Top 3 Ways to Raise an Emotional Eater

Is eating for an emotional reason always a problem? Not necessarily. But it may become one when we use food as a primary way to deal with emotions.

We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and enjoy social occasions with scrumptious treats. We feel relieved to sit down for a meal when hungry.  We feel disappointment, possibly hurt, when a loved one rejects a dish we made.  We may go out for ice-cream after a tough or stressful day at work.  Eating something delicious gives us pleasure.  Perhaps even joy!

No doubt about it, food evokes emotion.  And that is normal and okay. So it would be unrealistic and undesirable to expect eating to be completely severed from our emotional lives.  In this sense we are all “emotional eaters” to a degree.  So I am not promoting a cold, no-feelings-allowed approach to eating.

However, red flags wave when food becomes the constant and go-to way to soothe, cope, or stuff one’s emotions.  Such a habit is really a misuse or abuse of food and leads to overeating, guilt, and poor nutrition.  It also tends to leave the underlying problem unsolved.

As a parent you have no guarantee how your child will live and eat as an adult.  But the way you feed your little one now can definitely stack the deck in favor of a healthy relationship with food.  Here are three common feeding mistakes parents make that promote emotional misuse of food (you may be surprised by the last one):

1.  Rewarding or Bribing with Treats

What does this look like?

  • “No dessert unless you eat your broccoli/clean your plate/finish your chicken).”
  • “Play quietly in church and you can have this lollipop at the end”.
  • “If you behave during Mommy’s meeting, we’ll go get ice cream afterward!”

Why is this a problem?
Kids are naturally drawn to sweet foods but making sweets into a reward for eating broccoli, turns the vegetable into “work”– something obviously less desirable.  Research shows that kids who are coerced into eating vegetables tend to remember the eating of those vegetables as a negative experience.  In the meantime, the dessert’s value increases and kids form a greater emotional attachment to it.

What can you do instead?
Serve the foods you want your kids to learn to like at family meals.  Let them see you enjoy asparagus and salmon and they will (probably) learn to like them over time as well–don’t pressure them to eat green beans or anything else in order to gain a reward.  Let everyone have dessert, regardless of how much they ate of the main meal. Don’t make kids ‘earn’ it by eating past fullness in order to squeeze in the prize.   In the meantime, brainstorm some non-food rewards and learn other more productive ways of managing behavior.  It isn’t as easy, but in the long run, it’s worth it!


2.  Distracting or soothing with food whenever she’s sad or to prevent tantrums.

What does this look like?

  • Giving a toddler a pack of goldfish crackers every time you go to the grocery store keep him from throwing a fit.
  • “Don’t be sad Tommy, look they have gummy bears here, you love those!”
  • “Oh Honey, did you bump your forehead?  Let’s find a yummy snack.”

Why is this a problem?
Young children, toddlers especially, are learning to differentiate between their emotions and physical sensations.  Repeatedly solving emotion-based problems with food will 1) prevent them from learning to identify their emotions and 2) will create a strong association for kids that food is what soothes.  They will develop a habit of turning to food when they experience negative feelings instead of learning to identify emotions for what they are and cope appropriately.     

What can you do instead?
Learn to be an emotion coach for your child.  Identify his feelings and validate them.  Give him a hug, reassurance, help in problem solving, or time to process his emotion rather than wave it away with the magic wand of food.

3.  Allow Munching All Day Long.

What does this look like?

  • Chasing your little one around all day with a few bites of this or that because you don’t think he ate enough at the last meal.
  • Leaving a plate of “healthy” snacks on the table in case she gets hungry.
  • Letting him eat whatever he wants whenever he asks for it or letting him grab food from the pantry/fridge whenever the mood strikes.

Why is this a problem?

If food is constantly available to children, there’s little stopping a young child from grabbing food out of boredom or sadness or any number of emotion-based reasons. Toddlers learn this coping habit very quickly.  But you know what else happens?  Kids lose their appetite for meals.  Yes, even snacking around the clock with ‘healthy’ food undermines mealtime structure and may lead to eating out of boredom. And there you are again: tempted to bribe your child with dessert so he doesn’t skip the broccoli–it’s a vicious cycle!  In this way, food becomes a constant issue.  Need another reason to avoid letting your child graze, ask your dentist what happens to little teeth when they are constantly bathed in food or beverages?

What can you do instead?
Serve meal and snacks on a flexible schedule and keep food out of sight between eating times.  Don’t wait for your child to beg–set the snack on the table at a planned time.  At first, a former all-day-snacker will reject this change and possibly respond with an epic tantrum.  Don’t let the tantrum win.  If you hold to the new rules, your child will get used to it very quickly.

Not all kids will be ‘ruined’ by the rare bribe.  Sometimes a mom has to do what she has to do to get Christmas photos taken. The one-off feeding compromise won’t drive your child to drown every sorrow in ice-cream, so don’t waste time feeling guilty.  This is really about forming habits.  So if bribing, soothing, rewarding with food is common in your home, or grazing is how your kids get most of their eating accomplished, it’s time to come up with a new feeding strategy for a healthier relationship with food.

If you have a little one whose eating throws you for a loop and has you pulling your hair out, you may want to take my 5-Day Child Feeding Boot Camp.  These classes will give you the tools and strategies to turn mealtimes around and help your toddler become a joy to feed!

Posted by Adina
March 27, 2015

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