I felt my daughter watching, that quizzical look in her eyes. She noticed when I cooked separate meals for myself, when I turned down my husband’s pancakes, and when I didn’t swim with them in the ocean. It was always no.
One day – Mommy, why aren’t you eating toast with us?
I didn’t have a good answer. The real reason was that I was on-off struggling with healthy-eating-turned-obsession (aka orthorexia), although I didn’t know it at the time.
My diet was very restrictive and I forced my family to eat healthy versions of everything. I’d even bake sugar-free, gluten-free and dairy-free birthday cakes, much to the children’s disappointment.
After my youngest was born I wanted to “get back on track” and this slowly morphed into a rigid eating pattern where I’d given up many foods for the sake of “health”. Only it wasn’t healthy – I was constantly tired and it impacted my mental health.
My daughter’s innocent question was a bombshell: why wasn’t I eating toast? She was watching me, and soon she’d be copying me – turning down food, being restrictive, and over-exercising, just like her mom. The last thing I wanted to do was pass this on.
Years later, I’m fully recovered and doing my best to role model a positive relationship with food and body image to my children. Here are 4 tips to help any caregiver:
Tip #1 Avoid food labels
Do you label food, perhaps referring to it as “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”? Labels like this can moralize food, and it’s better to call it what it is – an apple or a bar of chocolate. This avoids children feeling like a bad person when they eat the food you’ve called “naughty”.
Tip #2 Don’t comment on your child’s body
Perhaps this is obvious, but just don’t comment on your child’s size or shape. Even if it’s to praise them for weight loss. Weight will fluctuate, especially through puberty, and a comment can be something they carry for life.
Even the positive comments can be harmful because there’s a subtle assumption that they are better in a smaller body. Imagine how they’ll feel if the weight comes back? It’s much better to stick to comments about personality or behavior, rather than looks.
Tip #3 Don’t comment on your own body
Perhaps you’ve never said negative things to your kids, but what about your self-talk? Have you criticized your own weight, thighs or stomach rolls? A child can internalize these thoughts – if mommy feels bad about her tummy and she’s so beautiful, then my tummy must be awful.
Tip #4 Don’t overly restrict food
You might be tempted to restrict and control the “less healthy” food, but this puts them on a pedestal. Your kids will probably want sweets more if you restrict them.
Elevating food can backfire too – like telling your kids they must eat all their broccoli. As parents, our job is to provide the food and decide whether or not dessert is on the menu, and then it’s up to the kids to decide what to eat. I find it works best to offer a variety of food, including both nutrient-dense and some less so.
I hope that these tips can help you model a positive relationship with food and body image to your children.
Dr Lara Zibarras is the food freedom psychologist, helping women create a healthy and happy relationship with food, without guilt or stress-eating. She is the founder of Food Freedom Matters – a program to help you feel in charge and confident around food, eat dessert without guilt, find “healthy” without the obsession and give up the constant monitoring of calories, grams of sugar and labels. If you are frustrated with restriction and feeling out of control around food, then this helps you find freedom and joy in eating again. Find out more here: https://drlarazib.com/masterclass