Whether you’re a parent or just someone who keeps up to date with health news, you’ve probably heard about the controversial new Weight Watchers app for kids called Kurbo.
Kurbo has come under fire from parents and health professionals who are worried the app will foster an obsession with food and diets in children.
While it doesn’t encourage calorie counting, it does put foods into “Green”, “Yellow”, or “Red” groups. The concern is that this sends the message that foods in each category should be considered “Good”, “Okay”, and “Bad”.
Nuts, olives, and even half of an avocado fall into the Red category! Although the WW message is to limit these foods because they’re higher in calories, to a child it can demonize these very nutritious foods. Many dietitians are worried this will lead to food fear and potential eating disorders.
So, how can parents encourage healthy eating behaviors without creating food fear?
1. Make healthy food convenient
If you want your kids to make healthy choices, you must have healthy options readily available (this tip goes for adults too, by the way).
How many times have your kids come home from school or sports practice “starving” and grab the most convenient food in the pantry? How often is that a bag of chips? I’m guessing pretty often.
When kids & teens are hungry, they don’t want to wait. Convenience is king. Parents can make healthy foods just as convenient with a little prep.
Get in the habit of washing and cutting up fruits and vegetables as soon as you come home from the grocery store. Put fruit in a highly visible area, such as in a bowl on the counter or in a clear container in the fridge.
2. Normalize vegetables
9 times out of 10, the healthiest adult clients I see are the ones who grew up with vegetables at every lunch and dinner. Vegetables were a normal and expected part of a meal. They seamlessly took this habit with them into adulthood and their waistlines and blood work are better for it.
Normalizing vegetables also means not making a big fuss over them. Parents should try to refrain from making kids finish all their vegetables before leaving the table. Encourage them to try a bite and go about eating your own (remember, they’re always watching and imitating). Ditch the clean plate club!
If your kids don’t finish their vegetable serving it’s okay, because you know vegetables will show up as part of the next meal as well.
3. Offer a choice
“Green beans or asparagus?”
“Fish tacos or baked chicken?”
Give your kids a chance to be active in the meal decision process. Choices will give them some ownership in the meal and provides them the chance to choose what they will actually eat.
This can prevent those moments when you’ve cooked a meal for your family only for your child to complain that they suddenly hate porkchops and will only eat the available carb.
Of course, this isn’t meant for you to become a short order cook. Once the family agrees on a meal that’s what’s made. Bonus points if you get them in the kitchen with you! That's where true food ownership is born.
4. Discourage mindless eating
Adults know portion control and healthy choices goes out the window the second we start mindlessly eating. The same is true for kids!
Discourage eating directly from the box or bag. Teach your kids to put their food in a bowl or on a plate. This allows them to see their portion size accurately and make more conscious decisions.
Encourage them to sit at a table while they eat. Turn off the TV and have a "no phones at the table" policy. By taking the time to eat a meal without rushing or distractions, kids can tune into their hunger and fullness cues. They chew more and digest their food better. Discuss the importance of listening to their bodies with them.
Eating on the go has become normal in our on-to-the-next-thing society, but breakfast in the car and drive-thru dinner before soccer practice isn't doing our kids a favor. It models to them that meals should be rushed and convenient. See how many nights this week you can have a seated meal at home.
5. Choose your language carefully
This biggest impact parents can have on their children's behavior is through language.
Giving food moral qualities is a one-way ticket to creating an environment of shame and fear around food.
Avoid negative language around less healthy foods, such as "bad" or "fattening". Parents can instead call these items "treats" or "sometimes foods". It can be helpful to demonstrate that all foods are allowed, but they have a time and place.
Avoiding negative language around healthy food can be just as important. Calling a dish "gross" can turn a child away from opportunities to try new foods. Insinuating gender roles around food, such as "real men eat meat" or "women have to eat like a bird to maintain their figure" conveys untruths that can manifest as body image issues in teenagers.
There are also fantastic opportunities for parents to create healthy attitudes towards food with their language. For instance, parents can use words like "energized" and "strong" to talk about how food makes them feel. Use language to relate foods to physical feelings and capabilities rather than connecting it with body image or morality.
Focusing on healthy living is much more effective than focusing on weight and "good" vs. "bad" foods.
Modeling a healthy lifestyle for kids includes cooking nutritious foods, being active outdoors, and tuning into the body's messages. These are tools they can carry with them for life, without stripping them of their confidence or instilling fear. You've got this, parents!
I'd love to hear from your experiences. What are some ways you've encouraged healthy behaviors in your children? Comment below.