Diet culture — the idea that most of us should aspire to be thin, and the assumption that we can be if we try hard enough — is everywhere. In our culture and society, thin bodies are still given a higher worth than thicker ones. It is an idea at the core of fashion, entertainment, and the multi-billion dollar diet industry. As a pediatrician and a mom, I would argue children are most vulnerable to the unrealistic expectations and the downstream consequences of diet culture. While this is important to keep in mind year-round, it is even more important as we get closer to the holidays and gather around food, with people we perhaps haven’t seen in a while.
At home and in my work, I am determined to help children develop a healthy relationship with both food and with their bodies. Here are a few things I recommend for parents looking to do the same.
DO: Address your own “stuff.”
Many of us grew up with complicated relationships with food. I personally started “dieting” and working on “improving my body” at age 14, and I know my experience is far from rare. In order to be effective role models and leaders in our homes, it is important we give ourselves the space to reflect on and heal our own relationship with food. That includes our views on different foods, on different bodies, and on how much worth we attach to people’s appearance, including our own.
DON’T: Talk about bodies.
Some of us do this without thinking, but it is a good practice to avoid talking about your own body as well as the bodies of others — whether that be strangers, family members, or your children. Don’t comment on physical appearance, whether it’s to praise or to shame. Simple, seemingly benign comments such as “You look good! Did you lose weight?” are quickly internalized by children. Instead, praise qualities unrelated to appearance, such as effort, curiosity, kindness, and persistence.
DO: Gather, talk, and celebrate around food.
A meal is supposed to be a social activity. Food is a way to connect, to gather, and even to pass down tradition and culture, especially around the holidays. It is as much an activity as it is fuel. Involve children in planning, in the preparation, and in the meal itself. Starting at an early age, children are eager to be involved in conversation and to mimic parents’ behavior. Put away the phones and iPads, take a deep breath, and enjoy each other’s company.
DON’T: Label food.
Attaching the labels “good,” “bad,” “healthy,” or “junk” to different foods is counterproductive and can make children feel they themselves are “good” or “bad” based on the food choices they have made. Offer variety, try your best to offer balanced meals, and do not judge children by labeling their choices.
DO: Check in about unrealistic expectations and negative messages.
Given the pervasiveness of diet culture, kids will inevitably be exposed to negative messages about food and sometimes even their bodies. Check in often and listen carefully for changing attitudes. In the preteen and early teen years, I also recommend supervising social media use, with a focus on teaching social media literacy and helping kids understand what is real vs not.
DON’T: Expect perfection.
Leave room for mistakes. Even when we have done the necessary work of disentangling our own complicated relationships with food, many of us are parenting at the same time we are healing. Mistakes will happen, and they will be powerful opportunities to sit down and talk with your children about your values as a family.
Editor’s note: Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez is a practicing pediatrician at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, co-founder of Informada, a contributing editor to SheKnows, and a mom to an active toddler.
Before you go, check out these quotes that’ll help you develop a healthy attitude around food: