Kids' Health

Stop Worrying About What Your Kids Eat And Start Worrying About How They Eat

End the food fight.

by Andy Hinds
Originally Published: 
eating out with kids

All parents are hung up about the quality and quantity of food they put into their kids’ pie-holes. Are they getting enough protein? Too many carbs? How about calcium for bone strength? Is a Hot Cheeto a grain or a dairy?

In her book, It’s Not About the Broccoli, sociologist, parent educator, and feeding specialist Dina Rose, PhD proposes a reasoned theory on how kids start dysfunctional relationship with food. After sifting through mountains of scientific literature and interviewing dozens of parents and food experts, she argues that you’ve been going about it wrong. Stop thinking about delivering nutrients into your kid’s system, and start thinking about creating healthy habits based on a handful of simple principles.

Of course, if you stand over the sink to eat, you probably don’t have time to read a whole book. Here are the choice cuts.

1. The Horrifying Reality Of How American Children Eat

If you can get through the depressing statistics, the gist is that we’re a nation obsessed with calories, carbs, glutens, and GMOs, we mostly feed our kids garbage, and mostly have predictable results.

  • On any given day, 30 percent of American preschoolers don’t eat a single vegetable; but almost every preschooler consumes some kind of sweetened snack or beverage.
  • The most common vegetable consumed by American children is fries, because the government doesn’t know how vegetables work.
  • The CDC says that approximately 17 percent (12.5 million) of Americans aged 2-19 are obese: that’s triple the number of obese kids in 1980.
  • American kids have a 30 percent chance of developing diabetes in their lifetime.
  • Based on studying our kids’ eating habits, scientists predict that today’s children may be the first generation in U.S. history to have lower life expectancies than their parents

What You Can Do With This

  • Weep for the future

2. The “Nutrition Mindset” Is Actually Making Our Children Less Healthy Eaters

The central argument of Rose’s book goes something like this: We’re so focused on getting the right nutrients into our kids’ bodies that we rationalize feeding them crap. Sounds counterintuitive, but when your fussy eater boycotts everything but hot dogs and squeeze pouches, we say “Well, at least they’re getting protein and fruit!”

Whether or not that’s truly what’s driving our kids’ undeniably shitty eating habits is up for debate, but it’s Rose’s theory. And without theories, books about kids’ nutrition don’t get discussed on talk shows and parenting websites.

  • The evidence in favor of this includes a study in which American, Canadian, and French subjects were asked to estimate how much fat was in servings of certain foods. Americans were much more likely to come close to the correct answer — but eat it anyway.
  • French subjects had no clue about fat content, and remain slim, healthy, attractive, and insufferable.
  • Researchers concluded that because Americans have become consumers of nutrients, instead of food, they make questionable food choices. Like Arbys.

What You Can Do With This

  • Use the “teaching approach,” instead of the “nutrient approach.” Set goals for getting them to eat healthy foods.
  • Be patient. If your kids hate a food you introduce, try it again a few days later. Research shows that it can take 10 or more times before they enjoy it. Or never. You still won’t eat sardines.
  • Don’t buckle and feed them “kid-friendly” foods — this only habituates them to sweet, salty, easy-to-chew garbage and decreases the likelihood that they will develop a taste for the good stuff.
  • With eating (as with everything else) kids need structure and guidance, but not pressure.
  • Before building a new “structure,” you must tear down the old one. If you want to be authoritative, you need to stop vacillating between a Friday night pizza orgy and forcing them to finish every last lima bean.

What You Can Do With This

  • Get the kids on board. Tell them that there are about to be some new rules about eating (tell them it’s federally mandated if you think it’ll make a difference.). Also, keep talking about it as you build that new structure.
  • Make rules about when the family eats. “Eating Zones” are not places, but blocks of time (1-1.5 hours per block) during which meals and snacks are permitted. It prevents grazing, but is also flexible enough to allow a child to be a child.

4. Change Their Attitude Towards Food

Stop treating all the meals you make like you’re either a) vying for a Michelin star or b) Joey Chestnut at Nathan’s July 4th Hot Dog contest. Setting up your kid with a healthy attitude towards food means giving them the right balance of variety, proportion, choice and praise.

  • Rose puts foods into three categories: Growing Foods (fresh and healthy stuff), Fun Foods (pretzels, sweetened yogurt, chicken nuggets — things bordering on food), and Treat Foods (fries, cookies, anything from a state fair.)
  • She also stresses that to stop kids from getting bored with food, you should offer a variety, but not so much that you feel like you have to put new specials on the menu to keep their business.

What You Can Do With This

  • Use “The Rotation Rule.” Never eat the same thing 2 days in a row. Start with food you already know they’ll eat, even if it’s not ideal. This way, they will get used to the idea of variety in their meals, and not expect the same tastes and textures every day.
  • Avoid power struggles by “redirecting their desire for control.” You can give your kids choices, but not too many. Don’t say “What do you want?” Say, “Do you want grilled cheese or spaghetti?” Or a big bowl of shut the hell up.
  • Praise your kids when they eat well. Recognize their struggle: “I know you wanted waffles this morning, but thank you for not throwing scalding oatmeal in my face like you did last time!”
  • Teach proportion. Eat mostly Growing Foods, less Fun Foods, and even less Treat Food. Again, explain the system to your kids, and change the proportions gradually to avoid backlash.
  • Don’t serve them a meal of new food. Instead, ask them to just taste a small amount — you can even let them spit them out.
  • Connect new foods to something they’ve eaten before by discussing the flavors and textures of new foods. Expand their vocabulary beyond “yummy,” “gross,” and flinging across the room.
  • Keep a backup on hand. You can offer your picky kid an out, but don’t make it something he or she loves, just something that is okay. And always offer the same backup. They will get so sick of their failsafe that even your cooking may seem appealing.

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