I’ve been an emotional eater for as long as I can remember.
It’s one of the reasons I started this blog.
When you grow up in an Italian-American family like I did, it’s hard not to be an emotional eater and break many unhealthy eating habits.
Food (and lots of it), is the central focus of everything and every family gathering—even in times of grief. You’re also raised to believe that if you don’t eat when food is on the table, it’s not polite.
Whether this was explicit or implied, it’s the message I received.
Years later as an adult, those same poor eating habits continued.
When I worked in daytime television, I was in a high-stress, unhealthy work environment. Clocking 60 and 80 hours a week left little time for sleep, self-care or anything else.
To cope with the stress and combat the fatigue, I’d come home at 11pm, raid the fridge and binge on chocolate and cheese.
Today, I still consider myself an emotional eater. And although it has improved, I often find myself eating during times of high stress.
I know overeating doesn’t help solve anything and it’s not healthy for my body or my mind.
With two daughters watching everything I do, I’m even more cognizant of my habits because I want them to have a healthy relationship with food too.
If you’re concerned about your own kid’s eating habits and their health, here are some things to try so that you don’t raise an emotional eater.
Help your child focus on food
When we were kids and the phone rang, the person calling would usually ask, am I interrupting your dinner? If they were, you’d call them back. Everyone knew that dinner was family time.
Today? Not so much.
Our lives are full of distractions and devices.
But if there’s a TV on in a nearby room, you’re fielding work emails or your kids are texting, eating becomes another mindless activity. It also makes mealtimes stressful and can lead to overeating. What’s more, mindless eating often goes hand in hand with emotional eating.
When it’s time for dinner, have a no TV, no phone, no device rule and focus on each other instead.
Avoid food rewards or food bribes
It seems that food rewards are everywhere—at school, on the field, at after school activities—and for just about every reason.
Katie Kimball, founder of the blog KitchenStewardship.com recently posted a photo on Instagram of two large bags of candy that her kids received.
One for good behavior on the school bus and the other, for raising money for a fundraiser. You can see the post here:
Aren’t these things we expect of our children, not things they should be rewarded for?
Food is fuel and is meant to be delicious and enjoyed, but when it’s given as a reward, we’re teaching our kids that food has power.
As adults, they may treat themselves to dinner or a piece of cake after a long, stressful day or not allow themselves to eat something “off limits” if they’ve gained weight or didn’t hit the gym that day.
Instead, give your kid a hug, a high five or a sticker for a job well done.
The same goes for food bribes. Avoid enticing your kids with a treat for good behavior, for example.
Teach kids how to cope with tough emotions
I won’t claim to be an expert in childhood development or behavior. In fact, teaching my kids emotional regulation is one of the areas I need help with as a parent.
But I try my best to help them cope with tough feelings, which can prevent them from becoming emotional eaters later in life.
When kids, especially girls, are upset, they just want to be heard. They want to know that someone understands how they feel, so I try to listen and empathize and help them problem solve without solving the problem for them.
When they’re in meltdown mode and they’re irrational, I try to remind them to take a few deep breaths to relax their bodies, which also relaxes their minds.
Practice mindful eating
Mindfulness is nothing new but in our stressed-out culture, it’s become a trendy, albeit effective, to way to cope.
According to a November 2015 study in the Journal of Family and Child Studies, mindful yoga helped kids improve their ability to self-regulate over the long term.
Mindfulness at the dinner table can help your kids slow down, really taste their food and savor every bite. When they’re present and using all of their senses to eat, they’ll be less likely to become emotional eaters.
There are several mindfulness techniques you can try but if you’re looking for a good place to start, I recommend Dr. Susan Albers, who has written several books on the subject.
Don’t make certain foods off limits
Labeling foods “healthy” and “unhealthy” or “good” or “bad” can make the forbidden foods even more desirable.
Think about it: if you tell yourself you won’t or can’t eat the decadent brownie, it will be the only thing on your mind.
The same goes for kids when foods are off-limits. Instead of enjoying treats, they take on more power. When given the opportunity at a friend’s birthday party or on a play date, they may go overboard and when they’re older, they may even sneak food.
Striking a healthy balance will look different for each family, but allowing kids to have treats is the key to a healthy diet and will prevent them from becoming emotional eaters.
Give up the power struggle
Emotional eating can go the other way too, especially if your kids are told they must clean their plate or they can’t get dessert until they take a bite.
Kids need the opportunity to learn to self-regulate their hunger and recognize their own hunger and fullness cues. When they do, they’ll see food as fuel, not a power struggle.
Model healthy eating
We all do it: you bury yourself in a bag of chips when you’re stressed out or overindulge in sweets because you’re depressed.
Yet make it a habit that your kids see and they may turn to food to cope too.
Emotional eating can be a hard habit to break, but try to find healthy habits that can replace eating like taking a brisk walk, a yoga class or a warm bath, praying, meditating or just laughing.
If your kid is an emotional eater and what you’ve tried hasn’t helped, there’s no shame in seeking help.
We’re parents, not experts in everything.
A good place to start is your child’s pediatrician who can evaluate his weight and his overall health. You might then enlist the help of a pediatric registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) (search the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) or a therapist who specializes in feeding and eating disorders.