What is Your Family’s Food Culture?

by Holley Nash, RDN, LD

Is your child a picky eater? A carb-o-holic?  A grazer? A veggie-phobe?

Never fear. Addressing challenging eating behaviors can be as simple as shifting your family's approach to food.

Your Family's Food Culture

Most parents do not consider the impact that their family food culture has on their children and their children’s relationship with food. As parents, we are responsible for not only feeding our children thousands of times throughout their lives, but also for establishing our children’s eating habits, food preferences, willingness to try new foods, and food behaviors. That’s a lot!

So, what is a “food culture”? It is the way your family acts, reacts and interacts around food and feeding. Here are some questions that I ask the parents I work with to help them start thinking about the food culture their family shares:

  • Do you pressure you child to eat more or less food?
  • Do you eat meals at the table? On the couch? In the car?
  • Is the television on or off while you eat?
  • Do you allow hand held devices during meals/snacks?
  • Does your family eat meals together or do you eat separately?
  • Do you label foods as “good” or “bad” / “healthy” or “unhealthy”?
  • Do you forbid treats and sweets?
  • Do you follow a routine or schedule for meals and snacks?
  • Do you serve as a good food role-model for your children (eat a variety of fruits and vegetables? Easily try new foods?)
  • Do you make comments or tease your child about their weight?

All of your habits and routines surrounding food and eating create your family’s personal food culture. As you can imagine, not all food cultures are beneficial or help children to develop a healthy relationship with food.

For example, if you have a picky toddler and every meal is focused on trying to get the child to eat, the child is learning that he can control meal time and his parents’ behavior. He also receives lots of attention because of his refusal to eat. This type of interaction makes the meal time experience terribly unpleasant and stressful for everyone – especially you! It is very important that your family share meals as often as possible, but if meal times are rife with conflict, no one will want to come to the table. The food fight must stop.

Shift your family's food culture to stop parent/child food struggles

What is your family's food culture

The first step toward shifting the food culture in your home is to understand and embrace the division of responsibilities:

Parents are responsible for:

  • planning and structuring meal times
  • purchasing, preparing and serving a wide variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables, at every meal and snack
  • ensuring that meal times are free of distractions

Children are responsible for: 

  • choosing what and how much they will eat from the food offered them
  • being respectful to the person who prepared the meal (negative comments and criticisms about the food being served are NOT allowed)

It sounds simple, but many parents struggle with the fear that their child will not eat enough, or that they will not eat enough of the “good” foods served. Have no fear. If you are setting the table with a variety of nutritious choices, your children will be getting what they need.

I know that for most of you reading this, these suggestions seem almost impossible to adhere to. I can hear you saying:

“My son will never eat vegetables.”
“My daughter eats like a bird.”
“My kids will only drink juice.”

There will be a period of adaptation, of course, but once the rules are clearly established and understood, meals will become much more pleasant. Since you will be serving a variety of wholesome balanced meals and snacks on a regular schedule, your children will learn what they can expect and will be ready to eat when meal time comes. And let’s not forget that the key to creating good eaters is for parents to be the best food role models they can be. Children learn from their parents’ behavior, not their words.

If you feel like your child continues to struggle or needs additional support and encouragement, please make an appointment with us so we can provide you with a full nutrition assessment.

References: Castle, J. (n.d.). Nourish a healthy child [Pamphlet]. Jill Castle Nutrition.