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Food Neutrality: How Parents & Teachers can Support Kids to have a Healthier Relationship with Food

Updated: Mar 21

Food neutrality means that all foods are morally equal. Some foods may give us more nutrients than others. Some foods may give us more joy and pleasure. But all foods give us something, therefore, the terms "good" or "healthy" food and "bad" or "junk" food are avoided. Food is just food.

Why is food neutrality so important?

Kids are concrete thinkers. They literally think in “black” and “white” for toddler, preschoolers and most of elementary school. So when we call certain foods “healthy” foods (think: fruit, veggies, whole grains, fish, etc.) these become “good”, and calling other less nutritious foods "junk" (think: chips, candy, fries, etc.) they become “bad” foods. Children can translate healthy food vs unhealthy food messages as “when I eat the “bad food” I am bad?” or “I did a bad thing".

We all want kids to:

  • Learn to listen to their body cues around hunger & fullness

  • Feel calm and confident around sweets, treats, and other "fun" foods

  • Eat a variety of foods according to their own body's needs

  • Eat without feelings of guilt or shame

  • Grow into the body that is genetically right for them

  • Appreciate that food is so much more than the nutrients it provides (it connects us to our culture, our heritage, our traditions, and celebrations)

  • Respect others food choices without judgment

These goals can be jeopardized when we label certain foods as “bad” or “unhealthy” as it can cause kids can start to feel guilty and ashamed for wanting to eat these foods, which then can translate into difficult thoughts & feelings around food and their body. This can lead to food sneaking, hoarding, emotional eating, increased "picky" eating tendencies and disordered eating/eating disorders.

The term "healthy" is arbitrary

What is “healthy” for one child may not be “healthy” for another. Take a child with food allergies or intolerances for instance. My daughter has a life threatening nut allergy, saying "nuts are a healthy food" is absolutely untrue for her. As a concrete thinker, children may misinterpret this message as "if I can't eat nuts I won't be healthy". In addition, may kids have specific sensory needs (especially those with neurodivergence) or may have lower socioeconomic status. They may only be able to tolerate/afford highly processed foods. If we label all of their foods as "unhealthy" this can lead to guilt and shame.

What about nutrition?

As a pediatric dietitian and a mom of 2, I know you want you kids to learn to eat a variety of nutritious foods. So do I! Therefore, we can ensure they get a variety of foods by following the "Division of Responsibility in Feeding" which reinforces that the parents job is to provide a balance of nutritious foods throughout the day and the children's job is to decide which foods they eat (from those provided) and how much. Parent know which foods are needed for growing bodies and when to add in sweets or other "fun" foods.

How to start implementing food neutrality?

  • Emphasize that all foods have a place in our lives and are morally equivalent

  • Avoid grouping foods as “good” and “bad” or “healthy” and “unhealthy”

  • Calling foods by their names. For example, instead of calling a food a “treat,” call it a “cupcake” or "chocolate"

  • Talk about the sensory aspects of foods colour, texture, flavour

  • Try not to use food as a reward and replace with non-food related rewards (e.g., sticker, extra bedtime stories, 1:1 mommy time or at school extended recess, PJ day).

  • Around meal/snack times: parents choose the menu, kids decide which foods to eat, teachers provide a calm environment. Allow kids to eat all foods they bring and in the order they prefer.

  • Offer "fun foods" like sweets, chips, etc. to decrease food obsessions

  • Role model eating a balance of foods neutrally.

This is a work in progress for many of us and takes a lot of time and patience as we unlearn the diet culture mentality we were raised with. If you would like me to help you in your classroom please check out my school talk page or if you would like to book an appointment for your family please find a time here.

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