The Social-Emotional Aspect of Eating: How to Encourage Healthy Habits in Kids (page 3)
Many parents spend a great deal of time and money on putting together healthy meals for their children. They scour the internet for news on “good” fruits and vegetables, buy local and organic, and they try to make their child's lunch each day. However, these efforts often result in frustration because their children trade away the lunch of organic green push for a friend's cafeteria pizza slice.
There are prevalent social-emotional aspects of food and the ritual of eating that often begin early in childhood. The influence of peers and families can have a large impact on a child's comfort and interest in eating different kids of foods. Understanding the social influences on a child's eating choices and preferences can help parents to guide their child to healthy eating.
Show and Tell at Lunch
There is a complex interplay between cooking and eating at home, and what peers accept as “good” or “cool” food. This is no more apparent than at the school lunch table. Lunch time is not only for nutrition; it is also an important time for connection and bonding between peers. Children want to share their food, and there is a food hierarchy where students want to “fit in” by having food that is common and that other children like. Children who eat and enjoy their parent's healthy meals and snacks at home, may suddenly reject the tasty morsels when in front of their friends. Similarly, for ethnic cuisines, children may appreciate their country's cuisine at home, but be unwilling to bring the food to eat in front of their peers.
Lunch time, especially for the younger kids, becomes a “show and tell” where each child displays their food in a social ritual. Although children do notice what their peers have to eat, their overall opinion of a student is not affected greatly by their lunch. “Most kids won't shun a child for carrots,” states Dr. Cara Cudddy, a clinical psychologist who works at the Children's Hospital, Shaker Campus in the Cleveland Clinic. She directs the pediatric feeding disorder program, and she regularly works with kids and teens who are struggling with a variety of eating issues. Children may be reluctant to take certain types of food due to peer pressure, but the pressure won't make children distance themselves from others. Thus, if your child comes home stating that children do not wish to sit by him/her, you should talk to teachers and school administrators because the problem is most likely not food related and more severe.
What Should You Do if Your Child Experiences Food Peer Pressure?
Limit the setting. Tell your child, “What Janey does is different than what we do at home, and you can bring pizza once a week, not everyday.”
If no one is sitting by your child, it can't only be food-related. Explore the situation with the school staff.
Make children active participants in packing their lunch. Give them several healthy choices, stating, “You must bring one piece of fruit and one vegetable and you have several choices within those categories.”
What Are Some of the Reasons Why Children are Reluctant to Eat their Lunches
Unidentified medical problems.
Variability for younger children. The volume of food eaten from one meal to the next fluctuates.
If a child is feeling tired, excited, or anxious.
School cafeteria can discourage eating because of the quality of food and distractions with peers.
The best advice to parents is that children mimic habits and behaviors. They will pick up both healthy and unhealthy habits. Parents need to ensure they are showing their children the best healthy food habits at home, and usually, that will trickle down into school.
Negative Family Influences on Food Attitudes
Although the pressures of the lunch table can be strong, a child's relationship with food is more strongly related to their parent's attitude and experience with food. Unhealthy parental relationships with food (i.e binge eating, starving, and or not eating balanced meals) can set the foundation for an eating disorder, in the most severe of circumstances.
An eating disorder involves a disturbance in eating behaviors (e.g., following extrememly restrictive diets, vomiting after meals, excessive exercise) that is typically the result of a distorted and hyper-critical view of the self. Mid- to late-adolescence is a common time when eating disorders first manifest, but many children exhibit disordered eating, as well. Children whose parents diet consistently or children who see their parents obsessing about food are more prone to eating disorders. Parents serve as role models for their child's eating habits and observing unhealthy eating patterns can dramatically affect a child's view of food.
What Can Parents Do to Encourage Healthy Eating Habits?
To ensure that children have a healthy relationship with food, parents should strive to eat and serve a variety of foods and healthy eating options. “The most encouraging thing for children is watching what parents eat starting from infancy,”states Cuddy. If parents model eating balanced meals and a wide variety of foods, children are more inclined to also eating varied menu of foods.
Other tips for parents include the following:
Parents should also give children healthy choices, allowing their child to take ownership in selecting their lunch.
Parents need to be creative. Kids may not eat sandwiches, but they may eat the bread and meat separately. Cut foods up into pieces make eating more manageable.
Parents need to model balance. “Parents allow children access to a variety of foods. There shouldn't be a taboo against any specific foods,” said Cuddy.
Everything in moderation. It is acceptable to provide treats as rewards after eating vegetables and protein.
Focus should not be on food even at dinner. Family dinners should be a pleasant, interactive time where families talk and eat. Food should be offered but not forced.
For more, please see: Healthy school lunches: Sneaky Items That Seem Sinful
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