Two recent studies link teen eating habits with health risks. The first states that emotional eating may lead to unhealthy diets and weight gain. The other study reports that ultra-processed foods could be “gateway foods” for adolescents, leading to more unhealthy eating behaviors into adulthood. Too often, these foods are used as a coping strategy; they are relied on for celebration or withheld as punishment.
From Halloween to Easter, my kids are over-exposed to junk foods. Even if I don’t keep these types of foods in the house, there is always a party, special event, or food-focused expression of love or celebration around every corner.
As a parent, I often enter the upcoming holiday season with anxiety as to what my responsibility as a Christian parent when it comes to feeding my children.
Good News for Parents: Modeling Makes a Difference
There is good news for anxious parents like me. The research also shows that when parents model healthy eating habits, our children often copy those behaviors. Even if not immediately, at least by the time they are adults.
For example, parents can model emotional regulation. Rather than teach children to rely on food with their emotions, we can teach them that it is okay to feel sad, angry, or upset. We can show them healthy coping strategies, such as a walk around the block or talking about their feelings. We can reward and celebrate with hugs, high fives, doing something they enjoy, and positive statements, rather than with food.
We can also model nutritious food choices and make them easier for everyone in the family to consume. Trying to control what our teens eat often does more harm than good, so having a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter, keeping cut vegetables in the refrigerator, and stocking our pantries with snacks that are low in salt, fat, and sugar nudges everyone in the household towards healthier food choices (Thaler, 2021).
Parents can get creative in ways we limit junk food. Thanks to a suggestion from a friend, we enjoy Halloween candy on October 31st, but then we pack up the rest and use it to decorate gingerbread houses in December. It doesn’t eliminate the consumption, but it moderates it for a fun purpose.
Are teenagers in your house begging for sugar-sweetened beverages and desserts? Get them in the kitchen to make Greaterade, teach them an old family recipe, or modify a standard dessert to include healthier options. Research shows that cooking teaches math and language skills, builds self-esteem, and promotes healthy food choices in teens (Wells, 2007).
There is even better news for Christian parents, however, reaching beyond families’ food and nutrition habits and into our hearts.
Great News for Christians: Glorify God and Enjoy Him and His Food Forever
The Bible consistently reminds followers of Jesus that we need not fear about food or anything else (see Luke 12). Sugar, salt, and fat are not bad. They have, however, become too easily accessible in our culture, causing us to mindlessly and over-consume them at the cost of vital nutrients that our bodies need to maintain health over a lifetime.
The love of Christ was costly, but it is also rich and lavish. So lavish that it makes us sons and daughters of the living God (I John 3:1). Rich foods have a place in our diet, but they should be intentionally consumed in a way that points us and our children towards the richness of God.
When we decide to take the time to be with our kids in the kitchen, limit foods and beverages that may lead to chronic diseases, and spend more on sustainable and ethically-sourced ingredients, our meals become signposts of God’s costly love through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
In Matthew 16:5-12, Jesus warns his disciples not to be like the Pharisees, who added to God’s law and wisdom, or like the Sadducees, who discounted God’s law and wisdom. Many food and nutrition messages today mirror the erroneous extremes of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Some messages we receive tell us that food will make us happy and fill a void, which adds a false promise to God’s wisdom and design for food. Other messages we receive warn us that when we avoid certain foods, even unhealthy ones, we deprive ourselves and our children of pleasure, discounting God’s wisdom and design for creation
Jesus tells his friends that the sly messages of the Pharisees and Sadducees are like yeast in a bread recipe, unnoticeably working through the whole batch. These unethical marketing and unhealthy messages about food have also gone unnoticed, yet pierce our hearts and minds.
Matthew tells us that the disciples eventually get that they are not to worry about actual yeast in bread, but to beware of the false teaching of others (v. 12). Similarly, Christians do not need to fear food, but we do need to beware of the marketing and messages surrounding food that are aimed toward us and the fickleness of our hearts.
Just before the disciples are warned about the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 15, Jesus reminds his followers that sin in our heart, not the food we eat, defiles us (vs. 10-20).
The great news for me, my children, for all Christians, and for our culture, is that food is not the problem; food is a gift from God. Sin is the problem, and for that Christ came and died. He is making all things new, even our food habits.
The Lord delights to give his people wisdom that blesses individuals, families, and communities (I Kings 4). As a Christian parent, my responsibility is to pray and seek wisdom from the God’s Word, as well as science-based evidence.
I am invited to bless my children, our schools, restaurants, grocery stores, farmers markets, and food pantries with my time and money, glorifying God by pointing others to the costly love of Jesus and his good design for all of creation.
Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2021). Nudge. Yale University Press.
Wells, S. M., & Garden-Robinson, J. (2007). Now Serving: Meals with Help from Teens!