A good relationship with food can be preventative for developing problematic eating behaviours like disordered eating or eating disorders. You can help your tweens and teens develop & nurture this relationship.
First let’s give a bit of a definition for what it means to have a good relationship with food.
A tween or teen with a good relationship with food is:
- Comfortable and adventurous around food
- Able to eat intuitively without rules
- Confidently eating to meet their body’s needs
- Not obsessed about food
This doesn’t doesn’t mean they’ll eat everything or not be picky, never overeat or always be in sync with their body’s needs.
It’s a general respect for food and the recognition of what it does for them, enjoying food, and moving onto other activities when it’s no longer eating time.
Raising adolescents to have a good relationship with food
Allow all food
“All” food means exactly what it sounds like. This includes fast food, chips & candy, chocolate and cookies. It also means salmon and broccoli, chicken and potatoes, and cheese and avocadoes. To have a good relationship with food, kids need regular access to it all.
*If you chose an eating pattern that doesn’t include certain foods for religious or ethical reasons, that’s okay and your child can still have a good relationship with food. Adolescents are really good at picking up nuance, so they can understand whether food is being restricted or there are other reasons it’s not in your home.
Provide reliable access
To help adolescents and teens get comfortable around food and learn to eat according to their body’s needs, they need reliable access. If they’re only allowed to eat a food infrequently, they’ll likely eat it until it’s done rather than when they’re done. The more frequently they’re allowed to eat a food, the more they habituate around it, it loses it’s excitement, and they can take or leave it depending on their current needs.
Don’t label food – keep it neutral
Call food by what it is without the judgement. If we’re allowing all the food, we need to really-truly allow it; and that’s represented by how we talk about it. Do you really want to eat something that’s “toxic”? How do you feel after eating something “sinful”? The words we use to describe food have a real impact on how we feel about the food and ourselves for eating it. If we want to create a neutral or positive relationship with food, we need to speak that way.
Have scheduled meals & snacks
Scheduled eating opportunities is helpful for kids to develop hunger signals and learn to recognize them. Without a schedule, kids are free to graze and they never feel a sensation of real hunger. And then they don’t eat until full. With scheduled times for eating and not eating, kids can get really in tune with their body’s signals and needs.
It also helps with them not thinking about food between meals. They’re free to do all the things without worrying about their next meal.
For older tweens and teens this can be slightly difficult to implement as they’re more independent and responsible for their schedule and likely making (some of) their own meals and snacks. You can discuss the benefits of scheduled eating times, help them create an eating schedule that works for them and allows them to come hungry to family meals.
(Read more about the benefits of scheduled meals & how to make family meals enjoyable.)
Let them eat as much/little as they feel
The goal is for kids to eat in response to their body’s needs. They can’t do that if they’re being told to “take one more bite”, “finish what’s on your plate”, or “haven’t you had enough?”
Shut down diet talk
Diets take away body trust and rely on outside cues to dictate how much one eats.
Diets don’t promote health; they use restriction and ignoring body cues to change bodies. If you hear your child discussing restriction, idealizing particular body types, cutting out specific food or limiting their intake for reasons other than fullness, you need to address that.
Dieting or restriction can start at a really young age as kids are exposed to messages about nutrition and health that aren’t age-appropriate (read more about that here). That’s why it’s so important to shut down that talk from the people around you they may hear it from. Concerned grandparents, dieting adults, friends, media… messages of restriction are everywhere, unfortunately, and affects the positive relationship with food.
The relationship with food and body is very intertwined. Feeling confident and comfortable in their body can help prevent kids from seeking out diets & restriction. Dieting is usually started to change appearance and body shape. When kids feel good in their body, they won’t try to change themselves through dieting.
Being in tune with their body’s needs and signals can also help with developing that respect. Bodies are amazing creations! Recognizing how it keeps us thriving and surviving can help with that respect and want to treat it properly. (read more about helping kids develop a positive body image)