Helping Children Have a Healthy Relationship with Food

Raising holistic kids, one meal at a time
iStock / skynesher

Parenting is by far the most demanding job there is! Of all the parental responsibilities, I believe that one of the most vital ones is instilling a positive and holistic connection to food. Teaching children to develop healthful eating habits goes far beyond what most people typically consider. Choosing wholesome foods is one part of it, but learning where food comes from and bringing mindfulness to mealtimes are also essential elements in a lifetime of healthy behaviours.

iStock / Maria Pavlova

Growing healthy food connections

If you ask any holistic nutrition practitioner, they’ll agree that good eating habits start young. However, encouraging children to eat more vegetables, for instance, can itself prove challenging. Kids will often choose a treat over a carrot, but since they learn by example, parents need to be role models and choose healthy foods too! Nevertheless, if we want to create lasting healthy habits, putting good quality food in front of a child is simply not enough: We must create a stronger connection between children and food. Educating kids on what it means to eat real food is a vital and essential part of a healthy and holistic lifestyle.

Let’s get children involved with every part of food: from growing it, to preparing it, and, of course, eating it. Children love to get their hands dirty and are naturally curious, so teaching them to grow their own food is an exciting way for them to be part of the process. Kids will enjoy planting the seeds, watching them sprout, and gathering the harvest. It can be as simple as an indoor herb garden or as involved as an organic vegetable garden.

If gardening sounds like too much at first, begin by getting kids to participate in food shopping. Visit a farmers’ market or the grocery store and have them select different fruits and veggies they’d like to try. Include them in the meal preparation too! No matter what their age, there is always something they can do. Washing produce, arranging veggies on a sheet pan, and even measuring ingredients are effective techniques for building food connections. It may extend meal prep time, but the effort is worth it. They’ll have fun and they’ll definitely be more likely to eat what they’ve helped to prepare.

Family mealtimes matter!

Encouraging children to eat nourishing food is an important factor in promoting lifelong healthy habits, but there’s more! When it comes to holistic nutrition, we also consider other key lifestyle factors, such as a positive mealtime environment. Did you know that families who eat together often eat healthier? Studies have shown that eating as a family has been linked to better overall food choices. Research has also shown that sharing a meal plays a huge role in mental health. Kids who regularly ate dinner with their families were happier overall than those who didn’t.

How can we create a positive mealtime environment? Well, for one, shut off the television and put away the phones and devices. Enjoying a family meal together, without distraction, is a wonderful opportunity for conversation. Family mealtimes help children to feel loved and more self-confident, which encourages better communication. Also, if you’ve ever eaten in front of the TV, you’ll know that distraction can cause you to eat more. Children who are distracted while eating are at greater risk for childhood obesity, as they are more likely to overeat and/or to choose unhealthier items.

Setting an ideal atmosphere for mealtimes at home can be challenging with today’s busy lifestyle. Often children are overscheduled with extracurricular activities, so rather than digesting well through a sit-down dinner, kids can often be found eating on-the-go. But eating together doesn’t need to only happen at dinnertime! Choose a time that works best for your family. If you can find a few extra minutes at breakfast, make that the meal you enjoy together, and set a healthy tone for the day. If you find that meals are always rushed, plan ahead. Meal prepping on the weekends is an excellent way to minimize cooking time on busy weeknights, and translates into more quality time during meals.   

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Mindfulness & mealtimes

One advantage of developing strong connections between children and food is that it also paves the way for mindful eating. Eating mindfully is the process of using all your senses while eating. It is a powerful way to gain greater awareness of your innate hunger and satiety cues, in turn, positively influencing your ability to make choices that will support your overall health.

Children are strongly connected to their innate hunger cues, but due to various factors such as reward-eating, children lose touch with those cues. This is where mindfulness can improve both eating habits and one’s relationship with food as a whole. It teaches children to stay connected to their body’s inner wisdom. They begin to better understand their hunger and the triggers for it. It is common for children to eat out of boredom or habit; so being more mindful helps to shift from these external cues to their natural hunger cues. Instilling mindfulness is an excellent way to prevent childhood obesity, since children become better at understanding the feeling of fullness. As parents, we can teach children to recognize why they need to eat, take note of how they feel after they eat, and learn how different foods make them feel. Therefore, practicing mindfulness will help children to eat at more appropriate times (when they’re truly hungry) and will prevent overindulgence. Chances are it will also promote a preference for more nourishing foods.

There are many techniques for increasing mindfulness among children. Something as easy as deep-breathing helps to slow things down and create a sense of relaxation before eating, and supports proper digestion. Keeping mealtimes calm and unhurried and being in the moment will allow a child to use all of their senses each time they eat. It also allows their brain to register when their tummy is full. When kids request food, ask them to take a moment to think about how hungry they really are, because mealtime is the best opportunity to maximize the pleasures and advantages of a holistic approach to eating. As mentioned, you’ll want to bring mealtime back to the kitchen table and remove any distractions that may hinder the positive benefits discussed above.

Small changes toward a more holistic approach can lead to significant results with respect to health and wellness. Nourishing food enjoyed with the people you love will create positive and lasting connections to food, oneself, and to each other. Ultimately, healthy, happy kids have a way of becoming healthy, happy adults.