The psychology of food is a huge and complex subject. But you know yourself that there's a strong relationship between your food and your emotions. From wanting comfort foods when you're ill to rewarding yourself with a chocolate bar at the end of a grueling day, the way we feel and what we eat are closely interlinked.
The same will be true for our children, all their lives. And it's pretty much entirely up to us what associations food has for them once they grow up. If we want them to eat healthily into adulthood, we need to make sure we don't set the wrong patterns. So here are a few of the most important things you can do.
- Don't make them eat everything on the plate—I know our parents and grandparents, especially if they were brought up during the war, made us do this. But it becomes a habit for life. What you end up with can be an overweight adult who has eaten more than enough and is no longer hungry, but still feels compelled to clear her plate, two or three times every day, seven days a week. That's a lot of unwanted and unneeded food piling on unhealthy pounds. The healthy thing to do is to stop eating once you're full.
- Don't tell them they can't have dessert unless they eat their vegetables—This translates as "healthy food is just the boring stuff you have to work through to get to the real fun." In other words, sweet, rich, fatty foods are where it's at.
- Don't serve large portions—Even without making your children eat everything on their plates, it's still much healthier to get them thinking that a modest portion of food is what looks normal on the plate. After it's had five minutes to go down, and if they're still hungry, they can have a second helping. This method encourages them to eat only what they need.
- Eat together at the table—This makes healthy food the thing that brings the family together, and gives them a focus other than their food while they're eating. It's important to make dinner time fun. It isn't the time to give everyone a hard time about not helping with the chores, or to nag about table manners. (Yes, it's the best time to point them out, but don't turn the dinner table into a battleground.)
- Don't encourage them to eat unhealthy foods to excess—You may have already removed all the candy, cookies, and potato chips from the house but other foods can be high in fat or cholesterol. Your children may not have a weight problem—now—but if they grow up always snacking on cheese and nuts they very well could later. So quietly run out of nuts, or switch to a cheese they like less, if you think they're developing habits they'll regret later.
- Don't use sweet things as a reward or a bribe—If you reward your children with a candy bar (or ice cream) now, you'll end up with adults who feel they "deserve" a Mars bar when they've had a productive day or reached a target. Well, obviously, most of us do deserve a Mars bar, but that doesn't mean we should expect to have one. By all means reward your children, just not with unhealthy food. If a carrot stick doesn't quite cut it, change tack and let them go to bed half an hour later or something.
- Don't give them sweet food as a comfort—Again, if you give your children a sweet snack because they've hurt themselves, they'll grow up to have irresistible urges to buy themselves chocolate when they're feeling depressed or low. (I can personally vouch for this.) If you're lucky they'll grow up to be slim, with naturally low cholesterol and they may getaway with it. But they may not.
- Don't ban treats altogether—This is just as bad because it sets up sweet, fatty foods as some kind of ultimate, unattainable prize. Just keep them in moderation, and don't use them as rewards or comforters. There's nothing wrong with the occasional popcorn at the movies, or a packet of potato chips on a long car ride.