How the holidays can teach kids about healthy eating

Special treats mean thinking differently about food

By Edwena Kennedy

The Christmas season probably seems like the least effective time of year to implement healthy eating habits for our kids (or, let’s face it, for ourselves). Between the many parties and special meals loaded with sweets available at this time of year, it’s pretty hard to imagine how I could possibly suggest we can use this time to teach our kids healthy eating habits.

But I suppose, we need to understand what healthy eating habits are first, don’t we? Well, healthy eating isn’t just about what you eat, it also has a lot to do with how you eat. I’d argue that because some of the foods are only available during the holidays or once or twice a year, the real problem isn’t that we’re eating them, but rather we’re mindlessly eating them in copious amounts with complete disregard for hunger and fullness cues.

Since we know how easy it is to overeat and how horrible we feel when we do so, it’s only natural we find ourselves stressing about the amount of sugar and desserts our kids are eating. We chase them around buffets, nagging them to only have one cookie or warning them they must finish their chicken before they can get a slice of cake.

But what if I was to tell you that to teach your kids how to avoid unhealthy eating habits, you must let go of the control and NOT restrict them during these times. I know this sounds crazy but hear me out.

You see, this is a special time of year. We want them to associate it with happy and fun memories, rather than feeling “bad” for eating Grandma’s special pie or not being allowed to eat the special candy from Santa. And running around stressing out about what and how much they’re eating is making them feel bad and guilty for wanting to enjoy these foods, which may backfire. Research shows the more you restrict food, the more kids (and adults) crave and want it.

So, this is NOT the time to try and restrict food. To be honest, even if you try you’re likely not going to win in the long run. You may succeed by restricting your child at one event (and likely ensue a lot of tears and bad memories in the process), but the next time your child has free access to these foods, they will overindulge on purpose, because scarcity and restriction leads to more desire.

So instead, here are a few things you can do to teach them some good healthy habits and lessons, without it causing turmoil.

1. Teach them to be picky about desserts/treats. This doesn’t mean they only only get to choose one thing, but they don’t need to have everything that’s offered to them. When they ask you if they can have something, respond positively with “Sure! How about you choose your favourite one or two treats and then save the rest for tomorrow.” Learning to choose treats you really enjoy and turning away the ones you don’t really care for is an important part of healthy eating.

2. When they eat something, whether its a large piece of cake or a small candy, have them sit down at a table and focus on their food. This is one concept of mindful eating that helps encourage kids to enjoy their food better, more slowly, and in a way that makes them feel more satisfied (which doesn’t happen when eating on the run or in front of the TV).

3. Once they’ve chosen they’re favourite treat, don’t try and restrict the quantities they eat. Remember, this is a special occasion that allows for some special rules. They’re smart enough to know that party food is different from food that’s offered regularly at home. Let them eat freely but with a focus on eating until they’re tummy says they’re full/feels happy. Let them know that if they eat too much, they may feel sick and you don’t want them to feel this way. Funny enough, by letting go of the control, you may be surprised how little they actually do eat. In fact, have you ever seen how a toddler eats when they have free reign? Chances are, rather than eating a whole plate of cookies, they’ll take a couple bites and drop it on the floor before running off to play with their cousins.

4. If (or when) they do overeat, don’t make a big deal and scold them for what they’ve done. Avoid blaming them by saying “I told you so!” Instead, sympathize with them and make sure they associate this feeling with the fact they ate a bit too much. Help them remember this feeling and let them know this type of thing takes practice. Once they know what it feels like to have two cookies, maybe next time they’ll try eating only one and see how they feel. Most times, kids agree and do well with regulating their intake.

Overall, when we don’t make a big deal about foods like holiday treats and desserts, they really don’t become that big of a deal to our kids. Kids don’t have the hang-ups and baggage we have around food, so let’s not pass on the feelings of guilt, shame, or emotional attachment to food we have. It’s a party, we ate too many cookies, let’s move on with our lives and get back to regular eating habits when it’s all over. In the meantime, maybe we can avoid unnecessary battles during the holiday season while still learning a lesson or two.

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