5 Sensitive Ways to Nurture Your Child's Health

 Jill Castle

AS A MOM OF FOUR KIDS, I know the demands of feeding a family. Preparing meals and snacks, and getting kids around the table is just part of the job. Navigating different eating personalities, nurturing a healthy attitude toward food and encouraging a positive body image are equally important.

I’ve learned that nourishing and nurturing children is a delicate balancing act. It requires a strategic plan for food and feeding, served up with a side of sensitivity.

Yet, in my work, I’ve seen strategies that fail to nurture the child – strategies that are harmful to eating habits, self-esteem and body image. Parents may get wrapped up with getting their kids to eat or exercise, and in the process, incur outcomes they weren’t looking for, such as overeating, pickier eating or a lack of interest in physical activity. If your goal is to nurture your child’s overall health and well-being, be sure to use sensitivity with your strategies. Here are some ways you can do that:

Give them unconditional love instead of shaming or blaming them.

Our most important job as a parent is to love our kids no matter what. Commenting on your child’s weight and how well they're eating (or how much), comparing them to other children, and making unkind negative references to others' weight can create a sense of unworthiness in children and may harm their self-esteem. Children with low self-esteem are at higher risk for eating disorders, among other issues.

All kids need to know they have a safe place to land, a shoulder to cry on and someone who has their back – regardless of their body weight, shape or size, or how well they eat.

Take a whole family approach versus singling out a child.

A child should never be singled out from the rest of the family. For example, a heavy child shouldn’t have "special foods," follow a diet that differs from what the rest of the family eats or follow an exercise regime that nobody else embraces. Every family should have an approach to eating and living well that works for the whole gang.

Strike a healthy balance instead of holding fast to "food rules."

Ideally, all food groups are represented in a child’s diet. No need to cut out bread or pasta, or overemphasize veggies. It’s all about balancing a variety of foods from wholesome, nutritious sources.

Yet, rigid rules around food increase as our food supply gets more complicated. This food is good, that food is bad. These labels may confuse children because the concept is too abstract, cognitively. They may think,"If chocolate ice cream tastes so good, how can it be bad? "

Raising healthy kids not only means selecting a balanced, healthy diet for them. It also means giving them the tools to navigate our complex food world. While avoiding particular foods or food groups might work for adults, it can set up a negative relationship with food in children, resulting in undesirable eating behaviors such as sneaking certain foods and overeating. Families do well to find a healthy way to balance all foods, including a place in the diet for sweets and treats.

Promote scheduled meals versus erratic meals and snacks.

Having meals and snacks at regular times may help kids better regulate their appetite and eating, while also building healthy eating habits. Alternatively, erratic schedules for mealtime and free-for-all snacks may encourage children to be overly hungry, seek extra food and make poor food choices.

Encourage fun physical activity versus mandatory exercise.

Exercise should be part of everyone's day-to-day routine, no matter how big, how small or how old the person. Give kids lots of activity ideas, let them choose what to do (within reason) and support participation. Just getting outside to play every day is a healthy habit any child can adopt.

Don't force your child to be on a sports team, hop on the treadmill or count steps. This “forced march” may squelch your child’s enjoyment of exercise and work against healthy movement down the road.

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