweets at home).

So how can you break the cycle if you’re struggling with your own food issues? Helen Yeung, a registered dietitian at Vancouver Coastal Health, says you need to teach children how to be detectives so they can recognize the difference between hunger and emotional needs­—in other words, not seeing food as catch-all for filling any void. And when they eat is nearly as important as what they eat. Kids tend to crash (and binge) when they’re over-hungry, so encourage regular snacks, healthy portions and balanced meals. It’s important to realize, as Melnyk did, that the practices of many weight-loss programs aren’t appropriate—or healthy—for kids, who need a different balance of protein, fat, carbohydrates and nutrients to be healthy and stay full. In fact, kids need a higher percentage of fat than adults, so don’t restrict healthy sources like peanut butter, nuts, cheeses and meats from their diets.

Picking your battles


Not all food hang-ups are centred around overeating. Candide Dovey, a Burlington, Ont., mom of Síle, 12, and Liam, 10, is a self-described lifelong picky eater. “I don’t eat onions, any seafood (particularly things that look at me), cute animals like rabbit or lamb or duck, odd meats like organ meat, or anything spicy,” she explains. This can make dinners at other people’s homes very uncomfortable for Dovey. She also abandoned plans to become a vegetarian when she discovered there would be very little for her to eat that she enjoyed.

While Dovey isn’t apologetic about her eating habits, she’s not proud of them, either. “As an only child, I was never forced to eat anything I didn’t want to eat, which probably allowed me to become as picky as I am,” she says. She’s grateful that her kids haven’t inherited her dislikes, thanks to a husband who enjoys a wide variety of food and knows his way around the kitchen. Dovey does try to eat what’s on the dinner table, because she thinks it’s important for her kids to see her make the effort. “If there’s something that I’m not eating, I don’t make a big deal about it, but they’re still pushed to try it,” she says. “But that’s my husband’s job.”

Ultimately, healthy attitudes about food can’t be forced, but they can be encouraged. Renowned dietitian Ellyn Satter created an influential philosophy when she published Division of Responsibility in Feeding, which recommends that parents take charge of what, where and when food is offered, and leave children responsible for how much they eat. The idea is that if you offer up a variety of healthy foods, you can feel confident letting your kids make choices from those selections.

A better kind of model

In your day-to-day life, try to focus on health, rather than weight. “If I’m eating an apple for a snack it’s not because I’m being ‘good,’ it’s because I care about my health,” Yeung says. If your children notice you opting for fruit over cake, for example, use that opportunity to explain that it’s because you haven’t had enough fruit today, rather than saying it’s because cake makes you fat. Gabel suggests that if you’re restricting what you eat to lose weight or for other reasons, open up an age-appropriate dialogue about it to help your kids understand your motivation.

And instead of skipping meals or eating something different than the rest of your family, make parenthood your push to find ways around your food issues, so your kids learn a better way. Yeung reminds us that it’s never too late to try new things. “We can learn along with our kids. If we cook a new dish or even expand our repertoire of fruit and vegetables, that benefits the whole family.”

Decoding media’s messages


Of course, what you teach your kids at home is only part of the message they’re hearing. TV, social media, peers and magazines at the checkout counter often contribute to a child’s self-esteem and body-image issues.

Be aware of what your kids are looking at and try to educate them about why advertisers use certain types of models,” says Gabel. “Good conversations can be helpful, preventative and protective.” They also kick-start discussions and debates that will be ongoing as your kids face more issues in the years ahead. Teaching them to be media literate is key. Once they’re aware of what’s going on behind the scenes, kids often get riled up about the misrepresentation of bodies in media, which can be a great way of bolstering pride in their natural appearances.

Your voice, your choice

Even with media’s powerful presence, a parent’s influence reigns. “Children’s closest models for how they should live in their own bodies are their parents,” says Steinegger. “A mother shouldn’t be blamed for causing eating problems in her daughter, but a dieting environment at home teaches a child that dieting is normal. On the other hand, a home environment that contributes to positive self-esteem and body image can help mitigate other influences that may contribute to disordered eating. A child benefits from seeing parents treat their own bodies with respect.”

It’s a message that Melnyk wants to take more seriously. “People tell you, but you don’t know until you have children, that they really do watch you and follow your example. I can especially see that with my daughter,” she says. Melnyk knows that if she doesn’t make time for nutrition and regular exercise, her kids will perpetuate her family’s cycle of poor health and low self-esteem. “I want them to grow up healthy because of me, not despite me.”

* Name has been changed

What to say—and not to say


Instead of talking about the weight, size and shape of bodies, try talking about what bodies are able to do for us. “Look how strong that runner’s legs are.”

Instead of using food to help cope with emotions, try to make food sources of pleasure and nutrition. A hug and a good chat is more soothing than a bowl of ice cream.

Instead of labelling foods “good” or “bad,” try to stress that nutritious foods fuel our minds and bodies. “Oatmeal will give you more energy in gym class this morning than that sugary cereal.”

Instead of using dieting language like “calories,” “fat,” and “carbs,” try to model enjoyment of all the food groups. “Let’s create a rainbow of colours on our lunch plates.”

Instead of focusing on exercise to control weight and shape, try committing to a fun and active lifestyle as a family. “Why don’t we pack a picnic and bike to the park today?”


Instead of praising your children’s appearance, try celebrating their achievements. “I’m so proud of how you rocked that dance recital.”

Did you know?

  • In grade six, 36 percent of girls say they are self-confident, but by grade 10 this plummets to only 14 percent.
  • Almost half a million girls have posted YouTube videos of themselves asking “Am I pretty or am I ugly?”
  • A study found that about 50 percent of girls in grade six were dieting—by grade 10, it had increased to almost 60 percent.

Source: The Canadian Women’s Foundation

It’s not just a girl thing

A recent study found that young men were more self-conscious about their bodies after reading magazines with photos of sexualized women, based on the belief that girls would expect similar idealized physiques from men.

Do you need help?

If you think you have an eating disorder, struggle to feel comfortable in your own body, engage in restrictive dieting and exercise practices, or find it hard to see your own worth and beauty, it may be time to consider seeking professional help. A therapist can help you better understand the issues that affect your ability to live comfortably and happily in your body.

This article was originally published on Oct 13, 2019

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