“I’m so excited for everyone to try this new soup recipe I made. It’s only 200 calories per serving!”
If you were served a new food with that kind of introduction, how would you feel about trying it? Team member Bri remembers vividly how the discussion around the 200-calorie soup affected her at family dinners growing up. “My mom was always very body conscious, and she really wanted to find ways to incorporate her ‘diets’ into our family life. By the time I was a teenager, she always wanted to tell us how low-calorie different foods were. The thing was, knowing something was low-calorie didn’t change whether I liked it or not…but it did make me feel bad if I didn’t know how many calories were in everything I ate.”
Stephanie Harshman, PhD, RD, LD and clinical dietitian at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, says family dinners are an important opportunity to talk about food — but not the calorie content. “Family mealtime — that time to spend together to talk about food and why food is important for our bodies — is really crucial. Children thrive when they have an understanding of what might not make sense to them, so we can help them make sense of why eating is important. For example, half our plate is filled with fruits and vegetables because they’re full of vitamins and minerals that make our bones strong and long, and help our muscles grow and flex, and help our scrapes heal quickly.” But while eating together can give parents an opportunity to introduce nutrition education, it’s important to stick to talk that emphasizes the ways food fuels our bodies. Any discussion of calorie counts, weight management or “bad,” “cheat,” or “unhealthy” foods should be kept off the table.
That can be a hard concept for parents, who often struggle with their own negative ideas about food and their own bodies. Research shows that teens who regularly eat meals with their families have a lower risk of developing eating disorders, and generally have a more positive body image, than their peers. But Bri’s experience illustrates Dr. Harshman’s most crucial piece of advice: “Adults are role models. The number one thing to understand is that how you talk about your body and eating habits will be reflected in your children and adolescents.” Even well-meaning parents can pass on negative thoughts and habits without realizing how they’re impacting a child’s self-image. So how can you make sure you’re creating a family dinner environment that boosts body image? Here are some tips from experts that can help:
Many adults were raised with ideas and habits around body weight and dieting that are hard to change. The first, and possibly hardest, step in creating a more body-positive family meal routine is to recognize our own thoughts. By putting some effort into noticing how we think, talk, and behave around food and weight-related issues, we can start making better choices to help kids feel confident about their own bodies.
Need some quick, make-ahead breakfasts to help you get into a family breakfast habit? Try these overnight oats!
“What Can You Do With…?” is a fun activity to get the whole family moving their bodies in different ways!
March is Women’s History Month. Try these conversation starters about gender roles to spark a discussion at your next family dinner.