How to help your child develop a healthy relationship with food

Talking about food and body image.
Talking about food and body image. Photo: Getty

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Talking to your child about food can be daunting. Children are becoming more and more conscious of their bodies, people's comments, and what and how they eat at an increasingly young age. They look to adult role models in their life to help them build a healthy relationship with food, but many of us don't know what that looks like.

With a strong focus on wellbeing, Mentone Girls' Grammar School holds parenting seminars to help their community navigate some of the difficult issues faced when raising children. Principal, Mrs Fran Reddan said the School had recently invited Dr Rick Kausman to talk about how to protect children from eating disorders and promote 'mindful eating' as a proactive measure to help parents with this difficult area.

Dr Kausman has worked for over 20 years with people who are locked in a constant battle with food, erratic dieting and fluctuating weight. "Dieting is never the answer. We need to develop a positive relationship with food – one that is not centred on deprivation, punishment and guilt."

"Instead of relying on our body's natural intuition, diets force us to comply with a set, rigid and unnatural eating plan. Some days we are hungrier than others – and that's okay."

His philosophy is to use 'mindful eating' to think about how to eat for nutrition and wellbeing – without banishing the 'sometimes' treats. 

"Listen to your body and be the healthiest you can be. As a result, you will achieve and maintain a comfortable weight without being deprived of food or losing quality of life."

Children often model their parents' behaviour, and this applies to eating as well. We need to be aware of how our relationship with food looks to our children. Mindful eating is an approach that encourages us to get in tune with our bodies and remove any destructive habits.

Here are five tips from Dr Kausman about how to talk to your kids about food, eating and body image.

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1. Do your best to avoid labelling food as 'good' or 'bad'. These have a connotation of guilt. Instead you could use 'sometimes food' or 'always/everyday food'.

2. Do your best to encourage children to differentiate hunger from wanting something just for the taste of it, and from other drivers such as being bored. For example, when your children ask for snacks, you might ask them if they would like something to fill their tummies (looking for physical hunger), or something that feels good in their mouth (something just for the taste of it, thus needing a small amount) or the possibility that they are bored (giving us an opportunity to offer an alternative to food).

3. Don't comment on their appearance, your own or others' appearance, in relation to weight and body image. One seemingly innocent remark, can stick in their minds and shape how they feel about themselves and their own body or body image in the long term.

4.Talk less. Listen more. Don't avoid important conversations with children about what they see, hear and feel. Have open discussion about the silly diet that they saw in a magazine and explain why it is unhealthy. Car rides are a great place to have these conversations. There are no distractions and it doesn't feel forced.

5. Practice what you preach. Do your best to model the behaviour that you want your child to adopt. Practice mindful eating and, before long, you will have formed new habits.

Techniques for eating mindfully include taking time to sit down and savour every mouthful of your food, identifying your drivers and asking yourself 'is that what my body feels like?'.

Mentone Girls' Grammar School is dedicated to its focus on wellbeing to help protect young people from the trap of obsessing about their bodies. "School is the best time to set children's agenda for how they think about their bodies, and approach their health for the rest of their lives. So what we do here is very important," said Vice Principal of Wellbeing, Mrs Jo Frost.

"We opt for a positive education approach which heralds the benefits of being strong and fit, physically and mentally, so that you can achieve your 'real' goals in life. Our theme of 'wellbeing' focuses on overall health of both mind and body, positioning mental health with the same importance as physical health."