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How to talk about food with your teen

BY Angelica Pupillo

How to talk about food with your teen

Imagine you’re a teenager. It’s dinner time. You’re called into the kitchen and asked to sit at the table. 

You sit down beside your brother and sister. It’s spaghetti bolognese, your favourite. You excitedly reach for the parmesan cheese so you can sprinkle a thick layer on top of your pasta. 

Once you’ve finished making your pasta cheesy and delicious, you turn to your mum and ask her if she would like some cheese.

She shakes her head. You ask why. She replies, “I need to fit into my jeans this weekend, I can’t afford the extra calories. It’s okay if you have it, make the most of it while you can.” You shrug off her comment and offer it to your brother. He eagerly grabs the cheese and proceeds to cover his pasta in it.

On the surface, this is an innocent interaction between a parent and their teen. But, what if this conversation happened once a week over a number of years? How do you think that might influence your teen’s relationship with food and their body? 

We are all influenced by messages around food, diets and our bodies. Many of these messages start in the home. It might be a subtle comment about the food you ate last night, the guilt you feel about not going to the gym that day, or the limitations you’re placing on yourself today because of what you ate yesterday.

Collectively, these behaviours place high emphasis and importance on appearance and conforming to society’s perception of beauty. When a young person watches one of their role models engage in these behaviours, it normalises them. It can also increase the likelihood of your young person developing feelings of inadequacy and body dissatisfaction, which may lead them to follow the same behaviours. 

From the top, I want you to know that if you have responded in a similar way to your teen in the past that you’re not alone, and it doesn’t make you a bad parent. If your teen is struggling with their body image or their relationship with food, it isn’t your fault, and there’s lots of ways you can help.

We have all grown up in a society that places way too much emphasis on the way we look. Food in many ways has become ‘moral’. We might describe ourselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people based on our food choices, or categorise foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on something we’ve read. The good news is that these beliefs aren’t necessarily set in stone. We can mould them to improve our own relationship with food and our bodies, as well as the way our teens feel about food and their body. It’s never too late to start. 

Here are some strategies to help you improve your relationship with food and your body and, in turn, model that positive relationship to your teen.

Talk about what you can ADD to your diet, rather than what you want to eliminate 

Having a diverse and colourful diet is so important for both our physical and mental health. Think about all the different vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, seeds and pulses there are out there. Each of them has their own unique taste, texture, smell and colour that will keep mealtimes exciting and interesting for you and your family. Language is everything.
Instead of saying to your teen, “I’m not going to add any syrup to my pancakes, I don’t need the extra sugar,” perhaps you could say, “I’m going to ADD some blueberries and syrup to my pancakes.” It’s a simple shift that reframes the way you’re talking about food in front of your teen.

Take the morality out of food

Words like ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘naughty’, ‘sometimes’, ‘treat’, ‘cheat’, ‘clean’ and ‘guilt free’ should not be used to describe the food you serve in your home. It demonises some foods, while putting others on a pedestal. Instead of saying to your teen
, “I’m going to put avocado on my toast instead of ‘x’ because it’s bad for me,” perhaps you could say, “I’m going to put avocado on my toast today because it will keep me satisfied all morning.” There is space for all food in our homes. We want to encourage growing teens to eat enough food to satisfy their hunger, rather than placing limitations on their choices because of our own (or society’s) moral standing. 

Involve your teen in choosing what’s on the menu for the week

By involving your teen in the conversation around food choices, you are providing them with more autonomy and inviting them to think about the foods they enjoy rather than the food they “have to” eat. Next time you’re planning what dinners you’re going to make, ask your teen if they would like to be part of the conversation. You might say,
“I’m thinking of making tacos for dinner on Monday night but I’m a little stuck on what to make on Tuesday. Do you have any ideas?”

Refrain from commenting on your teen’s appetite or feeding preferences

Every teen is unique. The amount of food that might satisfy one of your teens may not even scratch the surface for another, and that’s okay. Feeding preferences also vary from teen to teen. For example, some teens may like to have three larger meals, while others may prefer to have a number of smaller meals throughout the day. If you are concerned that your teen isn’t eating enough or might be eating beyond comfortable fullness, the dinner table is not the place to start that conversation. We don’t want our teens feeling shame in front of other family members. Have the conversation away from food, perhaps in their room or on a walk, and approach it from a place of curiosity and wanting to understand. From there, you might like to speak to a registered professional for support. The important thing here is that we don’t want our young people feeling shameful or embarrassed about their eating patterns and food choices. 

Model body appreciation

This can be a hard one, particularly if you have a complicated relationship with your body (we’ve all been there).
There are going to be days where we don’t feel great about ourselves and that’s okay. As a starting point, you might openly express gratitude for your body. You might say, “I am so grateful for my strong arms for helping me carry all those grocery bags from the car.” You might compliment the skills and qualities of others, for example, “Wow, how creative is she!” You might remove screens from the dinner table and use mealtimes as an opportunity to connect, “How nice is it that we can eat dinner together tonight, what do we all think of the food?” Watching a loved one show unconditional appreciation for their own body and that of others demonstrates that no matter what a person looks like, they are worthy and loveable. 

Lastly, let’s all take a moment to practice some self-compassion. There is no perfect way to implement these changes into your home. This isn’t about ‘perfection’ – there will be days when you’ll say something you used to say before and that’s okay. Correct yourself and move on, that’s the most important part. 

As with a lot of things, the more you practice using this language in the home, the more confident you will get and the easier it will become. Be kind to yourself – you’re doing your best and that is more than enough.

Meet The Author,
Angelica Pupillo

Angelica is a clinical nutritionist and the founder of This is Your Body. She is passionate about helping teens build a joyful relationship with food and their bodies. She does this through fun and engaging workshops, supporting teens one-on-one in clinics, and sharing her tips, tricks and stories online. You can find Angelica via her website This is Your Body and Instagram.
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