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Eat Well Wednesday: Food mistakes parents make

Kate Freeman

‘Mistakes’ can be a horrible word. It’s often associated with the word ‘fail’ and we’d rather not associate any of those words with raising our kids.

But mistakes aren’t all bad.

They’re an opportunity. An opportunity to take stock, re-think our approach and try again differently. Mistakes are what lead us to success in the end, especially if we learn from them and change.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes when it has come to feeding my children and there are lots of things I’d do differently if I had to do it over. I can’t go back and change, but I can move forward in a new direction and I can also share with you, my thoughts about raising healthy eaters.

Here are three food mistakes that parents often make, including me..

We diet in front of them.

Who grew up with a mother who was constantly on a diet? Are you constantly on a diet? Does your child watch you skip dinner because you ate a chocolate bar? Does your child watch you eat a meal replacement shake and not the dinner that you prepared for them? Do you complain about your weight or say things like “I’m going to be good and not eat any more bad food”? Do you say things like “Ice cream will make your bum fat”?

If you’ve done those things before, don’t get worried that you’ve scarred your children for life. You haven’t. We just need to be mindful about what we’re teaching our children about food and work on improving both our language and our behaviour about the way we eat and view our bodies.

I lost weight via an online program about five years ago after my son was born. Over about 12 months I lost 6 kilograms and ran a half-marathon. However, at one point during the whole process I became imbalanced. I started cooking family meals that I didn’t eat, say words like “I’ve eaten all my calories today so I’m not having dinner” and losing the balance that I so passionately preach. My daughter was three at the time and probably doesn’t remember it but looking at her innocent little face as she tucked into a meal that I’d made while I just sat at the table drinking water made me realise a few things:

Food is just that. Food. It’s nothing to be afraid of, it doesn’t make us good or bad, its not the be all and end all in life. It’s one part of our daily routine and we need the proper skills to get it right, but once our diet is serving it’s purpose of fuelling our day and promoting good health, we can move on with the other things we need to do.

I didn’t want my daughter or my son becoming imbalanced by watching me do silly things like skip meals because I’d reached my calorie quota for the day. I want them to have the skills to eat well and manage their weight so they never have to ride the ‘weight loss wagon’ at all and get sucked into the vortex that is dieting.

I changed from that point on. Now I create healthy, vegetable rich food everyday. Food low in nutrition is rarely available and if it is, we eat it and enjoy it. My children will grow up with vegetables and minimally processed food as the norm. As they get older (late primary school) I will gradually talk to them about food and what makes it healthy, but for now it’s about establishing a healthy normality and consistency rather then grouping foods into good and bad.

I talk positively about my body (as much as I can, I’m still working on that) and food. I try really hard not to talk about food in a moral sense (it can be challenging if you were brought up like that) and I don’t talk about certain foods making you ‘fat’ or ‘undesirable’. People are valuable regardless of what they eat or how they look.

We let them choose what they want to eat. 

Almost every paediatric nutritionist or dietitian would agree that a good overarching principle to encourage in your home is this:

“The parent decides WHAT and WHEN the child eats. The child decides WHAT and HOW MUCH off their plate that they eat.”

We’ve often got this the wrong way around. We let the kids decide what they want to eat and then we argue with them about it. Once the food is on their plate we beg, bribe and coax them to eat certain food off it. This makes for super stressful meal times, trust me, I know.

The principle above takes the stress out of the occasion by giving each party (parent and child) the appropriate responsibility.

It’s the parent’s responsibility to provide WHAT the child eats. Safe and nutritious food. If you don’t want your kids eating unhealthy food, than don’t make it available. Kids don’t have the knowledge or the analytical skills to choose appropriate food for themselves. This is something we teach them gradually as they grow. It’s also the responsibility of the parent to decide WHEN the child eats. If you don’t want your child snacking all day, then put rules around the kitchen and when it’s open or closed.

It’s the child’s responsibility to decide WHAT and HOW MUCH off their plate that they eat. They should be able to eat as much or as little as they want from what you’ve made available. That’s their job. Don’t let it bother you if they don’t want to eat certain things. You control what goes on the plate and they control what goes in their mouths.

We bribe them with food.

You know the drill: “Eat your vegetables and you can have ice cream for dessert.” I grew up with this precedent and it’s a tough one to break, but it really does need breaking.

Although bribing achieves the desired short-term outcome: Your child eats vegetables. It doesn’t achieve the long term outcome of your child having a healthy relationship with food. Think about your own food upbringing and your subsequent food relationship. Is it imbalanced? Do you reward yourself with unhealthy foods when you’ve done a big workout or survived a stressful day at work? Do you love eating vegetables for what they are or do you see them as a chore? Are you stuck in a bad habit of always wanting to eat something sweet after a meal?

Using one food as a reward for eating another raises the status of the reward food to a pedestal where it doesn’t belong. The child will hate the vegetables (or other food) more and love the reward food even stronger. Your long term goal with feeding your kids is raising them to love healthy food and see it as a normal part of self-care, not a chore that they have to force themselves to do.

If you have more questions about feeding your kids, then please contact us over at The Healthy Eating Hub.


Kate Freeman

Kate Freeman is a Registered Nutritionist and the founder and managing director of The Healthy Eating Hub. Kate’s healthy eating philosophy is all about whole, fresh foods, being realistic about life and creating long term healthy eating habits. She doesn’t believe in detoxes, fad diets or quick fixes. Once you’ve finished working with Kate, you’ll be empowered to feed yourself well for the rest of you life! More about the Author

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