Last week my boys and I delivered food to a friend going through cancer treatment. Our friend had lost a considerable amount of weight, so we brought him high calorie, protein-rich foods to help him regain lost muscle. That night, Jack, my five year old mentioned he was happy that we gave our friend lots of “proteins” today.  Not only did I find his usage of “proteins” endearing, but I was also surprised. I didn’t realize he was listening to me discuss my friend’s diet as he did wheelies in my friend’s wheelchair.

Kids do listen and observe closely. Regardless of their age, they watch the foods we eat. They hear how we talk about food. They absorb our own self-image. Family, teachers, and peers also play a role, but we as parents, are the main characters.

Like other parenting tasks, teaching our kids about health isn’t always easy, and we don’t always get it right. Even as a dietitian, I mess up daily. I’ll hound them about too much sugar or scowl when they don’t eat their dinner. We’re human. We will naturally get triggered by some of our children’s choices or actions.

As we strive to maintain a healthy conversation about nutrition and health with our children, here are 3 areas I find worth considering:

1.  Take a look in the mirror.

What are your beliefs about health and nutrition? Do you believe all foods can fit or do you swear off carbs or restrict yourself from foods you enjoy? Do you perceive food as fuel, necessary for a healthy, long life? Or is food categorized as good or bad, serving as a way to reach a certain body weight or emotional state?

Our relationship with food is complex and unique to our upbringing and life experiences. This personal relationship is not wrong or right but does benefit from being assessed. What relationship do you want to pass down to your children? I believe self-awareness and consciousness is of value if we want to pass down healthy habits and a balanced mindset.

2. Celebrate your body’s diversity.

No one can hide from the media’s message portraying that you must be thin to be healthy. We cannot shelter our children’s eyes and ears forever from media’s influence. In fact, children as young as 3-5 years old show signs of believing thinness = goodness. It takes work on our part to counter this message. We can begin by outwardly celebrating our own diverse bodies in front of our children.

Try this:

Express that you love your big, strong legs because they allow you to hold your child above your head playing airplane.

Dance and move your body in front of them.

Show gratitude for the parts of our body that we often take for granted.  “I am so happy my stomach is soft for you to curl up and snuggle with me.”

I’ll be the first to say this isn’t easy and does not come naturally. However, when your kids hear you express pleasure with yourself, it gives them the space and confidence to do the same.

3. Eat with them and eat the same foods.

It can often be impossible for busy families with individual schedules to eat dinner together. Maybe breakfast is the ideal time? This time together is a time to connect. Plus, when children observe us eating healthy foods, they are likely to try them. One of my personal struggles is consistently eating the same foods. I often eat vegetarian meals while my kids and husband eat meat. Tonight, for example, my husband and kids are having chicken skewers while I am having a vegetarian version. Do they question, “why isn’t mom eating chicken like me?”  When we can, try and enjoy the same foods. If you have turned into a short-order cook, this might mean you start catering more meals to what YOU like to eat. We don’t have to tailor all meals to the food preferences of our children. Just offer one favorite food along with the meal you have prepared. Exposing children to new foods is valuable to creating lifelong, healthy eaters.  Our ultimate goal is one meal, one family.

Like everything else in parenting, our children learn from us. Let’s focus on modeling nutritious choices, having healthy food conversations and celebrating our unique bodies. We are quick to ensure that our kids take naps and eat before getting too hungry. We shower them with endless amounts of compassion when they struggle. Let’s apply the same treatment to ourselves. It’s never to late to start.

Jennifer McDaniel

Jennifer McDaniel is a Registered Dietitian, Media Spokesperson, and co-author of Prevention's Mediterranean Table Cookbook. She and her team of Registered Dietitians aim to help their clients go further, make change last, and unlock their potential. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband, and three young sons. If you are interested in working with Jennifer, please visit our contact page.