There’s a trope that when the family’s primary cook goes on a diet, the whole family ends up going on a diet. It’s typically been seen as a harmless—or maybe even beneficial—trickle-down effect: that everyone will eat whatever diet-friendly food is served at dinnertime. But research is now showing how that pressure to eat perfectly can create food guilt that may impact people’s relationships with food.
A survey commissioned by General Mills in 2021 with over 1,000 participants found that parents overwhelmingly feel pressure to implement a “perfect diet” for their families. That pressure has been heavily influenced by social media, with 60 percent of parents agreeing that social media puts additional pressure on them to be the “best,” and 34 percent noting that seeing images of “perfect” family meals on social media make them feel food guilt about what their family eats.
But here’s the thing: The perfect diet doesn’t exist, and Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD, wants to shout that from the rooftops. “If I could get rid of a phrase in the English language, it would be the ‘perfect diet,’” the mom and host of Well+Good’s You Versus Food says. “There is no ‘perfect diet’ and it will never exist. What is more likely to exist is an eating pattern that has room for both chocolate and vegetables.”
Balance may be easier said than done, but allowing room for all foods is key in a healthy diet. And while the methods for dealing with food guilt are incredibly nuanced and will be unique to each person’s and family’s situation, Beckerman has a few pieces of advice for parents navigating that pressure.
Keep reading for Beckerman’s family-focused tips on ditching food guilt.
1. Model balanced eating behavior
Kids are like sponges—they absorb everything, including the ways that their parents relate to food. If a parent embodies eating with balance, it’s very likely a child will pick up on it. “That’s why it’s important to eat meals with your kids that include both pizza and vegetables, as well as desserts that include both fruit and cupcakes,” says Beckerman.
On the flip side, if the parent struggles with their own relationship to food, that can also influence the child’s eating habits. “The sooner the parents can remove food rules and allow themselves to enjoy foods without boundaries, the sooner their kids will catch on to that same positive pattern of eating,” Beckerman says.
If you personally struggle with food guilt, Beckerman recommends working with a registered dietitian who specializes in disordered eating. To give kids a positive foundation on which to build their budding relationships with food, she’s a big fan of involving your kids in learning about food. Invite them to help make dinner, play with the ingredients, and find recipes that you enjoy making and eating together—to use their sponge-like qualities for good.
2. Remember that quick meals can be nutritious
The General Mills survey found that 77 percent of parents considered “homemade” breakfasts more nutritious than “convenient” ones. But here’s the sitch: Nutritious and convenient don’t have to be mutually exclusive when it comes to breakfast.
“Mornings don’t have to be an elaborate production in order to be healthy,” Beckerman says. “The best option could be the easiest one—especially in the morning!—when time may not be on your side.Sometimes a nutrient-dense option can be as easy as a bowl of cereal.”
“The essential nutrients found in cereal are often missing in a standard diet—including fiber, whole grain, vitamins and minerals.” —Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD
For her and her family, that looks like stocking her pantry with General Mills Big G cereals such as Cheerios, Kix, and Fiber One for their one-two combo of nutrition (they contain nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals, along with whole grain) and convenience.
“There is a lot of misinformation and often a negative connotation around foods that are found in the center of the [grocery] store, characterizing them all as empty calories void of any nutrition; however, that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Beckerman says. “Many foods found in the center of the store, like cereal, are packed with good nutrition and are easy and convenient, allowing us to spend less time cooking and cleaning up, and more time being present with our kids, which is both beneficial in the long and short term.”
3. Focus on progress
Alleviating the pressure that diet culture and food rules can put on parents is easier said than done, but Beckerman recommends starting by focusing on progress with a side of self-compassion.
“Parenthood is hard enough, and throwing an added layer of pressure to create the ‘perfect diet’ may put parents in a tizzy and distract them from delivering a healthy and balanced message when it comes to food,” Beckerman says. “Because of that, parents may forbid their kids certain foods or even entire food groups, which can ultimately backfire down the road.”
By avoiding food rules and encouraging balance, you can help set your kids up to have a healthy relationship with food as they grow up, which in turn will help counteract the pervasiveness of diet culture messaging. Overall, making healthy eating choices isn’t a one-size-fits-all deal, but giving yourself grace while you figure out what works for your family can help. As Beckerman says, “Parenthood is all about progress, not perfection!”
Top photo: General Mills