Feeding kids can be difficult. We want them to eat nutritious foods that will help their bodies grow, while also raising confident eaters that have a healthy relationship to food. One thing I no longer do is label foods “good” or “bad.”
“SUGAR IS POISON”
One evening at the dinner table my father-in-law said “Sugar is poison.” Without skipping a beat, my 3-year-old indignantly exclaimed “Sugar is NOT poison!” We all erupted in laughter because she has a bit of a sweet tooth. But of course she was right, sugar is not poison.
So I responded to my sweet child by assuring her exactly that. Sugar is not poison. Sugar is a food that makes things taste sweet. It’s in foods she enjoys like cake and cookies.
But it got me thinking about what we say and how that affects our children. I hear these types of statements a lot:
Sugar is poison
Processed foods are bad for you
Chips are junk food
The average adult understands the meaning of these statements. Eaten in excessive amounts, over a long period of time, typically in combination with other negative health behaviors, these eating habits may cause some people to suffer negative health consequences such as diabetes, heart disease, and possibly certain types of cancer.
We know that a diet filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans is important to our health. We also know that too much saturated fat, refined sugar, and processed foods should be limited.
And we understand it’s about moderation. Specific nutrients aren’t to blame. The problem isn’t sugar, or gluten, or refined four. It’s a person’s overall diet and lifestyle.
However children don’t understand this when they hear “Sugar is poison” or “Chips are junk food.”
A CHILD’S PERSPECTIVE: LABELING FOODS “GOOD” OR “BAD”
When we label foods “good” or “bad” or “healthy” and “unhealthy” children may feel they are good or bad or healthy or unhealthy when they eat these foods. Turning certain foods into bad foods, may even lead children to engage in unhealthy behaviors like restricting or binging on these foods, especially when mom and dad aren’t around. Or it may lead them to diet at an early age.
I don’t want my daughter to feel bad or be ashamed about eating ice cream if she wants to. I want her to enjoy each and every bite.
The same goes with “good” or “healthy” food. I don’t want her to eat vegetables because she thinks it makes her good, or because she wants to please me, or because if she does so she will get dessert. I want her to eat them because she likes the taste. Because her body is telling her to and because eating them makes her feel good.
FOOD IS JUST FOOD
I don’t label foods “good” or “bad.” Instead I want my child to learn that food is just food. They can all fit, it’s about balance. I want her to listen to what her body is telling her. I want her to eat when she is hungry and stop when she is full without worry, or judgment, or shame.
BUT AREN’T SOME FOODS BETTER THAN OTHERS?
Yes, some foods are better for our bodies than others. My daughter is 3 and at this moment I’d like her to enjoy a wide variety of foods and have a healthy relationship with food.
Right now, we eat almost all of our meals together at home. I follow the Division of Responsibility and what that means is that I choose what is served and when it is served. She decides what she will eat and how much.
I serve a plant-based diet at home. We eat mainly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans. But we also enjoy refined grains, chips, cookies and ice cream too. I don’t mention that one food is superior to another. I don’t comment at all.
In a couple years I will talk to her about how some foods do a lot for our bodies while others do only a little. I will tell her that broccoli helps keep her immune system strong, makes her bones strong, and helps her learn. I will explain that foods like cake and cookies and ice cream give her some quick energy, but that is gone soon.
When she gets bigger she will be in school full time and will start eating more and more of her meals away from me. I hope by this time she has learned to trust herself and her body. That she feels good whether she chooses chips and a burrito for lunch or a salad. I hope she doesn’t judge herself based on her food choices, or what her body looks like, and I hope she doesn’t judge other people on these things either.
For more information about raising a healthy eater, see my post on The Division of Responsibility: Feeding Your Child
What about you? How do you talk about foods in your house? Do you label foods “good” or “bad”?