General Nutrition

Prevent eating disorders in children: Registered Dietitian tips

March 21, 2024

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Medically reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Reading Time: 
reading time
eating disorder
Contents
Contents

Key Points

  • A new study found a link between early childhood appetite and eating disorders later in life.
  • Eating disorders are complex but preventable.
  • Parents can help their kids build a healthy relationship with food in various ways.
  • Each child is different, and eating habits evolve with age. A Registered Dietitian can offer personalized nutrition advice for you and your child.

Can the way your toddler eats lead to an eating disorder as a teenager? A new study may have found a link between the two.

Researchers from University College London and Erasmus University studied 3,670 kids from the UK and the Netherlands, ages four and five. The study published in ‘The Lancet’ found that:

  • Kids who really like food might be more likely to have trouble controlling how much they eat when they're older.
  • Children who feel full quickly and eat slowly might have fewer problems with eating as they grow up.

If you’re a parent of a young child, what should you do?

Experienced Registered Dietitian Rita Faycurry RD explains, “Although the study is intriguing, the researchers emphasize they lack evidence that childhood appetite causes eating disorders, but only establish a link between the two. If you are concerned about your child’s eating habits, the main thing to know is that eating disorders are preventable; early intervention is key.”

Here’s how to help your kid eat better.

1. Provide balanced, structured meals

Faycurry RD says, “Childhood is a time of growth, with kids constantly changing and hitting growth spurts at different ages. Weight gain is normal before these growth spurts and doesn't signify an eating disorder. However, restricting food may lead to disordered eating habits like binge eating.”

Instead, the focus is on teaching balance from an early age.

For example, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that toddlers aged 2-3 years get:

  • A breakfast with oats and natural sources of sugar like raisins and milk.
  • A morning snack like yogurt, berries, and plain water.
  • Lunch with starch, vegetables, and fruit with plain water.
  • Afternoon snacks like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with whole wheat bread and plain water.
  • Supper or dinner with protein like chicken, veggies like green beans and mashed potatoes, a whole-grain bread roll, milk, and other whole foods.
  • Post-dinner snack of crackers and plain water.

What if your child hates oats or refuses to eat vegetables? What if meal times are fraught with tension? What do you do if you’re in a cycle of giving in when you're too tired to resist their demands?

Remember, the best nutrition plan is the one that works for you and your family, not the other way around. So, consider getting personalized nutrition support.

With Fay, busy parents can conveniently consult with a Registered Dietitian online.

2. Avoid all-or-nothing thinking about food

Perfectionism is a leading risk factor for eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). A form of perfectionism called self-oriented perfectionism, in particular, is the biggest risk and involves setting unrealistic expectations for yourself.

What matters more is how a kid incorporates various foods, understands their hunger cues, and learns decision-making skills.

To help your kids take a more balanced approach towards eating, help them learn that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. For example, you could serve sweets or fried, salty foods like chips with a meal or a more nutritious snack instead of restricting them altogether.

Some exceptions to this rule are if a certain food is:

  • Spoiled or rotten
  • An allergy or intolerance trigger for the child.

3. Help them eat slowly and reduce distractions

Help your kids eat slower and stay away from phones and other distractions. It reduces overeating and helps us feel satiated, mainly as it takes 15-20 minutes for our stomachs to tell our brains we are no longer hungry.

  • Family meals: One way to do this is to encourage positive behavior modeling by having family meals together instead of feeding your toddler or children separately. This allows them to observe and learn from the family. Plus, they get additional stimulation through interactions, listening to conversations, and observing adult eating habits.
  • Setting the mood during meals: Try to focus on the present moment during mealtimes. Engage with your kids by asking about their day, actively listening to their responses, and empathizing with their feelings. Share enjoyable moments from the day to create a positive atmosphere. This way, your kids will not associate meals with stress, frustration, or dread.

Faycurry RD adds, “Some parents ask me, ‘What do I do with a picky eater?’ or tell me, ‘My kids eat so little and so slowly that it’s a hassle getting them out the door in the morning.' Your frustration may seem inevitable, and I get it. It’s important to note that there may be many reasons why your child resists some foods or meals. Each child is different, and a personalized approach may be needed to help them get the nutrition they need.”

Consider a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist to learn why your child may struggle with certain foods or eating habits. Fay helps you find a Registered Dietitian near you, covered by insurance.

4. Give children control over their food

Toddlers and children (like the rest of us) like to have choices and some control over their lives.

Let children decide how much to eat to feel satisfied. Children are born with innate hunger/fullness cues. Forcing children to finish their plates or restricting foods can lead to eating disorders.

Faycurry suggests, “Offer 2-3 options and let them choose the vegetable for the family meal. Sure, your toddler may pick a veggie and then get furious when it shows up on their plate later. We get it; some days are better than others. When this happens, take deep breaths and live to fight another day! Focus on establishing patterns, not perfection.”

Also, please remember that there are many factors that may influence eating disorders, and childhood appetite is only one. There are genetic and environmental reasons as well.  

5. Food is food; try to keep rewards separate

Avoid using food as a reward or comfort for your child outside of meal times. This way, they do not automatically associate their emotions with food.

Indeed, this can pose a challenge, particularly in social settings where you may lack control. After all, festivities and gatherings frequently focus on food.

Faycurry RD advises, “The goal is to foster a well-rounded experience around celebrations.”

So, while birthday parties may feature cake, there are other ways to help children celebrate life's little wins, such as:

  • A fun outing to the zoo or the park
  • Watch a movie of their choice as a family
  • A fun playdate with one of their friends
  • A new book
  • A celebratory touchdown dance in the living room.

6. Change the conversation around food

The cartoon Popeye wasn't off-base when it showed the power of spinach. Many of us recall from the cartoon that spinach makes you strong.

Similarly, talk to your children about the wonderful things different foods can do for us. For example, tell them that milk strengthens their bones, fruits, and vegetables make them tougher against sickness, and chicken gives them power.

For young kids, in particular, try being silly and introduce play—do they want power and a super-human brain with a side of bone-booster? Or a different mix of superhero benefits?

7. Heal your own relationship with food

Children learn by mimicking the adults around them. So, we can shout from the rooftops about doing what we say, but kids are hard-wired to follow the way you actually operate.

If children see you feeling ashamed or guilty when enjoying dessert or gaining weight, despite discussions on body positivity and healthy eating, they may internalize these feelings.

Similarly, remarks about others' weight or eating habits within earshot can be absorbed by attentive children, who often notice more than we realize.

If you're a parent with disordered eating patterns or want guidance on discussing food with your kids, consider seeking help. A Registered Dietitian can help you and your kids develop a healthier relationship with food.

Fay can help you find a Registered Dietitian near you, covered by insurance.


The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.


Sources

Fay Nutrition has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.



Does your insurance cover nutrition counseling?
When you see a dietitian through Fay, your insurance is likely to cover the cost. Enter your insurance details to get pricing.
Check my benefits
Anthem svg logo
Blue Cross Blue Shield Logo
United Healthcare logo
Aetna svg logo
Cigna svg logo
Humana logo
Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Chandana Balasubramanian is an experienced healthcare executive who writes on the intersection of healthcare and technology. She is the President of Global Insight Advisory Network and has a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

Linkedin
Rita Faycurry, RD

Medically Reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Rita Faycurry, RD is a board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in clinical nutrition for chronic conditions. Her approach to health is centered around the idea that the mind and body are intimately connected, and that true healing requires an evidence-based and integrative approach that addresses the root cause of disease. In her books and articles, Rita offers practical tips and insights on how to care for your body, mind, and spirit to achieve optimal health and wellness.

Linkedin