Advice for Parents. How to Prevent Eating Disorders, Part II: Healthy Habits in the Home

Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6

The prevalence of eating disorders among teens and college students is ever on the rise with younger and younger girls experimenting with binging and purging, food restriction, and over-exercise. Each year more young men are affected by a condition typically thought to be a girls’ problem.

There is much that a Christian parent can do in the home to guard their children and teens from eating disorders and other destructive food behaviors. Part I of this series addressed the need to help your children understand who they are in Christ. This is of primary importance and the largest share of your time and efforts should be concentrated in this task. But there are also practical habits that can be implemented in the home to help create an environment where eating disorders will be less likely to flourish.

The first line of defense is education-your own. Many well-meaning parents, unfamiliar with the causes and effects of eating disorders, unwittingly encourage or fail to recognize problem eating. Learn more about the warning signs and risk factors. If you feel your own nutritional knowledge is lacking, make it a topic of study.

The following practical tips and suggested behaviors can help you to begin cultivating a healthy environment in your home around food and eating:

Help children love healthy eating. It is always easier to reinforce positive behaviors than to eliminate negative ones. Introduce children to a wide variety of health, fresh foods at a young age. Kids who aren’t given a consistent diet of soda, fast food, and processed products won’t miss them. Cultivate a love for healthful, delicious, natural foods.

Cook at home, eat together. Home cooked, family shared meals become more about enjoying fellowship with each than shoveling grub standing at the kitchen counter or on the way to a soccer game. Homemade meals also tend to be healthier-lower in fat, sodium, sugar, and artificial additives. Make meals a special time for your family.

Don’t reward or punish with food. Food is for nutrition and for energy. While we certainly enjoy food beyond its utilitarian purpose, food should never be withheld as a cause of bad behavior nor given excessively as a reward. This can set up a skewed perception of food and its relationship to one’s behavior. Want to let your child know how special he is? Instead of a cupcake, reward him with a special outing or watch a movie-just the two of you. Find ways to praise and reward your kids that don’t involve sweets.

Disband the Clean Plate Club. Naturally parents want their children to finish what’s on their plates, but forcing children to eat more than they desire encourages them to bypass their own internal sensory mechanisms around hunger and satiation. Instead, teach children to take what they can reasonably finish and make family games around limiting food waste. Children can start with a small portion and then go back for seconds if still hungry.

Decrease stress at meals. Agree to make meals an argument-free zone. Emotional disturbances during meals times set up a pattern of stress and anxiety around food. Handle issues with your spouse or matters of discipline at another time.

Set a good example. Regardless of media images and the cultural pressure to simultaneously over-indulge and maintain a size 2, your kids’ primary example and benchmark is you. Take a week and consider your own habits around food, body, and exercise. Do you model healthy eating and body image?

Teach your children well. Education for your children about eating disorders is not tantamount to suggestion. Don’t be afraid to teach your children about addiction and food-related disorders from fear that you’ll be putting ideas into their head. You children will indeed learn about eating disorders. Would you rather they learn at home or in the locker room? Help them to be wise and discerning, not naïve and out of touch.

Help your children understand what God says about food. Giving children a Biblical perspective on food and eating helps them to know how to put both in proper perspective. Eating is not a sin, fasting is not a sin, but we must practice both for God’s glory, not for our own comfort or escape. Help your children to see food and the proper enjoyment of it as a blessing from God.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 10:31