They Are What We Eat - Why Children Copy Their Parents' Eating Habits

As an adult, I know where my food issues stem from, but they are so hard to overcome. The first step is being mindful about them
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If we want to improve our children’s eating, we must make sure that we, as adults, are setting a good example. Sadly here, most of us set anything but. Many of the worries we have about our children’s eating are rooted in our own dis-ordered eating and dysfunctional beliefs...

Before we begin to tackle any eating related issues of our children, we must work with our own eating issues, otherwise we will pass them on, or create new problems in our children based on our own problems. Sometimes we may even learn that what we believed were eating issues belonging to our children are actually our own issues and our children are eating entirely normally. Many of our beliefs and behaviours surrounding eating stem from our own childhood.

Often a lot of our behaviours surrounding food are a conditioned response to something that happened decades ago. Eating and food are commonly intertwined with our childhood memories – both good and bad. As parents, as much as we think we may be, or indeed hope to be, we are not objective about food and eating. Often, we subconsciously influence our children and their eating, based on events that happened to ourselves many years ago. While we can’t change we happened to us, we can recognise the impact that events had and be mindful of them, so as not to repeat the cycle again and again.

Think back to your own childhood, do you remember hearing any of the following phrases, from your parents, grandparents, school dinner ladies or other adults? Collectively I call these individuals ‘The Food Police’. I suspect you had quite a few members in your life growing up:

  • “Good girl, you ate all your dinner”
  • “Well done, what a lovely clean plate”
  • “Come on, eat up – there are children starving in Africa”
  • “Just one bite – it won’t kill you”
  • “Eat your crusts up – they make your hair curl”
  • “If you don’t eat your carrots, you won’t be able to see in the dark”
  • “No pudding for you if you don’t eat your dinner up”
  • “Don’t eat that now, you’ll spoil your appetite”
  • “Just one more mouthful, then you can have some ice-cream”
  • “She’s such a good girl, she’s got such a healthy appetite”
  • “You’re not getting down from this table unless you finish your food”
  • “If you don’t eat it, then you’ll go straight to your room and be hungry”
  • “You don’t know how lucky you are - there are children starving in Africa!”

I was a ‘good girl’ when I was a child. I ate a lot of food and wasn’t especially picky about what I ate. I cleared my plate and rarely left any food to go to waste and I was regularly praised for it. My self-esteem was quite strongly tied with being ‘a good eater’. I felt proud of my eating and eating, as a result, made me feel good. Can you tell where this is going?

Fast-forward thirty-years or so and I struggle with regulating my eating. I eat to make myself feel better when I’m sad or stressed, just as I was encouraged to do as a child. Eating is how I make myself feel good. It has also taken me many years to overcome the guilt of leaving food on my plate, especially a substantial amount. I finally resolved the wastage issue by getting chickens who eat pretty much any food waste that is left over in our house, I still feel pangs of guilt if I must discard food when we’re away from home though. The emotional eating has taken much longer and much more work on my behalf to undo. As an adult, I know where my food issues stem from, but they are so hard to overcome. The first step is being mindful about them... and most importantly, learning how to not pass them onto my own children.

This is a small excerpt from my new Gentle Eating Book - out now. To order a copy click HERE

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a parenting author and mother of four.