March is National Nutrition Month and a great time to evaluate the way we eat, how we think of food, and how that shapes what girls think about food. Our nation is simultaneously characterized by overeating and unhealthy dieting, and highly processed foods have replaced fresh produce. Furthermore, many rely on restaurants and frozen meals instead of preparing their own meals. All of these realities seem symptomatic of a general disconnect with what food is and what it means.
Food is fuel for our bodies. Our bodies tell us when we need more and when we have had enough. Having preferences is natural, but it’s not a reward or punishment. PBS Parents recommends creating a “healthy snack spot” so that girls can learn to make choices about food. If girls are allowed to choose when and what snacks they eat, within certain limits, they learn to eat when they are hungry. When food is treated as a necessary part of being healthy, rather than an indulgence, girls are less likely to deny their hunger or to eat when they aren’t hungry.
For girls to make healthy choices, they also need to understand which foods are healthy and why. Certain foods are of course in the category of “indulgent,” and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying an occasional treat, but nutritional value should always be a consideration. Calories are important for weight management, but protein, fiber, and vitamins are necessary for good health. The emphasis should be on what you need to be healthy, not which things to deny yourself.
Food also presents a wonderful opportunity to celebrate family and culture. Family meals create a consistent opportunity to spend time with your girl, and research shows that families who share meals together are more likely to have children who are confident, do well in school, and have positive relationships with their friends. In addition, cooking with your girl creates an opportunity to share family recipes, talk about food as an expression of your family’s cultural identity, and teach important life skills such as food preparation, kitchen safety, and grocery shopping.
Lastly, poor attitudes about food certainly fuel poor body image. Girls who can’t tell the difference between eating healthy and not eating enough are victims of our obsession with thinness, while girls who are overweight are shamed by unrealistic standards of beauty. Striking the balance can be difficult, but proper nutrition, matched with self-esteem and self-acceptance, can help girls feel good and love their bodies.
Does your family share meals together? Do you cook with your girl?