By Lara Field
When it comes to our mental health, what we eat is incredibly important. Simply put, our brains are working 24/7 – even while we’re sleeping – so it needs a healthy supply of nutrients to function all the time.
That’s not to say we can’t enjoy ourselves, but it means we should be mindful of what we’re putting into our bodies. Setting intentional habits with our kids while they’re young helps them learn to understand food and create a positive relationship with it as they grow older.
It’s also important for moms! It’s never too late to take inventory of your habits and tweak them so that you can feel your best. To break down what a healthy relationship with food looks like and how we can help ourselves and our kids, we interviewed Lara Field, MS, RD, LDN -Registered Dietitian and Owner of FEED Nutrition Consulting, based out of Chicago, IL.
What does it look like to have a healthy relationship with food – as a child and a family?
When we say “healthy relationship with food,” it can mean a few things.
- Being able to approach any food comfortably, without feelings of guilt or consequence.
- Being able to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full.
- Enjoying food for the nourishment it provides.
As we raise healthy eaters, it’s also essential to approach food positively in the home. Make meals a learning experience, enjoying a variety of tastes, flavors, and textures. We can embrace a variety of cultures and try to diversify our palate. Avoid denying or restricting foods or setting strict limits.
What behaviors can we model as moms when it comes to talking about food?
Food should be considered the fuel we put in our vehicles. THE essential tool to keep our body healthy and strong. We all have BAGGAGE or a history with food (how our parents/families approached food), and this baggage can affect our eating behaviors today, like passing these habits down to our children.
It’s important to embrace food for its benefit; without it, we wouldn’t survive. Food should be FUN and enjoyable and help cultivate memories for our children. Teach them to participate in the cooking process. Learn to bake grandma’s favorite lasagna recipe. Grow herbs in a window garden. Go to the apple orchards (or other various fruit/vegetable orchards) and see where and how foods grow.
Are there good and bad foods, and should we even be thinking about food that way?
Not good and bad, but foods that are important to have in abundance, and those we should choose in moderation. Labeling “good” and “bad” can be damaging. Sweets taste good and make our brain HAPPY. That is a GREAT thing! But too much is just not good fuel for our machine.
What should moms understand about moderation for their kids and themselves?
I like to think of the home as a health haven. This is the “safe” place where we surround ourselves with food that makes us feel good, and stay healthy, energized, and strong. Having too many temptations at home can be stressful in so many ways. It can be difficult to say no to our children and hard for our children to resist the foods they love.
Rather than keeping things at home, I like to GO OUT for treats. Try to set up dessert nights with your family. Set aside a couple of nights per week where you enjoy a treat but keep it to a smaller quantity.
We know food is directly related to what we look like physically, but how does it affect us mentally? Eating well undoubtedly impacts our mental health for the better.
Approaching food with a healthy mind is KEY! Of course, eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins is essential for gaining the nutrition we need daily. But also, making food FUN vs. a chore is critical.
If we dread shopping, prepping, and preparing food, it’s not good for our mental health. I think it’s important to know when to outsource! That might mean spending a bit more on cut-up produce, so it is easy to grab, or even investing in a meal kit delivery service so that you get fresh food and easy prep meals regularly. Don’t dread it because that impacts our mental health as well. Take a step back and see where there may be areas that allow you to improve your outlook on food at home.
The old saying used to be, “clean your plate” or “don’t let any food go to waste.” Is there a better way to communicate that it’s not good to waste food without causing our kids to overeat or feel guilty if they’re no longer hungry?
“Tomorrow is another day,” I always say! We should guide with our bellies at meals vs. feeling pressure to finish the plate. I DREAD food waste, and early on, I would feel pressure to clean my kids’ plates after a meal! BIG NO-NO! Saving leftovers for the next day can be the key to success with waste and an easy meal idea for the following day. Encourage saving food for the next meal.
How early can we begin creating a good relationship with food?
From the beginning! As early as 4-6 months when we start feeding our babies, it’s super important to get our kids the opportunity to taste, touch, and feel a variety of foods. The more interaction they have, the better their future. Make mealtime an enjoyable experience vs. one that’s stressful. Make sure to pay attention to your baby’s cues. If they seem disinterested, end the meal!
Lastly, do you have 3 tips for moms when it comes to breaking bad food habits and creating new ones?
- Take a pantry/fridge/freezer assessment. What’s in my house that I (or my family members) cannot control myself around? Get rid of it! Surround yourself with foods that make you feel good! As Marie Kondo says, ask yourself if this food brings you joy? Take control of your mealtime space. Make sure to eat meals at a table vs. in front of the TV or computer. Preserve this sacred time with your family.
- Overeating at meals? Make sure to assess if meal timing is off. Is there too much time in between meals? Are you too hungry when you finally sit down and then inclined to overeat? Are you not eating at meals? Are you snacking too frequently? Ordering in too often? Strategize to find some simple prep options to keep stocked in your fridge/freezer for quick weeknight dinners.
- Contact an RD to do an assessment of your habits! Get meal prep/recipe/product suggestions to help your family, learn what habits may be negatively impacting your kids, and take time to understand what foods are most important to help your growing children.
Net-net, we need to start teaching our kids, and ourselves, healthy habits so that it’s easier down the road. If you find you’re overwhelmed, start with one thing at a time! You shouldn’t expect to create new habits overnight, so give yourself some grace. Check in with yourself each day and see how you’re feeling! Developing healthy habits is a marathon, not a sprint.