A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Break Your Food Rules

Why teaching children food rules can cause more harm than good

One huge mistake parents make these days is trying to control their child’s health and body by making rules about what they eat. There are undoubtedly a few good rules, which should apply as much to adults as to children: moderation, balance, less or no processed food and more plant-based foods. These are rules of thumb, however, as opposed to strict imperatives: they address diet broadly rather than micromanaging what we eat. But many parents go well beyond such big picture food rules: no soda, no refined sugar, no starch, no dessert, no dairy, etc., etc. While these dictates generally arise from a desire to do right as parents, they reveal what a terribly misguided route we’ve taken in addressing food and weight with our children.

Food rules, however well intentioned, do not send the right message to children. Here’s what micromanaging eating—which has become the norm in many families—does accomplish. First, it tells children food is something to fear unless they exercise strict control over it. Second, setting such rules sets both parents and children up for failure: no dictates can be faithfully followed all the time; and especially because these are imposed by parents, children feel like failures when they inevitably don’t or can’t follow them. Unlike rules about good manners and other behaviors, broken food rules make kids afraid not only of parental repercussions but of the more abstract and frightening prospect that they are damaging their bodies (by ingesting sugar or whatever the banned substance may be). Third, most of these rules and restrictions are based only on the slightest of pseudo-scientific “facts” or hearsay. The dizzying speed with which foods and nutrients go in and out of favor should demonstrate the flimsiness of the research, but in fact this has yet to undermine our determination to believe in magical foods.

Americans are obsessed with food fads, restrictions and “healthy” regimens. From the invention of breakfast cereals in the 1890s to cold-pressed juices today, we've jumped on (and off) one food bandwagon after another. Off the top of your head, you could name five to ten foods or ingredients that have either been given magical health properties or excoriated as quasi-poisons in the last decade alone. Yet shouldn’t it be revealing that none of these foods, however widely promoted and avidly consumed, has led to any marked improvement in our national or individual health? Moreover, some of these magical "health" foods have actually turned out to be far worse for us than the “toxic” food they replaced (margarine, we hardly knew ye). If only we learned from these mistakes—but the interests vested in constantly reinventing (and marketing) our diet are too powerful to stop or even hinder. And adults don’t hesitate to pass these latest ideas down to our children, often in the name of teaching them “nutrition.”

The greatest damage, however, lies not in the flimsiness of nutrition's conventional wisdom, but the psychological impact of the food lessons we impart. Rather than promoting the healthy lifestyle we claim we want for our children, parents are inadvertently teaching them the worst possible attitudes about food, weight and self-image. Whatever perceived benefit parents imagine they accomplish by laying out food rules is far outweighed by the larger damage they are doing to children’s feelings about food, weight, and by extension, about themselves. Linking food to praise, guilt, health and illness—to name just a few of the burdens we’ve placed on the quotidian task of eating—is terrible for everyone, but especially for children, both physically and psychologically.

My daughter was checking herself out in the mirror the other day, and when asked what she was doing, she replied, “I love my body.” Both our children, like most, have already experienced various stages and body shapes; hearing her say this now, as adolescence looms ever closer, was like music to my ears. I absolutely understand why parents feel teaching their children about nutrition is a hedge against later problems, but we’d be so much better off if we skipped the food rules and lessons and diet “advice” and instead focused on teaching them a better, more positive attitude. A child may be chubby now, but as long as he eats normal amounts of real food and is reasonably active (and I don’t mean signing him up for one of those “boot camps” for kids) parents would do much better to focus on how he feels instead of he eats. It can be extremely difficult to bite back the urge to tell a child, especially one who may be chubby, to skip dessert, but the psychological implications of even such an apparently innocuous statement are ultimately far more damaging than the calories in an ice cream cone. The pressure to make a child feel bad about him or herself because of appearance or eating habits can be overwhelming, but we'd do well to resist it.

I know this is not something most parents—that is, the kind of parents who have the luxury to be able to worry about such things—want to hear. They want to believe that they can influence what their child eats forever, and by extension, her health—by applying clear rules now. They want to mold their child into the ideal “healthy eater” they desire. But a look at the sad reality of adult eating, not to mention our unhealthy attitudes towards weight and body image, give this premise the lie. Eating disorders are on the rise, confusion over what to eat is endemic, and people veer frantically between restriction and overindulgence.

There is hope in the current movement to encourage people to stop endlessly hating their appearance, from the popular Dove ads to the nationwide campaign to end “fat talk,” but it can’t be truly effective until it acknowledges and corrects the disservice we’re doing to our children. Parents must exercise some control over what their children eat, but making restrictive food rules while inculcating a new generation into the practice of anointing magical health foods while labeling others toxins isn’t going to work. It’s merely going to feed the cycle of unhappiness, guilt and broken resolutions that is great for the diet industry but is terrible for us.

So stop telling your children they need to eat certain amounts of protein, starch and so forth. Stop telling them that dessert will make them fat, or that broccoli will make them strong. Stop forcing them to eat all their vegetables or telling them they can’t eat any more carbs. Do feed them delicious, whole, non-processed food. Do encourage them to try new tastes and flavors. Do teach them that food is something to be enjoyed, preferably with others. Do encourage them to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full, and to understand that some foods will tempt them to go beyond those limits.

Teaching our children healthy food habits has far less to do with controlling what they eat—which ultimately isn’t in parents' control—and much more to do with teaching them how to feel good about themselves in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with what they eat.

What I cooked this week:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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