Leah and Frank sat down for a talk after the kids were finally in bed. “I’m worried about Johnny,” Leah began. “He eats so fast! I really don’t think he takes time to chew and swallow! I know he’s a growing 13-year-old. But he is getting a tire around his middle!”
Frank nodded, “Yes, I don’t like it either. There are always candy wrappers in his room and he laughs about sneaking food. I’m also worried about Maria. She’s always ‘on a diet.’ She almost never eats with us, and even then, she won’t eat what we’re eating.”
” I had my own problems with crazy dieting when I was a teenager,” sighs Leah. “I swore I wouldn’t let this happen to my kids, but I don’t know if we’re doing it right.”
” And I was a chubby kid who ate too much junk food,” Frank added. “We don’t want our kids going through that either. So now what do we do?”
Many parents like Leah and Frank wonder how to teach their children to have healthy relationships with food. Like most adults, they have their own histories of learning how to eat the right amount of food, how to choose the right kinds of food and how to accept the bodies they get when they do that.
Adolescence is a time when children want increasing independence – which includes making their own decisions about eating. Yet we are still our children’s parents when they are teens, and this means we are still responsible for feeding them. What can parents do – and what should parents avoid – to encourage their children to have a healthy relationship with food?
Amazingly, providing a good old-fashioned family dinner is still one of the most important things parents provide for their children. Research shows that teens whose families eat dinner together eat better foods, feel better about themselves and even do better in school. Kids who eat dinner with their families are significantly better nourished and less likely to be overweight than their less fortunate peers.
Today’s busy families may not be able to eat together every night. But making the effort to schedule some regular sit-down meals together each week will have big rewards. Teens who eat meals frequently with their families are reportedly happier and less likely to engage in risky behavior. Parents also report better relationships with their teens when they share dinners together, perhaps because sharing meals strengthens family connections. (It goes without saying that electronics and other distractions are not invited to the table, since that would defeat the purpose.)
Nutritionist and Family Therapist Ellyn Satter also urges parents to refrain from scolding or nagging during mealtimes. Family dinners should be relaxed and pleasurable experiences for everyone at the table. As your teens will happily remind you, no one likes feeling “watched” while they eat, and everyone hates feeling pressured or lectured. So, talk about anything but the food. Sometimes, you may even find yourself saying, “You don’t have to eat, just sit here and keep us company while we have dinner.”
While the meal itself is relaxed, you will want to make and uphold the common-sense rule that there is “no snacking right before or after dinner.” But during the meal, people should feel free to eat what they want and as much or as little as they want.
As young teens make more of their own eating decisions, your job as Mom or Dad will be changing. You continue to have an enormous influence over your kids’ choices and habits, especially their eating habits. Teens who grow up with healthy eating habits learn best by sharing good meals and good family meal routines with their parents.
Ten Tips to Promote Healthy Relationships to Food, Eating and Weight
- Join your child for meals regularly. Provide good company, as well as good food. Make your family mealtimes relaxed and enjoyable. Share conversations about anything but the food and what the children are or aren’t eating.
- Respect that your child’s eating is her responsibility and she is capable of learning and using good habits. Your praise, scolding, urging and supervision will not be helpful to your growing adolescent and will probably provoke power struggles.
- Encourage your children to slow down and enjoy their food by eating in a relaxed way with them. Encourage your reluctant or limited eaters to join the meal by serving at least one food they like and making meal time pleasurable.
- Provide foods that generally please your children and you. Sometimes your child will only eat bread and skip your casserole. This is usually not a problem. Most children gradually learn to enjoy all kinds of food by seeing their parents eat the same food with obvious enjoyment.
- By adolescence, children will seem less interested in what we tell them, while continuing to be very interested in how their parents behave. Moaning, “I hate myself for eating these cookies, but I just can’t stop,” is probably going to teach the wrong lesson to your child. When parents show their children good examples of enjoying both healthy foods and occasional indulgences without shame or regret, children will be inspired to develop their own good habits with food, too.
- If family meals frequently result in stress and conflict, your family may want to consult with professionals for help. Sometimes, adolescents develop eating disorders which can be very difficult to reverse and can lead to serious consequences.