Paying attention to your child’s growth chart is important for ensuring that your kid is developing in a healthy way in relation to their age; but in some cases, it can also be more important to focus on raising a healthy, happy child and not on a number on a scale.

There’s a delicate balance between talking to children about healthy eating and instilling unhealthy relationships with food. With childhood obesity on the rise, it’s normal for parents to naturally want their children to embrace healthy lifestyles. But even the most well-meaning comments can have a big impact on children’s body image and long-term relationships with food.

The Gist

  • Modeling healthy eating habits can help shape your kids’ eating behaviors and relationships with food.
  • Involve your children in food shopping and cooking from an early age to expose them to fruits and vegetables.
  • Having positive conversations about different eating lifestyles — like veganism, gluten-free or others — can teach kids not to feel shame around food.
  • Avoid using food as a reward, bribe or punishment.
  • Don’t focus on weight or dieting during conversations about healthy eating.
  • Occasionally incorporating less-than-healthy foods into meal plans is O.K. Don’t stress if your kids won’t eat certain things.

What to do

Model healthy eating habits, as best as you can - Kids eat healthier when their parents do. So exposing them to healthy food choices and being a positive role model — such as by viewing food as “a source of joy and nourishment” rather than as an enemy, can go a long way in improving their body image and their relationship with food.

Eat together as a family as often as possible - It’s never too early to start healthy-eating conversations with your children, and continuing that dialogue at every stage of their development can help foster lifelong healthy habits. You can put this into practice by eating together as a family as often as possible, and by involving kids in food shopping and cooking to expose them to fruits and vegetables at an early age.

Don't 'yuck' someones else's 'yum' - Keeping all conversations around food positive and avoiding making negative comments about their child’s or anyone else’s appearance or eating patterns can help strengthen your child’s relationship with food. Kids may internalize negative remarks and, in turn, may food shame others or develop unhealthy eating habits or disordered eating.

Treats are O.K., but don’t use food as an incentive or a penalty - Don't use foods as bribes, rewards or punishments. This may have the unintended effect of assigning different values to foods — positioning some as “good,” or more craveable, and others as “bad,” or unhealthy, when moderation should be encouraged. It’s also a good idea to regularly include less-than-healthy foods, like desserts, in meal plans, so that your children don’t see them as something they “have to earn” or that are “forbidden.” If you’re too restrictive they’ll be more tempted to sneak off-limits foods later.

Never bring weight into healthy-eating conversations - Weight-focused conversations with younger kids can manifest later as low self-esteem, unhealthy body image and disordered eating during adolescence, when children are most susceptible to these health conditions. Instead, talk about positive outcomes or behaviors that interest the child, like athletic ability, for example.

In the end, don’t stress too much over your kids’ diets - Parents often feel pressure — whether from other parents or from health-related content online — to obsess over their children’s diets or to measure those diets against those of other kids. But they should decide what’s best for their family, and not to worry about what others do.

When to worry

Talk to a pediatrician or a nutritionist if your child, at any age, starts obsessing about weight, or gains or loses a lot of weight in a short period of time. Other red flags for disordered eating or unhealthy body image could include skipping meals, talking about their weight, saying negative things about their bodies, saying negative or shaming things about others’ eating habits or appearance, sneaking foods or referring to certain foods as “good” or “bad.” A pediatrician or nutritionist can help parents talk to their children and develop a healthy eating plan.