Raising Healthy Eaters in the Next Generation

Many parents who have struggled with their own eating disorders or disordered eating have questions about how to help their children avoid the same fate. You may have questions about how to organize meals and what foods to offer in order to raise healthier eaters in the next generation.

How Parents May Help Increase Protective Factors in the Home


If you have struggled with binge eating and dieting, you may be tempted to limit your children’s exposure to "fun" foods or to focus on your child being a "healthy" weight. You may feel unsure about how to promote health. This is not surprising given that we live in a world that is so weight-obsessed and makes us concerned about our children having larger bodies.

Educate About Body Diversity

Parents can educate children that bodies naturally come in all shapes and sizes and that there is no “right weight.” Most bodies do not conform to the unrealistic beauty standards maintained by our culture and media.

Teaching children that there is not one body size or shape helps to normalize body diversity and encourage acceptance of one’s own body.

A great resource for illustrating this is The Problem with Poodle Science video from the Association of Size Diversity and Health. You can try to provide media and books showing people in diverse body shapes and sizes — and not only as villains (as they are commonly portrayed in children's stories) or as protagonists who are solely focused on transforming into thin people. A good list of children’s books promoting body diversity is provided here.

Promote Body Acceptance and Self-Care and Avoid Weight-Talk or Teasing

Parents can also reduce negative language about their own or others’ bodies. Research shows that engaging in this talk leads everyone to feel worse about their bodies. You may model feeling positive about your own body, especially in terms of what it allows you to do (versus merely focusing on what your body looks like), e.g., “I love my arms that allow me to hug you.”

You can also express appreciation for your children’s bodies. You can reduce comments about people's appearances in general, and avoid fat-shaming people in the media. You can model and educate about self-care, including proper fueling, sleep, and rest, and listening to your body’s signals about when it is hungry, thirsty, fatigued, or needing to urinate.

You can avoid talking to children about their weight (unless of course they have an eating disorder and need to gain weight). Similarly, you may want to advocate that your children do not get weighed at school where it can be a shaming experience, and request that your child’s doctor not talk to them about limiting their weight.

Educate About Media Literacy

Parents can educate children about the ways in which the media promotes the thin ideal by using thin and beautiful models to advertise products — implying that thinness promotes happiness and success. You can teach your child to think critically about the ads they see in magazines, on billboards, and on television.

Ask them to critique ads by considering who wrote the message, what it is trying to sell, and what the message conveys. Check out the National Eating Disorders Association’s Digital Media Toolkit.

Incorporate Family Meals and Discourage Dieting

Family meals provide some protective factors in and of themselves and are associated with many positive findings in adults who report having had family meals as children. In addition, they are associated with a lower risk for disordered eating and dieting.

Furthermore, family meals offer an opportunity to model flexible eating and discourage dieting, and to observe your child’s eating to potentially spot a problem.

Dieting is a gateway behavior for many eating disorders and is also linked to higher weights in adults. Many eating disorder professionals support flexible eating practices that allow fun foods from an early age. Remember, a scarcity mindset leads people to hoard. This applies to food, too.

Research supports that children who are restricted from such foods tend to eat more of these foods in the long run. Conversely, when these foods are not restricted, children are less obsessed with eating them.

Encouraging Growth of Intuitive Eaters

One particular model that appears to have good promise for raising healthy and intuitive eaters is Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding. This model recognizes that children are born with an ability to eat what they need and nurtures this natural ability to help them become competent eaters — defined as being positive, comfortable, and flexible with eating.

In this model, parents are responsible for what, when, and where the child eats, and the child is responsible for how much, and whether they eat.

Parents accomplish this by providing meals and snacks at regular times and intervals and discouraging eating in between. Parents trust that children’s bodies will naturally guide them to eat what they need from what parents provide. In this model, parents provide a common meal for the entire family with multiple components from different food groups and put them all on the table, and let children serve themselves.

For example, one meal might be a make-your-own taco bar from an array of ingredients — tortillas, ground beef, cheese, salsa, onion, sour cream, lettuce, and guacamole. Or a meal might comprise pasta, chicken, broccoli, and pasta sauce, which each family member can assemble in any combination (e.g., plain pasta, pasta with chicken and sauce, pasta with broccoli and sauce).

There should always be at least one component the child is likely to eat even if it’s just pasta. Over time, most children fed in this way tend to naturally expand and become more flexible eaters.

Satter also encourages that if parents plan for there to be a dessert, they should put it out on the table with the rest of the meal. This ensures that the broccoli is seen as having a value equivalent to that of the dessert.

By contrast, requiring children to eat their vegetables in order to “earn” dessert implies that the dessert is higher-value and that the broccoli is not expected to taste good if one has to be bribed to eat it.

Parents who have not been feeding this way initially often have trepidation about making the transition to a division of responsibility. And there is often a transition period where children may eat larger quantities of foods they’ve previously been restricted from having. But, the model is about parents trusting their children's bodies to be able to regulate themselves, which they do. And there is promising research to support it.

Promote Healthy Movement

In intuitive eating, exercise is reframed more broadly as movement. This is a helpful reframe that divorces it from the idea that exercise is performed in order to compensate for eating, losing weight, or otherwise managing weight.

Children can be encouraged to move their bodies in fun ways, such as playing tag or other games, swimming, doing sports with peers, and participating in family activities such as hikes or bike rides. Exercise can be enjoyed for the range of benefits it provides including cardiovascular health, body confidence, socialization, and improved mood.

You can avoid talking about the need to “burn off” a holiday dinner — this increases anxiety about enjoying food and sets up exercise to be a chore rather than a joyful expression. 

Preventing Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are complicated illnesses that stem not from a single cause but from a complex interaction of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Eating disorder prevention is still in its infancy and there is no proven way to universally prevent all eating disorders. Research supports the use of models that challenge attitudes about appearance and educate about the effect of the media.

Eating disorders do tend to run in families, but we know that genetics is a big driver here. It is estimated that 40% to 60% of the risk for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder arises from genetic influence.

Parents cannot necessarily cause or prevent eating disorders in their children but they can go a long way in helping their child to develop better body image, self-esteem, and a less fraught relationship with food. In doing so they may even help protect against an eating disorder.

A Word From Verywell

Parenting is hard work and no parent is perfect. If you’ve struggled with your own eating, you are likely to be more attuned to your child’s eating. Please rest assured that even if you haven’t been doing the things recommended here, or have been doing some of the things we don't recommend, it's okay! And, it’s never too late to make a change. These good preventative strategies can be helpful for parents and children alike!

Resources

Here are some resources that can be helpful to parents in the raising of healthy eaters.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Hazzard, V.M., Telke, S.E., Simone, M. et al. Intuitive eating longitudinally predicts better psychological health and lower use of disordered eating behaviors: findings from EAT 2010–2018. Eat Weight Disord (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-020-00852-4