Lilian Presti

Preparing food with your child helps promote healthy eating habits.

Know anyone with food issues? Chances are, you know many, and maybe you're one of them. In today's world of fast and convenient food, many people have disordered eating. The evidence of obesity, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and a national obsession with dieting is proof we aren't eating healthfully. The problem is many of the people with unhealthy relationships to food are parents, and that makes them -- wittingly or not -- role models for their children.

Research shows that parents are the biggest influencers of their children's behavior, so that means what parents do -- not what they say -- is often emulated by their fiercely observant offspring. And despite the fact that most parents hope to raise healthy eaters, many are blind to how their own harmful attitudes and behaviors are affecting their children.

Dr. Edward Abramson, professor emeritus at California State University and author of "Emotional Eating," is a psychologist who works closely with both children and adults with eating issues. Currently working on a book for parents titled "It's Not Just Babyfat," Abramson believes that positive parenting can prevent many of the food-related problems that are ever-present today.

The first piece of advice he has for parents who want to foster a healthy relationship to food is to avoid ever putting their children on a diet. "The focus should always be on improving health, and not on weight," Abramson notes.

He stresses that diets usually become counterproductive and actually increase the likelihood of future weight gain and subsequent emotional issues. Rather, parents should implement healthier family habits, such as eating reasonable portions and even cooking together.

Parents should also be careful of what they talk about around their children. "Daughters don't need to hear their moms criticizing their own bodies," Abramson says. If a parent is always dieting, then a child may learn to see food as an enemy and as something to be feared. And although the problem isn't just a female issue anymore, girls tend to be more affected by this body objectification.

This doesn't mean that parents shouldn't be conscientious of their weight and health, just that they should not make an issue of it with self-disparaging comments. A better approach, Abramson says, is to simply be an example and start taking action towards eating healthier and exercising. "Parents need to model the behavior they want to see in their children," he stresses.

Abramson also suggests that parents teach children to become media literate. "Parents should help children realize that what they are seeing on TV or in magazines is unrealistic."

Of course, eating habits are important. Parents need to beware of being too laissez-faire with their children's eating habits. Most of us are familiar with the "super sizing" going on in restaurants, but many parents are oblivious to the fact that they're also over-serving in the home. Not only does this normalize bigger portions and cause children to eat beyond their hunger, but it's also adding to the childhood obesity epidemic of today.

Recent research headed by Bryan Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," indicates people eat 92 percent of what they are served. Factor in larger portions, and today's children are often eating more than they need.

But Abramson also points out an interesting modern day phenomenon that compounds the other problems: Parents are increasingly failing to recognize when their children are overweight. This means that many parents may be facilitating unhealthy food consumption through the lack of appropriate interventions.

Parents need to implement strategies that prevent mindless eating, such as serving smaller portions on plates, buying single serving portions of foods, and preventing children from eating in their bedrooms.

One last pitfall parents should avoid is getting into a battle of wills with young children. If parents are too forceful with foods, this could cause children to use food as a means to gain control or assert their independence. Instead, keep serving healthy foods without pressure -- eventually the child will probably decide to try them.

As parents, we need to remind ourselves that our behaviors and habits influence our children's attitudes towards food. By becoming conscious of our actions, we can help our kids develop a healthy relationship with food.

Lilian Presti is a Registered Nutritional Consultant and Naturally Savvy's Pregnancy and Pediatric Nutritionist