Decode your food cues

On a recent three-day trip to grandpa and grandma’s house, my parents took “clean your plate” to a whole new level, insisting at every meal that my girls eat it all up, whether or not they were full. After a while, even a gulp of milk left in a glass seemed to drive my parents crazy, the tension growing at every meal. Of course, nobody wants to waste food. Still, I was mystified. Didn’t my parents know that “clean your plate” is so ’70s? That it’s an antiquated message teaching kids to eat based on portion size, not actual hunger? Or, that there’s an obesity epidemic raging? Hello?!

I should talk. Younger generations of parents like me may have snubbed the clean-plate club for our kids and for ourselves, but we’re still guilty of conveying unhealthy messages about food. “It’s tough for moms and parents in general these days. We live in a food-obsessed environment and parents themselves are stuck in the food jungle,” says Marilyn Ann Migliore, M.S., R.D., author of The Hunger Within and director of a program of the same name at the University of Michigan.And whether it seems like it or not, our kids are tuning in to our subtle food cues, watching our every move (as well as enticing TV food commercials) and taking mental notes for themselves much earlier than we might think. What they observe can seep into their hardwiring and set them up for negative self-talk and form the foundation for unhealthy habits.

Here’s some food for thought. Maybe some of these common refrains sound familiar.

You say: “You better eat now. Otherwise, you’re going to be hungry later.”

Your child learns: That it’s okay to eat when you’re not hungry.

Sure, you’d like your soccer player to eat before his five o’clock practice so he has plenty of energy to burn and you’d love your preschooler to become a breakfast eater. But by encouraging kids to eat preventively, you’re training them to eat when they’re not hungry. Eating for any reason other than physical hunger (your stomach’s growling, you feel weak)—timing, convenience, boredom, fatigue, or even happiness—is a set-up for weight gain, Migliore says. Make it part of your routine and your child could lose touch with his hunger cues long term. Migliore has lots of adults in her practice struggling with this issue.

Message makeover: “Teach your child to eat only in response to true, physical hunger,” Migliore urges. If your child isn’t hungry before soccer practice, for example, he can bring a snack and eat it when his stomach starts to growl. Also, avoid pushing food any time your child says he’s not hungry—even if it’s “time to eat.” “Go ahead and have set meals, but the keep the structure loose,” Migliore says. If your child says he’s not hungry at breakfast with everyone else, for example, offer a bowl of cereal at 10:00 a.m. Your mission: To help your child learn to listen to his body and eat when he’s hungry and stop when he’s full. “From the very beginning, encourage your kids to trust their own intelligence,” Migliore says.  

You say: “After you get your flu shot, we’ll go out for ice cream.”

Your child learns: Food helps smooth life’s rough spots.

Using food as a reward for enduring a little physical paincan teach kids to use food to self-soothe and eat for emotional reasons too. And there’s no limit to the emotional stuff that’s apt to come their way that a little food might seemingly help cure. Besides the flu shot, what about getting a bad grade on a test? Or being teased? Or not getting invited to a birthday party? Ouch! “As soon as you start to attach meaning to food, as in ice cream equals comfort, it gives food more significance,” Migliore says. Trouble is, eating doesn’t solve problems. Sure, ice cream can give your child something to look forward to after a visit to the doctor. But it doesn’t negate a bad grade or the fact that someone called him a name. And it doesn’t get her on the birthday invite list either or cure the more grownup issues all kids will have later.

Message makeover: Stop emotional eating before it starts. “Think of fun ways to treat or reward your kids that don’t involve food,” Migliore says. After the flu shot, for example, you could take a trip to the toy store or the park or get a mommy-daughter manicure, or just go home and relish in the fact that it’s over.

You say: “You can’t have much of that. It’s bad for you.”

Your child learns: If I eat as much of it as I want, I’m bad.

Teaching your child to categorize foods as “good” or “bad” and then limiting the “bad” stuff can backfire, making kids want it more and seek it out when you’re not around to be the food police, says Leann Birch, Ph.D., director of the Center for Childhood Obesity Research at Pennsylvania State University. I know what she means. I can’t help but think of my 11-year-old daughter’s friend who sneaks ice cream from our freezer when she comes over. It’s well known in our neighborhood that her well-meaning mom limits the child’s ice cream intake (and hers as well) to half cup servings because it’s “fattening.” “Restricting food creates the forbidden food effect,” Birch says. And then there’s the emotional fallout. Even children as young as five can feel guilty and ashamed for eating foods they’re not supposed to, which can set the stage for disordered eating later on, Migliore says. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Message makeover: If you’re concerned about your child’s eating or her weight, don’t bring “bad” foods into your house. But if and when you do, don’t restrict them either. In general, send a neutral message. “Offer foods you don’t have to restrict,” Birch says.

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