Parents can help their daughters develop healthy eating habits by encouraging them to listen to their bodies. If girls eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full, they’ll let their bodies, not their emotions, dictate how much they eat. Family mealtimes and family outings can focus on togetherness and conversation rather than food.
Create a healthy snack spot.
Keep a choice of healthy snacks readily available, so your daughter can choose on her own. Store the snacks in a place where kids can reach them, so that even the youngest can begin to make her own choices about what and when she eats (within the limits you set). This helps girls learn to eat when their bodies tell them they are hungry, and not eat when they’re not.
Talk about what healthy means.
Discuss why some foods are good for you and some are not. Catherine Steiner-Adair explains this to even the youngest of girls the following way: “The language I love to use with kids is: ‘There is fuel, and there is fun. Some foods are fun but don’t give your body fuel and in fact might slow your body down. If you eat a lot of sugar, a little while later you may crash and become tired and crabby. And just like a car needs gasoline, your body needs good fuel to keep it running well. That’s why we eat healthy food at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.’ ”
Explain why we need a variety of foods.
If you’ve got a girl who wants to eat just one kind of food, explain why we need a range of choices to stay healthy. Steiner-Adair suggests you say, “I know you love pasta, but if you only eat pasta it doesn’t give your body enough of the variety of fuel that it needs to run well.” If you have a girl who craves dessert, Steiner-Adair recommends that you explain the difference between sugar and healthy carbs and between main courses and treats. “Sometimes we eat chicken or fish or tofu because our bodies need protein, and sometimes we eat things that don’t have that much nutritional value, and that might be chocolate cake or potato chips. But dessert can’t replace the protein or we’ll get sick.” Steiner-Adair encourages parents not to worry about a child’s insistence on bland food. “Check with your pediatrician before you start insisting they eat the food you like — you may find they are actually getting enough of the nutrients they need.”
Sit down for family meals together.
Even when your schedules are tight, sit down for family meals together as often as possible. Research consistently shows a positive connection between families who enjoy dinner together and kids who are confident, do well at school, and have better relationships with their friends. Steiner-Adair recommends you not use dinner time to raise conflicts about school or homework. Instead, keep mealtime fun, sharing stories about your day. “There is something about combining the nutrition of food with the nourishment of family support that kids just thrive on,” says Steiner-Adair. She also recommends not eating in front of the television unless it’s a special occasion — such as a movie night or sports event.
Try not to use food as a punishment or a reward.
Find ways other than shopping or eating to bond with your daughter. You can celebrate a victory without food — go for a walk together or sit down for tea, and let her know how proud you are of her. “Go to a movie, give her a hug, let her plan an outing, let her invite someone to sleep over,” recommends Steiner-Adair. “It’s unrealistic to say you will never shop or eat to celebrate but try to find other ways as well.”