Eating disorders across the spectrum are on the rise. And with research showing that parental influence is often a leading variable in children’s eating behaviors, it seems that now, more than ever before, parents are wondering how to raise a competent, intuitive eater – one who will develop a healthy lifelong relationship with food.
To learn more, we spoke to Liz Fayram, a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist in Rhode Island who provides nutrition counseling sessions to individuals who are overwhelmed by food or eating.
Whether you’re worried your child is overeating, under-eating, or you’re just wondering how to broach the subject of eating habits, here are Liz’s suggestions and answers to questions about raising a competent eater:
1. Speak with a pediatrician first to figure out what your child needs
Regardless of whether the concern is coming from a parent or a healthcare provider, Liz advises parents to speak with the child’s pediatrician first. This conversation can take place on the phone, or in person.
"Concerns about a child’s diet may enter your radar when your healthcare provider brings it up as a concern, or if you’ve noticed your child’s relationship with food has changed," says Liz.
Remember that some eating change is normal during growth. Speaking to a healthcare provider prior to your child can help you determine what, exactly, you need to address with your child.
2. Set aside adequate time for discussion (but avoid bringing up at meal times)
Set aside time in the safety and comfort of the home environment – not around meal times! – to have a kid-friendly conversation. As Liz points out, “the last thing we would want is for a child to be put on the spot and to make them feel vulnerable!”
Bring in curiosity about how they are doing with food at school. Liz recommends some of the following questions as starting points:
- Are they eating lunch?
- Do they have friends they can eat with?
- Do they like their lunches?
- Do they eat breakfast/have access to breakfast?
Make it an easy-going conversation – loop in personal experience so as not make your child feel “abnormal.” If a child is higher on the growth curve, it is very important to avoid reacting right away. Rather than jumping to conclusions, assess for outside factors – bullying, anxiety, or depression are typical issues that might come up.
Finally, Liz suggests reminding your child that “bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and they are important no matter what their weight. Lab values and vital signs are much more indicative of health status, even in children, than weight markers. Weight changes constantly in the growth process.”
3. Lead the conversation with compassion, and use open-ended questions
As with most conversations, a conversation about a child’s eating habits is best begun with compassion.
Start with a request for permission to talk about something that’s going on. Liz suggests steering clear of phrases like “I’m worried about your weight and eating” in favor of more general, open-ended questions, such as, “How do you think we are doing with food we eat at home? How about at school – do you have food you enjoy?” and continuing from there.
“Work to ask questions and get the child’s insight on what they would like to see happening around food,” she says.
End with trust. “Parents have to go in with the understanding that kids are wise and are capable of trusting their body and appetite.”
Want help navigating this, and other tricky conversations, with your kids? A child psychologist can help! They can work with your child for various concerns. They can also work with you to develop deeper parenting skills and behavior management techniques, based on your unique family needs and situation.
4. Lead by example with these methods
Know that children are constantly paying attention to the eating behavior of those around them, especially their parents.
“I encourage families to eat together as often as possible, and in as much of a peaceful environment as they can create,” Liz says.
Liz points to Ellyn Satter’s book Division of Responsibility for reference. Parents are encouraged to buy, choose, and prepare the food (all activities in which kids are encouraged to be involved!) – but it is ultimately up to the child to decide when they are hungry/full, and how much to eat at those times.
Here are ways you can lead by example for your children at meal time:
- Sit down to eat together as much as possible
- Encourage positive discussions about nutrition
- Eat a variety of food groups
- Listen to your own body for appetite cues
- Practice mindful eating
- Eliminate distractions like TV from the dinner table
- Talk about things in addition to just food when eating meals
- Avoid discussion of dieting or body shaming
5. Separated? Implement co-parenting ground rules
Consistent good habits are possible if you are separated and your a child is living between two households.
“We want to minimize developing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels around food. Sometimes this isn’t easy, especially if the separation is sticky, but having regular conversation between parents about the food set up can be useful,” says Liz.
Work together to develop a list of food and eating values, and try to get everyone on the same page. Include some food continuity – e.g., similar snacks, desserts, and meal offerings – across households.
Do your best to keep the child’s needs at top of mind in when navigating the conversation, and allow for support from a family therapist and/or registered dietitian who specializes in pediatrics and eating disorders.
6. Consider therapy to navigate difficult conversations
Weight, diet, and food habits are tricky waters to navigate – regardless of age. If you want help broaching the issue to ensure warmth and efficacy, consider speaking with therapist who can help you convey your concern and love, sans notes of judgment or criticism.
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