“Guess I’ll be stopping for ice cream on the drive home.”

My remark on how I was planning to console my daughter after a to-the-buzzer nail-biter of a soccer game was innocent — and said in jest. My battle-weary girl was going to need some cheering up and a cone with sprinkles is as good an attempt as any.

But to the mom I was sitting with and her four-year-old, it was clearly a minefield.

“Ice cream is bad,” the child chastised. “We don’t eat that, right mommy? It’s not good.” I turned to the mother whose face was a mask. Her lack of humor about this statement caused my laughter to stop in my throat, mid-stream. She was serious.

A week later, I found myself challenging her for permission to bring cupcakes and fruit to the team party. I’d turned into the junk food mom, but I wasn’t. What has stuck with me all these years is how absolute this four-year-old was and how food had already been placed into good and bad categories.

I’m a mother and stepmother to three incredibly individual, funny and spirited teenage girls transitioning to young women. I hope that I have helped my girls to have a good relationship between their bodies and food.

You see, when I was slightly older than them, I developed an eating disorder that robbed me of years of my life. It began with yo-yo dieting then progressed to laxative abuse, anorexia and bulimia. The road to recovery was long and arduous but the result is a better, happier, healthier me. I would give anything to insure that these amazing human beings never have to experience the hell of having an eating disorder.

When I became a mother, I made a decision to have a better relationship with food and my body. If my kids witnessed me poking and prodding at my body, dieting or starving they would consider that behavior normal and acceptable. I knew that how I talk about my body, and treat myself regarding exercise, food and dieting could run on a permanent loop in my children’s heads so I gave up unhealthy behaviors around food and body.

Today, I am a self-described foodie-parent. My family eats vegetables, meat, carbohydrates and sugar. Balance is important in my household. There are no quick-fix fasts, diets, bingeing, purging, exercise obsession or frantic shifts in weight or clothing size. In my home we do not use the ‘F’ word (fat) or talk negatively about ourselves. I’m loving and gentle to myself, so I do not allow them to beat themselves up. And yes, I use the ‘P’ word a lot, because to me they are perfect.

Being a mom means spending time with other parents and seeing how prevalent and damaging negative self-talk can be. I have witnessed so many cringe-worthy moments between parents and kids regarding food and body that I worry about those kids. One mom even explained that her daughter’s body contained the worst parts of her parents bodies.  

Young people are fragile and it’s important to help them develop healthy coping tools and good self-esteem about who they are, not what size they fit into. I’ve never parented perfectly but I hope that my recovery from food and body issues has saved my girls from developing eating disorders.

Here are some things that I learned:

  • If you criticize your body, it will teach your daughter that the only acceptable goal is perfection.
  • If you control what your child eats, it will teach them to rebel and keep snacks a secret.
  • Labeling food good or bad, encourages black and white thinking where your child may feel like they deserve a gold star for eating good food and feeling guilt and shame for desiring or eating “bad” foods.
  • Whether it’s a compliment or criticism, I’m been consistent in my stance that it is problematic to comment on another person’s body, especially children.

As for the post-soccer game treat? We ultimately had the ice cream and there was nothing “bad” about it.