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Nutrition: How to create a healthy relationship with food for your children – LA Daily News

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From the beginning, babies and young children have the innate ability to eat intuitively. Naturally, they eat when they are hungry and stop when they have had enough. Positive experiences with food and eating as a child results in a healthier relationship with food as an adult. Parents, close family members and other caregivers help shape this food relationship. Keeping the conversation about food emotionally neutral can be challenging for adults who have their own complex histories with food and their bodies, but doing so can help children grow up to be confidant and healthy eaters. Here are some important considerations for raising children to have a healthy relationship with food.

Explore Food Together

There are so many accessible and fun opportunities outside of the home for children to discover new foods. Visit your neighborhood farmer’s market to check out what produce is in season and sample something new. Better yet, take a short drive to some local farms that provide opportunities to pick your own fruit and veggies. Next time you are at the grocery store, take your little one to the salad bar to help choose the ingredients and then taste the salad together. Use these hands on experiences to broaden the scope of foods in your child’s wheelhouse.

Keep Diet Talk Under Wraps

While it’s not unusual for adults to moderate or restrict what they eat for health or weight loss purposes, it is not ideal for children to be exposed to diet talk, which can be confusing and set the wrong tone. Children can be taught at a young age that food gives them energy to run fast or the vitamins to see better, but it can be harmful to normalize dieting or put kids on diets. Similarly, it’s best to avoid terms like “good foods” and “bad foods”, which evoke shame or guilt and instead talk more about “everyday foods” and “sometimes foods”.

Don’t Use Food Rewards and Food Punishments

It can be tempting to offer edible treats as a way to motivate good behavior. Furthermore, it is not unusual for parents and caregivers to tell kids they will get dessert if they finish their meal. One of the problems with food rewards is that they are not emotionally neutral and place certain foods as superior to others when they must be earned or can be taken away as a punishment. Plus, encouraging young children to finish their meal in order to enjoy dessert can lead to ignoring internal signals of fullness in order to gain the external reward. Instead, non-food incentives like a special outing with a parent, extra books at bedtime and fun activities based on the child’s age, for example, can serve as better rewards.

Sit Down for Family Meals

One habit that has exponential benefits for kids is the family meal. Sitting down at the table for dinner as a family helps improves the quality of what kids eat, leads to better academic success and fewer weight concerns while lowering rates of depression, substance abuse and eating disorders. Busy families with hectic schedules can struggle to find time to eat meals together, but just increasing the frequency of family meals and cooking more often at home can make a difference.

Help Kids Feel a Sense of Control

Picky eating can start in early toddler years and continue for years to come. This behavior can stem from little ones wanting to demonstrate independence and exercise control in an environment where very little is up to them. Providing an upbeat, positive eating experience and offering a variety of foods can help set the tone for a wider acceptance to new foods. Keep in mind that it can take multiple exposures for a child to accept a new food. Avoid identifying a list of disliked foods or labeling a child “picky.” Instead continue to offer many healthy foods in various formats such as cooked, raw, seasoned, plain, pureed, and whole to increase familiarity. Avoid creating a power struggle by staying calm, consistent and patient.

While all of these strategies take time, energy and even some self-awareness, the benefits will be worth the efforts as they will result in a child with better eating habits and a positive relationship with food.

LeeAnn Weintraub, a registered dietitian, provides nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and businesses. Do you have a nutrition question that you’d like her to address in a future column? Send LeeAnn an email at RD@halfacup.com.

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