All parents want their kids to grow up as happy and healthy as possible. But, by focusing too much on weight or calories, some parents may be unintentionally setting the stage for their children to develop an unhealthy relationship with food, Ayat Sleymann, a registered dietitian and mom of two kids, ages 4 and 6, tells TODAY.com.
Sleymann, who goes by @momnutritionist on both Instagram and TikTok, specializes in helping moms lose weight. And that often requires guiding them to unlearn some strict dieting rules they may have grown up with to avoid falling into a yo-yo dieting cycle.
For instance, many of Sleymann’s clients grew up in a house where food or sugars were restricted, or one of their parents was always on a diet, she says, which set them up to have a fraught relationship with food as they got older.
As someone who was raised in one of those households where there were “good” and “bad” foods, Sleymann says, “To this day, I have a hard time navigating those thoughts.” So she wanted to give her social media followers “some background as to why these things ended up happening into adulthood,” Sleymann explains, “and it really starts in childhood.”
In a recent video with more than 397,000 views on TikTok, she shared the five points she keeps in mind while working through those issues in her own family — and how she tries to create a more positive environment for her kids to feel comfortable navigating food, hunger cues and their bodies.
I would never put my kids on a diet.
Rather than focusing on weight, Sleymann encourages her kids to engage in healthy lifestyle habits.
“More playtime, more fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep, limiting screen time, offering water instead of juice — focusing more on the habits rather than a number on the scale,” she explains.
In fact, she prefers to “never even mention their weight” because it can become something they may fixate on, leading them to develop disordered eating behaviors.
I never body shame myself, my kids or anyone else.
“Kids are always watching their parents, and they model after what their parents do and say, especially the daughter-mom relationship,” Sleymann says. “When you speak kindly about your body, they will do the same.”
Rather than putting her body down, she talks about how strong she feels or how “I’m eating more vegetables to give my body the nutrition it needs to be strong,” she adds. “And, really, there’s no need to ever mention anyone’s body size anyway.”
I never make my kids finish their plates or restrict food.
Sleymann wants to make one thing clear to parents: “Our job as parents is to provide food throughout the day in the form of structured meals and snacks, offering a variety of foods and making mealtime a safe place for children to listen to their bodies,” she explains. “Your child depends on that routine, and it gives them the space to feel their fullness and hunger level.”
If you’re forcing kids to finish food on their plate even though they aren’t hungry anymore, you’re dictating on their body,” Sleymann says. Over time, that “dampens their own feelings of when they’re full and when they’re hungry, and then it gets really confusing for them to unlearn later on in life,” she says.
Sleymann suggests holding onto leftovers to reduce food waste and serving kids a smaller amount to start, which they can always add to.
On the flip side, not restricting food doesn’t mean letting children “graze all day,” Sleymann says, but it does mean offering a regular, predictable schedule of varied snacks and meals.
I never categorize foods as “good” or bad.”
Slaymann stays away from categorizing foods like this because it can create a hierarchy of foods in a child’s mind. Calling a food “bad” or “unhealthy” actually “shines the light on that food and it makes the child more hyper-focused on that food, and it makes them want (those foods) more,” she explains.
Instead, she focuses on nutrients in the food, like protein that can help build strength and carbs that provide energy. Talking about food in this way will help the child self-regulate their hunger, she explains. “It also teaches them to eat according to what their bodies need, and they’re also not fearful of missing out on those really tasty foods that they like,” she says.
Some parents have success with terms such as “sometimes foods” or “always foods,” she says. That can work without mentioning calories and instead using phrasing like, “We don’t want to always have this because it can give us a tummy ache,” Sleymann says.
Another approach might be intentionally serving sweets alongside your child’s meals and snacks, she explains, which helps put those foods on an even playing field and “makes it all emotionally equivalent.”
I never focus on the number of calories in food.
Sleymann prefers to focus on the nutrients in food rather than the specific number of calories it provides.
“With kids, their bodies are growing,” she says. “They’re going to need different amounts of food at different stages of their life. So there really is no need to count calories or macros.” Parents’ fixating on those numbers can cause a child to do the same, possibly setting them up for disordered eating behaviors, she says.
“We want to focus on nutrients, like fiber and protein and how these things help our bodies grow and thrive,” Sleymann says. With this approach, “you’re internally regulating versus having something else tell you what you’re supposed to have.”