Universal Children's Day 2020: Expert on improving children's relationship with food

Updated: 20 November, 2020 13:33 IST | Maitrai Agarwal | Mumbai

Dr. Siddhant Bhargava, Fitness and Nutritional Scientist, discusses family meals, portion control, diet culture, leading by example, and more

Dr. Siddhant Bhargava
Dr. Siddhant Bhargava

With complex emotional and nutritional ties, food is among the most essential parts of our life. Having a positive relationship with food is the key to living a healthy life, however, our own experiences, body image issues, and the diet culture heavily impact this relationship. It becomes even more difficult when it comes to our children. How can adults who’ve been struggling with food and may have problematic behaviour patterns help their kids to develop a healthy relationship with food?

“Our culture often tends to make helping children to share a positive relationship with food a challenge. Parents often have a tough time teaching child to view food neutrally. Parents must note that most of the time their own experiences with food and body image tend to majorly influence how they communicate with food around children. Sometimes our own actions and behaviours tend to possibly damage the child’s food relationship”, said Dr. Siddhant Bhargava, Fitness and Nutritional Scientist, Co-Founder of Food Darzee. On Universal Children’s Day, Dr. Bhargava answers important questions on family meals, portion control, diet culture, and leading by example.

What are the top things parents must avoid doing which may negatively impact their kids’ relationship with food?

Emotional eating is a ritual that is quite common among adults, whether they are associating eating with positive or negative emotions - it is a practice that often develops in juvenile, but must be dodged. ‘Eating feelings’ or emotional eating generally tends to arise out of associating eating food with punishment or reward. In order to change this behaviour, parents must totally avoid using food as a bribe or reward.

Read also: Emotional Eating 101: Understanding the Way We Eat and Why We Cannot Follow Diets

In order to foster a positive food relationship, it is recommended that parents must avoid labelling foods as good or bad. Categorizing foods only upsurges a child's longing for that food.  Another point to remember is to never force kids to finish their plates during the family mealtime because by doing so, children may learn to overlook their internal signs of fullness. Parents who tightly regulate their own eating may give rise to restrained eaters in the form of their children. They must never exert excessive control over the child’s eating habits.

How can the age-old technique of using food as a reward or punishment impact your child’s relationship with food?

‘You will not be allowed to have dessert until you are done with your dinner’ or ‘if you behave properly you can have a cupcake’ are common techniques that parents tend to follow while dealing with kids and meals. Although this technique may seem easy, the major glitch with using food as a reward or penalty is that certain nutrients tend to be important, while other foods go down to become a chore. Children perceive the reward foods as more wanted and the chore edibles as something to be evaded. Non-food prizes like interactive activities pertaining to food or a day out with parents can prove to be just as operative. This will prevent parents from putting foods into 'good' and 'bad' categories.

How important is prioritizing family meals?

Family mealtimes are considered to be a protective factor against disordered eating patterns in kids. A defensive factor is something that facilitates lowering the peril of developing an eating disorder. With today’s busy schedules, it can be challenging to plan a family meal. Parents must however try to instil in them the habit of eating together as often as possible. Take some time out to enjoy each other’s company, try new foods, and sometimes even try cooking together. Family meals are indispensable for numerous reasons; it’s a chance for parents to model intuitive eating and also builds strong family relationships. 

What role does portion control play while creating a positive child-food relationship?

It can be a matter of concern for parents to let go of how much children consume. Children are inherent innate eaters, though. They understand their hunger pangs and know when they are full. They might settle towards some edibles more than others, and in that case, you can explore more foods together. Some kids tend to suffer from portion distortion which means that they tend to sideline their inner signals of fullness. In spite of being able to discover and revel in the foods in front of them, kids feel like they must eat everything that is on their plate just to reach the dessert. Hence parents must give children the liberty to choose their portions and never force-feed them or ask them to finish all that’s on their plate. It is ok to let go of finishing the plate in order to enable them to listen to their internal hunger cues.

What can parents do to build resiliency against the diet culture that our children will inevitably encounter in the world?

The vital thing to comprehend is that just like the way parents can spread body negativity, likewise, they can also transmit body neutrality. Even without you speaking, how you regard your body will impact your child’s views about 'good' bodies, and how their own bodies are associated with this standard. Parents must try and set the tone that all bodies are good bodies in order to safeguard that the diet culture cycle ends with them. This will go a long way in ensuring that our children grow up with an optimistic or neutral association with food. 

How important is it for parents to lead by example when it comes to diet? 

Kids consider parents to be their role models and tend to follow what they see. This is especially true in the case of healthy eating. Watching a parent eating hated edibles or trying new foods, such as vegetables and greens can improve a child's penchant for those foods. Fruit and vegetables are exceptional for growing children in numerous ways and parents can facilitate in promoting them to their kids by themselves eating these meals and explaining to them the importance of consuming such nutritious edibles. Having said that, a parent who constantly starves and restricts the urge to eat food in order to lose weight can have an immediate bearing on the child who will also follow suit.

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First Published: 20 November, 2020 13:17 IST

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