How I’m Trying to Avoid Passing on My Food Issues to My Kids

updated Sep 30, 2020
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I have issues with food. And to a degree, I think it’s impossible to avoid some issues with food, whether that means not stopping when full, feeling guilty about overindulging, or emotionally eating or restricting.

What I hope is possible is not passing down my personal issues to my kids. Feeding kids is already tricky enough. Add to that the idea that you could maybe hurt them psychologically and it’s enough to make a mom like me lose sight of logic all together.

That’s why I decided to speak with a couple of professionals. Cheryl Kornfeld, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist with extensive experience working in eating disorder facilities. She told me the most important thing I needed to do was accept that many people suffer from issues with food, and it’s totally OK (and Kornfeld urges, important) to acknowledge them and deal with them as best we can.

Here’s what else Kornfeld and Tzivie Pill, an eating psychology coach and student at Wurzwiler School of Social Work, have to share about navigating food issues between parents and children.

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1. Be aware of your non-verbal cues about food.

Kornfeld says kids as young as 2 years old can pick up on their parents’ eating habits and attitudes towards food. And it’s not just about avoiding calling bread “bad” — she says that “more so than words, non-verbal cues from parents can be harmful, whether that be towards what the children are eating or for the food of the parents themselves.”

Your kids can pick up the anxiety and frustration around mealtime too. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but to try to combat this Kornfeld says you should “think about food and talk about food as a fuel for your body, which is a vessel that helps you to do the tasks you want to do, rather than something that may be fat, skinny, ugly, pretty, good, or bad.” Communicating this with your kids is also important.

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2. Start an open dialogue about social media and food shame.

Kornfeld says that social media is both helpful and harmful (no surprises there). While there are a growing number of websites and movements on social media that celebrate people exactly as they are, it’s also easy to fall down a rabbit hole of food shame.

Kornfeld explains that “there are websites and social media posts everywhere you look commending extremely thin women for their figure, as well as websites and posts on how to lose weight. There are even pro-eating disorder posts if you search for them.”

The best thing you can do as a parent is to encourage open and honest communication without judgement. Kornfeld suggest you talk about the effects social media has on the individual. Tzivie Pill, agrees: “I think social media, like anything, can be a great thing or it can be detrimental. How you use it and what you surround yourself with makes a big difference to how it will impact you.”

It’s just about knowing what is good for you and practicing moderation — sort of like food itself.

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3. Help picky eaters find freedom within framework.

You need to play the long game when it comes to picky eaters at home. As Pill says, “You want your child to grow up being a competent eater as an adult. That means fostering their natural intuition around food.”

Food can be a lot about control, and by giving a little structure and freedom without losing your mind when your kid turns down the delicious turkey meatloaf you made, you can encourage healthy, non-punitive eating patterns.

Kornfeld dives deeper into the idea of the picky eater. “Most kids, at some point, are picky eaters. It is important to manage your expectations, frustration, and anxiety as a parent and let the toddler explore their taste buds.”

Kornfeld says you should also encourage three balanced meals and three snacks per day to limit restrictive or bingeing behaviors. “Allow your child to have the snack of his or her choice in order to give your child the balance he or she may need and to discourage feeling starved by waiting for hours in between meals, particularly if the child is active,” she continues.

I’m going to try really hard to remember this the next time my toddler son gags on my homemade dinner.

More on Picky Eaters

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4. Don’t stop talking to your kids about food.

The truth is that there isn’t a road map to navigating food issues with kids. And the most helpful thing you can do as a parent is just to continue to have an open dialogue around food and body size. Kornfeld also says that “if you know that you have your own issues with food and body size, it is important to have a space to work through them so they do not show up in front of your child.”

She also notes that despite all the tips and advice in this and other articles, it’s important to not blame yourself for any food issues your child develops. All you can do is have open, honest, body- and food-positive discussions in age-appropriate ways. Much of that will depend on each individual child and parent.

Do you have any advice to share?