Raising a Healthy Eater: How Hard Should You Push?
Why strict food rules can backfire and what you can do instead
My daughter grew up with a nutritionist for a mom, so you might think she was raised on a strictly organic, whole-food diet. Not quite. While I didn’t keep much in the way of junk food or processed foods at home, over the years she had her fair share of sweet treats, salty snacks and meals from McD’s. Her overall diet was probably a little healthier than some of the other kids’, but we‘ve never been ones to miss out on fun, and sometimes that means eating fun foods.
When it comes to children’s diets, it’s almost always counterproductive to be too restrictive. Restrictions simply shine a light on forbidden foods and make children want them even more.
Back in the late 1990s, when researchers first tested this theory on boys and girls ages 3 to 5, they found that children who are told not to eat certain foods not only pay more attention to those foods but also end up eating more of them than children who are not restricted. The restricted kids find ways to get what they want. This is especially true of children who are less able to self-regulate or are generally more prone to eating snack foods than others.
I have witnessed this phenomenon many times in my own kitchen. As the author of several parent-and-child cookbooks, I’ve invited children of all ages into my kitchen for tastings. Time and again, the children who I knew had to follow restrictive food rules at home, especially when it came to sugary foods, were the ones who ate more dessert foods at my house than the other kids, and often “swiped” even more when they thought I wasn’t looking.
Children who eat more of the foods parents tend to restrict are at higher risk of gaining excess weight. When too many of their calories come from processed foods like chips and cookies, and not enough from fresh, whole foods like fruits and vegetables, they are also at risk of nutritional deficiency. Simply put, when they fill up on junk food, there’s less room for healthy foods, and that could make them sick in the short term and, over time, put them on the path to developing chronic health problems associated with overweight and malnutrition, such as diabetes, heart disease and joint disease.
Trying harder to police the rules may just backfire. In fact, recent studies found that parents of obese children try to enforce food restriction rules more often than parents of normal weight children.
Here’s an alternative: Instead of focusing on the foods you don’t want your child to eat, spend more time subtly promoting the types of foods you do want them to eat.
Always have them on hand and serve them at the table, but don’t stop there. Employ other strategies, too. One is to take your children food shopping with you, head straight for the produce section, and give them choices within that section. If you say “What kind of fruits should we buy?” as opposed to “You can only have fruit for snacks, no chips!” you’re more likely to get a positive response and leave the store with healthier food your children will actually eat.
Teach by example and model good eating habits. Serve a variety of foods at meals and snack times, and portion foods directly on the plate, rather than serving food family-style in large bowls and on platters. This way, children can see how much food is a normal amount to satisfy hunger.
Let your children cook with you and try making your own chicken nuggets, fish sticks and pizza. This not only allows you to control the ingredients in your child’s food but also helps them develop a taste for freshly made, homemade food so they will ultimately prefer that taste over what’s available in fast-food restaurants.
Set up a routine snack time to discourage random eating. Always serve water as a beverage with meals and snacks and encourage children to carry a water bottle from an early age.
Scandinavian researchers found that using a picture book featuring carrots to encourage children to eat more of those vegetables was very effective when the book was not just passively read to children but used as a trigger for discussion. The children who participated in the reading, along with a question and answer period, ate twice as many carrots as children who were not exposed to the book.
I raised my daughter with the idea that we eat healthy foods most of the time, so we don’t have to worry about indulging in “fun” foods some of the time, with a strong emphasis on “some of the time.” It seems to have worked. At seventeen, she makes mostly smart choices. She loves to drink water and eat vegetables. She rarely eats between meals. Don’t get me wrong, though, she also loves cake. But she rarely goes looking for it and, unless she’s being polite, she won’t waste calories on baked goods that aren’t homemade or from a reputable bakery.
When the rules are loosened, you may not see immediate positive results, and you might have to watch your child eat foods you’d rather he not eat. But by consistently presenting healthier choices and modeling good eating habits yourself, you are helping your child develop better eating habits in the long run. Unless there’s a medical reason why you shouldn’t, it’s almost always better to allow some indulgences along the way than to set your child up for rebellion. The take-away? Never say “never.” Simply say “not now.”