Healthy Kids

Competent Eating: Raising a Competent Eater in a Clean Eating Culture


Diet culture takes many different forms. That’s what’s so sneaky about it. And if we’re being really honest with ourselves, we might not aware of how it creeps into our families in the most unexpected ways. 

For so many of us, diet culture has become so ingrained in our way of life, it may be hard to recognize it. This is especially true for those of us who may have grown up in a dieting household or who have a chronic history of dieting, disordered eating or eating disorders. 

Sometimes, diet culture is much more obvious. Most times though, it’s discreet and subtle, showing up in the guise of “wellness”, where rules around food, restriction and rigidity with eating are justified in the name of being healthy. 

And this, my friends, is where the clean eating culture was born. 

What is the Clean Eating Culture? 

Clean eating has taken root over the last decade, being perpetually powered by social media and hashtags, like #eatclean. On the surface level, it seems pretty simple: only eat “whole” and “unprocessed” foods, and aim to consume as much nutrient dense foods as possible. Sounds good in theory, right? 

Eating “clean” has touted many false promises and claims to cure virtually all ailments, from asthma to allergies and everything in between. 

But beneath the surface, there’s much more entangled in this manner of approaching food, which can become especially challenging when we throw kids into the mix. 

While hidden under the disguise of “health”, clean eating trends can come with a host of food rules and underlying anxiety about eating.

The ambiguity around what eating clean even looks like can leave people confused about what to eat and fearful of food. More and more foods can become strictly limited or cut out altogether in the name of eating clean, including things like grains, legumes, dairy, meats, and many other things that can make-up a nutritious diet. 

By default, the clean eating approach has pushed the premise that normal, everyday foods are unhealthy – even toxic (depending on which clean eating circle you may be following). Eating healthy no longer involves the enjoyment of a variety of foods but is instead founded on an extremist and elitist ways of eating. 

What happens when this type of eating culture spills into feeding kids? 

Impact of Clean Eating Culture on Feeding Kids

It’s no surprise that diet culture preys on vulnerabilities, none more than parents and caregivers who are trying their best to raise healthy children in our current day (which, let’s be real – this is no small feat). 

For many parents who are navigating how to feed their kids and wondering what are the best kinds of foods to bring into their homes, “clean” eating can seem like just the ticket. With its promises of better health and nutrition, having some kind of external food rules can seem to simplify the overwhelm that many well-intentioned parents have around feeding and raising their children. 

Focusing on clean eating, especially in our homes and how we feed our kids can seem like a straightforward approach to this goal. Except we live in a world where all types of foods exist, including processed foods, foods made from white flour and sugar, and all the things not considered to be “clean” by diet culture standards. 

Avoiding all of those food products deemed “unclean” can seem pretty easy to do until…it’s not. 

When kids grow up and start getting exposure to other foods, outside of what they’ve been offered in their own homes, this can become a prime trigger for power struggles. 

This tends to happen when kids are old enough to go to school or start becoming involved in outside activities where they’ll see and have access to foods outside of what is offered in their home, including birthday parties, family gatherings, athletic events, church functions and more. 

Clean eating can give parents a false sense of control, especially when food choices feel overwhelming, even questionable. It’s hard to find trusted information these days, and yet, we’re simultaneously overwhelmed by information overload. 

A need or desire for control around food can show up when you’re concerned about your child’s weight, health, nutrition and growth. Worries in these areas for our children in particular can influence a fear-based approach to feeding, which ultimately looks like more rigidity around food, the desire to control and micromanage how or what a child eats. This is where it might be easy to gravitate toward external food rules, like “clean eating” as an attempt to control how a child eats.  

Trying to impose food rules on children can also create unrealistic expectations about foods that kids can actually eat. 

In general, the clean eating approach eliminates many foods that are safer and more acceptable for children. It also puts pressures on kids to eat certain foods they may not feel ready for eating (like kale and avocado toast, anybody?). 

For many children who may be more selective about what they eat or have sensory sensitivities with food, it may be harder for them to eat and enjoy food. Many processed foods demonized by diet culture are actually safe and accepted foods for children who may be pickier eaters. Not allowing or including these types of foods can make meals more stressful, creating unwanted mealtime battles between you and your child. 

The Problem With Focusing on Clean Eating With Kids

The problem with trying to adhere to a strict way of eating, whether it’s “clean eating” or any other form of rules about food, is that by default, creates a hierarchy around food. It elevates some foods over others and limits exposure to the foods that might be put out as “unhealthy”, “unclean”, etc. 

This can create a couple problematic situations when it comes to feeding children. 

On the one hand, when we try to get our children to eat certain foods through pressure-to-eat tactics, this can actually increase pickiness and create aversions to the very foods we want our children to eat. Pressuring kids to eat certain foods can also create overall negative associations around the eating experience, which can damper your child’s relationship with food. 

On the other hand, restricted access to highly palatable foods only increases desire for those foods. 

Kids are more likely to eat in the absence of hunger and overeat these foods when they do get access to them. Restricting access to certain foods also ramps up a child’s obsession with eating those foods, causing them to become more preoccupied with them, even if they don’t even enjoy eating them. 

And it’s not a matter of IF but when. 

Because as much as you might be able to control the foods your children eat and have access to now, the reality is they will leave your home one day They will be exposed to all the foods you may have restricted access to, in one way or another – whether it’s when they go off to college or even at a friend’s house. 

We live in a world where these types of foods exist, and if they never get the opportunities to learn how to eat them in the safety of their own home, they’re more likely to have a chaotic relationship with food and their bodies. 

The other thing to be aware of is how a hyperfocus on a certain way of eating, like “clean eating”, can unintentionally create rigid rules around eating. If you don’t allow certain foods in your home because they don’t meet the “clean” criteria, this can inadvertently create negative associations around those foods. 

Drawing a line in the sand about what foods are “good” or “bad”, “healthy” versus “unhealthy”, teach children that some foods are to be feared and avoided.

This can lead to feelings of shame when those foods are encountered or eaten. The truth is that health concepts are very abstract for children, especially younger children, and they translate information in their brains literally.

So when they hear, “We’re not eating this because it’s bad for you”, they may interpret this to mean, “I’m bad for wanting to eat this”. 

These types of messages can internalize deep seeded fear and shame around food, which can escalate into further issues down the road. This polarized view of food, that often comes with a dogmatic approach to eating, can make food much more confusing and chaotic for children. 

In addition, focusing on external criteria or rules for how or what to eat also reinforces the idea that children can’t listen to or trust their bodies. This conflict can put them at odds within themselves, where they learn from young ages to depend on food rules to eat, rather than trusting their innate intuitive eating abilities to guide them. 

Indeed, this is why many fall suspect to food rules, hidden under the guise of eating healthy. 

You may feel that you’re unable to trust your own body, and therefore, rely on outside rules to tell you what or how to eat. But food rules are often unrealistic and unsustainable (at least for the long-term), creating unnecessary guilt and shame around eating, and taking the joy out of food entirely. 

Many mothers I work with use rigid criteria and rules to decide what and how to eat during the course of their days rather than pausing to ask themselves the questions, “What do you really want to eat today?”, “What do you enjoy eating?”, “What brings you satisfaction and joy?” 

When we eat along these guidelines versus food rules, we’re more likely to eat in a healthful way over the course of time and have healthier outcomes in the long run.

When food rules create more rigidity around food or fear around eating, this can cause stress and tension in your home and mealtime environment. And the stress your family may be experiencing over food – (what to eat, how to eat, etc.) is far worse for your health than anything you can eat – yes, including all those processed foods that diet culture loves to demonize. 

Clean eating often means cutting out on foods that are part of our everyday lives and experiences – like eating pizza together on Friday nights as a family, going out for ice cream, or celebrating with birthday cake (real cake, not a food that’s been “healthified”). 

It’s being able to enjoy these experiences and connect over food without fear or shame looming over you or stealing your joy because the foods you’re eating aren’t on the “clean eating” list. 

As Ellyn Satter so eloquently says, “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.” 

This is clearly evident in the manner that food rules and diet culture can invade our homes and our families. 

When you’re worried about every little morsel that your child is eating and whether or not it’s compliant with the manner in which you want them to eat, there will be no joy in eating together as a family. This also makes mealtimes a prime breeding ground for power struggles, which creates negative associations around the eating experience – for both you and your children. 

When clean eating becomes the main goal rather than connection and safety around eating together, there will be unintended consequences. 

Your child may build negative associations around eating, become more preoccupied with the very foods you may be restricting access to in the home, and run the risk of poorer health outcomes over the long term. 

These factors are important to consider, as the risks outweigh the benefits of trying to enforce a certain way of eating in your home that may not be practical or realistic for your children. 

Ultimately, imposing a way of eating that involves any degree of rigidity or rules around food doesn’t allow your child to learn how to become a competent eater, to have trust and confidence in their bodies as the best experts of what they need. This is what will help guide them toward better health outcomes and a more positive relationship with food and their bodies over their lifetimes.

Instead of Clean Eating, Focus on a Competent Eater

What does it mean to raise a competent eater, and why is this more important than raising a child who “eats clean”?

Competency focuses on enjoyment of food and body trust, which is actually what’s going to help you raise a healthier person, especially over the long term. 

Choosing to focus on positive eating experiences in your home over the nutrition quality of the actual food itself can help you give your child the tools they need to learn how to care for and respect themselves, especially in regards to food and their bodies. 

These are the real foundational building blocks to supporting a positive relationship with food and body.

In fact, research has shown that individuals who are competent eaters are more likely to engage in healthful eating behaviors and have a higher quality diet, which shows us that a focus on competency with eating rather than clean eating is more effective in producing better health outcomes. 

On the other hand, rigidity around food with kids can be a contributing factor to eating disorder development and poor body image. 

Competent eating prioritizes permission to eat foods that are enjoyed in quantities that are satisfying, as well as access to nourishing meals and snacks on a regular basis. At the core, competent eating focuses on the enjoyment of eating without guilt or shame, making regular time to eat, and creating a positive environment in which to enjoy food on a regular basis. 

When it comes to raising a competent eater, providing regular access to food in the forms of consistent meals and snacks is one piece of the puzzle. 

As you venture down this road and explore this for yourself and your family, here are some other tools that can help you get started in raising your children to be competent eaters in a clean eating culture.

How to raise a competent eater: 

  1. Help your child become the best expert of their bodies:

Raising a competent eater means you’re trusting your children to become the best experts of their bodies.

Because in reality, the only people living in your children’s bodies are your children.

If you’re constantly micromanaging what your kids are eating or trying to get them to eat certain foods or amounts, you’ll never allow them to learn to listen to and trust their bodies.

Our kids are born with the innate capabilities that allow them to self-regulate what they need to eat, to thrive and grow at a rate that is right for them.

And chances are – your idea of what that looks like is different from what they actually need. In order to help your kids’ become the best experts of their bodies, it requires you to lay down your own expectations around how you think your children should be eating.

It also means you’re focusing on your jobs with feeding and trusting your children to eat what they need from the foods you provide. 

2. Drop the food rules:

As we talked about earlier, clean eating often involves hidden rules, like don’t eat this, or eat this instead of that. It puts emphasis on certain foods while excluding others.

By default, this creates a polarized approach to food – the good versus bad, healthy versus unhealthy labels around food. The problem with this is how our children may interpret these messages.

Children think in literal terms and often translate our own messaging around food to mean something other than what we intend.

For example, when a child hears, “You shouldn’t eat too much sugar, it’s bad for you!”, they can interpret this to mean, “You are bad for wanting to eat that.”

This is how internalized shame and guilt around food is seeded from young ages.

Learning to approach food in the absence of labeling and food rules can allow our children to develop more emotional neutrality among all foods, where they learn to eat things based on what feels best in their bodies versus any external rules.

This is fundamental for raising a competent eater who can navigate a variety of food situations. 

3. Give permission to eat all foods:

When we limit or restrict access to certain foods, especially those foods which we fear may fall outside the parameters of the clean eating labels, this can actually increase desirability for those foods. Children are more likely to obsess over and become preoccupied with those very foods that feel off-limits.

It’s human nature for us to intently desire the things we’re told we can’t have. When certain foods feel off-limits, it automatically puts them on a pedestal, making them more special in your child’s mind.

When this happens, your child will be more likely to overeat these foods whenever they do get access to them (and they will at some point, no matter how much you think you can control it now).

Kids are also more likely to eat restricted foods, regardless of what they’re feeling in their bodies. This is called the “feast or famine” mentality, where foods are eaten regardless of hunger and satiety cues, simply for fear of those foods not being available in the future. 

In order to prevent this, it’s important to intentionally incorporate them into your home, offer them with foods you’d regularly serve your family, and don’t wait for your kids to always have to ask you for them.

Take them off the pedestal to decrease the novelty around them and make them more accessible. By doing this, you’re giving your child permission to learn how to eat a variety of foods, which gives the tools for your child to become a competent eater. 

4. Trust your child to eat:

A key component of raising your child to be a competent eater is to allow them to learn how to self-regulate their intake.

This can only happen if you trust your kids to eat what they need from the foods you provide them on a regular basis. The only person living in your child’s body is your child, and competency comes with learning how to become the best expert of their own body.

If you’re micromanaging what or how much your children are eating, they won’t learn how to trust themselves.

They’ll internalize the message that their bodies can’t be trusted and that they need to listen to external rules to guide their food choices rather than their internal cues.

Your children were born with the innate ability to self-regulate their intake to grow at a rate that is right for them.

These cues they have are the best guide of what they need – no matter how much you think you might know what’s best for them.

Focus on doing your jobs with feeding them a variety of foods consistently, and trust them to do their jobs with eating, even when how or what they eat looks wildly different from your own expectations. 

5. Model Eating Competency:

Your relationship with food and your body will impact your kids and how they feel about food and their bodies. If you’re trying to raise a competent eater – a child who can trust their bodies and enjoy a positive relationship with food, then it has to start with you.

I know this is easier said than done, and many of us are learning how to raise our children differently from how we were parented and brought up. You may have a difficult relationship with food and your body yourself, or perhaps you have a history of an eating disorder, disordered eating, or chronic dieting.

Living submerged in a dieting culture alone can make it challenging to have a positive relationship with food and your body. Not to mention, mothers are under extreme pressure when it comes to their bodies, where the weight loss industry preys on the vulnerabilities that inevitably come with a body that has been changed by motherhood.

No matter where you might find yourself today, know you have the capacity to heal, to learn how to model a relationship with food and your body that you would want your own child to emulate.

This means applying the above points to yourself: giving yourself permission to eat, dropping the food rules, eating foods you actually enjoy, and learning to become the best expert of your own body again.

Modeling these behaviors will ultimately be the most powerful tool in supporting your children to become competent eaters who have a positive relationship with food and their bodies. If this is an area you’re struggling with, check out this post here: “Dieting Sucks: Why Diets Don’t Work And Finding Food Freedom as a Mom”

What Ditching Clean Eating Doesn’t Mean

While we’re on the subject of challenging the arbitrary standards that are a part of the clean eating culture, it’s important to address the elephant in the room here. And that is, to clarify what it doesn’t mean to focus on raising a competent eater over “clean eating.”

Please hear me out. I know this can be a touchy subject for a lot of people, and a controversial one at that. 

Challenging diet culture, which has become the norm for most of us, can feel uncomfortable. Again, for most of us, this is all we’ve ever known. Letting go of food rules and normalizing all foods in our home can feel scary, especially if you feel like you’re relinquishing control that helps give you some sense of security around food and feeding your kids. 

As you consider this and how this might look in your home, please know I’m not advocating for letting your kids eat potato chips all day long or not caring about what they eat, giving them free rein to the fridge and pantry. This opposite extreme would only make food more chaotic in your home. 

Children still need  us as parents and caregivers to take a leadership role with food, to offer food regularly throughout the day in the forms of meals/snacks, and to take care in offering a variety of foods, including those foods they’re excited about eating and those foods they may still be learning how to eat. 

Nor am I suggesting that you’re a bad parent for wanting to feed your children healthy food options. This viewpoint can often get misconstrued, so it’s important to clarify my position here. 

What I am saying is that any rigid approach to eating and feeding your children can become problematic down the road, so it’s worth exploring and examining if your idea of how you and your family should eat is compromising you from raising up children who do have a positive relationship with food and their bodies. 

To enjoy freedom with food as a family and in order to raise children who have a positive relationship with food and their bodies, it’s important to stay focused on the big picture. Food and eating together is something that should be enjoyed, something that brings you all together and fosters nurture and connection

With this as your focus, you’re much more likely to create positive experiences around food and mealtimes that allows you and your children to experience healthier outcomes overall, including physically, mentally, emotionally and relationally. 

Now I’d love to hear from you! What are your thoughts about raising a competent eater in our clean eating culture? Be sure to share any thoughts or questions you have in the comments below! 

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