1. Redefine healthy eating for kids through movement
If your child comes home with a potentially harmful homework assignment, such as tracking calories, activity, or weight, you can explain why it’s not an accurate measurement of health.
You can redefine healthy eating for kids as having a healthy and joyful relationship with food and mindful movement, that isn’t goal-oriented around weight loss.
Explain how calorie counting and exercise tracking are related to diet culture, which communicates to us that physical appearance and body weight is more important than our well-being and happiness.1
You may also want to challenge the idea that weight is an accurate predictor of health and introduce the concept of Health At Every Size® (HAES®). Depending on your child’s age, you could even begin to explain the various measurements that do predict health, such as cholesterol, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and other metabolic measures.
2. Emphasize “all foods fit” and intuitive eating
The term “all foods fit” means no foods are inherently “good” or “bad” or “healthy” or “unhealthy,” as diet culture may have you think.
Diet culture assigns moral value to food when it labels food as “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “unhealthy.” But the reality is, all food can nourish your body and provide it with energy.
Demonizing and restricting foods will have the exact opposite effect well-meaning parents are striving for and can lead to “overeating” or binging on the “bad” or “unhealthy” food or ingredient, such as “junk” food and sugar.2 Instead, try to frame it as creating a balanced meal that will fuel your child.
Explain to your child how the good/bad dichotomy can lead to shame, guilt, and disordered eating patterns, which can include:
- Hiding or hoarding food
- Not eating certain foods, food groups, or ingredients
- Not eating enough food to properly fuel and nourish the body
- Eating a lot of “forbidden” foods
- Eating a lot of food to the point of being uncomfortably full
- Having strict rules about when, where, and how much to eat
Research shows that intuitive eating is linked to better psychological health and improved health indicators, including blood pressure and cholesterol levels.3
Although all babies are born with this innate ability to sense when they are hungry and when they are full, we start to impose strict rules about what, when, where, and how much children should eat at a very early age.
This teaches them to ignore their built-in hunger and fullness cues. But you can teach your children to honor their own bodies again and understand what makes their body feel good, through making balanced meals. The best way to do this is by modeling this behavior yourself.
3. Discuss the cultural significance of food
When your child is given a problematic homework assignment related to healthy food this is a good time to discuss the cultural significance of food with them.
Although food is a source of energy and fuel, and creating a balanced meal is important, food is also meaningful to people in other ways. It is a way for people to connect with one another and our heritage. Certain foods are often an important part of many holiday celebrations, and cultures.
Additionally, the preparation of food itself can also provide us with a means to bond with our loved ones, and family history, whether it’s over a recipe that was passed down from an ancestor or a new recipe we are learning for the first time. Not all of these recipes may be considered “healthy food” but they can provide nourishment in a different way, that can be quite healing. There shouldn’t be shame attached to eating food that is celebrated by your family, or culture.
4. Teach them positive affirmations about their body
While discussing the dangers of diet culture and healthism with your child, you may also want to teach them positive affirmations they can write down or recite, especially if they are feeling upset or stressed or are experiencing body dissatisfaction.
Research has shown that writing gratitude statements to yourself has a significant and sustained impact on body positivity.4 Plus, positive affirmations are known to have a beneficial effect on psychological well-being.5
5. Acknowledge how “healthism” perpetuates inequality and systemic oppression
When teaching your child about healthy food habits, it’s important to acknowledge inequity and systematic oppression and how the truly healthiest attitudes ignore these societal influences. These are complex concepts that many people are often unaware of how they show up in our everyday lives.
Healthism, which is connected to diet culture, is the belief that health is the most important pursuit in life—more important than well-being or happiness. It also falsely conflates health and thinness, because, in fact, many thin people can be unhealthy and many people living in larger bodies can be healthy.
Proponents of healthism believe that “health” is an individual person’s responsibility, ignoring the systemic issues that can influence a person’s physical and psychological health. These include poverty, racism, transphobia, homophobia, trauma, and lack of access to healthcare.
You can also explain to your child that not everyone has access to affordable nutritious, “healthy” food, because of various intersecting factors. And, because of this, they may need to make certain choices to feed their family, such as eating affordable fast food or buying canned products. You can explain that this is one of the many reasons there is no such thing as bad food, and that everyone is doing their best to provide balanced meals for their family.
6. Acknowledge how neurodiversity can affect eating
Depending on your child’s age and comprehension, you may want to explain neurodiversity to them and how it can affect a person’s healthy eating patterns.
Some people may have sensory issues that prevent them from eating certain foods, while others may struggle with planning and executing the cooking of food. This doesn’t mean they’re unhealthy or immoral for not eating certain foods that may be deemed “good” by diet culture.
7. Challenge the harmful and inaccurate lessons they’re taught
Depending on your child’s homework assignment, you can also challenge the stigmatizing and likely fatphobic lessons they’re learning.
For example, if the assignment is about calorie counting, you will want to talk about how dieting is a risk factor for disordered eating—not to mention it prioritizes thinness over health and happiness.6 Challenge the idea that low calorie foods are “better” than high calorie foods and how we should teach children to frame all food as fuel, as well as a source of pleasure and gratitude.
If the assignment is related to body mass index (BMI), you can explain how BMI is flawed and doesn’t take into account muscle mass, bone density, diverse body types, and sex and racial differences.7 Many people who fall into the “obese” category on the BMI scale are perfectly healthy, therefore it's not something we should be teaching children, as it will only add shame to their plates.
Many children come home with assignments related to the food pyramid or food groups. The food pyramid is outdated and a flawed representation of what was considered a balanced, nutritious diet. Teaching kids about the food pyramid also creates a visual representation for “good” foods to eat and “bad” foods to eat, which is exactly the type of thinking we want to discourage in our children.
8. Approach your child’s teacher
When your child brings home a “healthy” eating homework assignment, you may want to approach their teacher in a nonjudgmental and understanding way.
Of course, many teachers are required to follow a state-mandated curriculum, so you may not be able to change the lesson planning. But you can at least explain how the homework can lead to disordered eating and potential eating disorders, as well as anxiety around food and movement that lasts long into adulthood.
Best-case scenario: your child’s teacher may respond to taking a more mental-health friendly approach to food and movement education by eliminating fear-mongering from the curriculum and instead focusing on the joy and life-sustaining effects of food.
If the teacher is forced to teach certain lessons, they can always provide perspective and explain how outdated some of these measures are, opting for a holistic and comprehensive approach that teaches kids critical thinking.
But this represents a paradigm shift many are not able to grasp, because we live in a society that’s steeped in diet culture, physical fitness and appearance ideals, fatphobia, and weight stigma. At the very least, you have presented an alternative paradigm to consider and perhaps planted a seed for future growth. We are all doing our best to unlearn unhealthy things taught to us by diet culture.
If you aren’t sure what to say to your child’s teacher, the National Alliance for Eating Disorders has created a script for a letter or email you could write to the teacher, complete with statistics related to body image and disordered eating.