The Art & Science of Teaching Kids to Eat Right

Effective techniques for raising healthy and happy eaters

Teaching Kids to Hate the Healthy Stuff

The paradox of years of "nutritious" school lunches.

If we ever needed proof that nutrition isn’t the right paradigm for teaching kids to eat right, here it is. After years of accepting school lunches that are laden with sugar, salt and fat because they contain just enough of the right nutrients—chicken nuggets = protein, chocolate milk = calcium, pizza = vegetables—schools are trying to change the way kids eat. The kids aren’t having it, and I’m not surprised.

Instead of trying to get nutrients into kids for all these years, we should have been teaching them how to eat right.

You may have seen the front page story in The New York Times this past Saturday, describing how kids all around the country are complaining about school lunches because they now include more fruits and vegetables, and smaller portions for the parts of the meal kids like best: the chicken nuggets, pizza and fries.

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You’ve probably seen (or at least heard about) the video made by the Kansas students who say they are starving.

And I hope you’ve seen Jon Stewart’s hilarious response: If you’re hungry, eat!

If we'd been focused on teaching kids eating habits we would have known that kids are hedonists. They don't eat nutrients, they eat food. Kids, like adults, want to eat food that is familiar. You can't spend years exposing kids to a certain type of eating experience and then rip it away. (At least not without a backlash.)

If we'd been focused on teaching kids eating habits we also would have known that kids are well aware of the fact that they can scare the bejeebers out of parents by claiming to be hungry.  Don't buy it.

Here's how we got into this mess:

Research shows that when we tolerate high levels of sugar, salt and fat found in the basic "child-friendly" diet in exchange for getting a few "good" nutrients into kids, we're not just compromising the quality of the foods we feed. We're also inadvertently making kids less tolerant of fruits and vegetables; the very foods we spend so much effort “selling.” Why? Because kids are looking for the “flavor hit” found in their favorites.1

Then, because fruits and vegetables are so foreign in terms of the tastes and textures kids are accustomed to eating, we have to resort to a host of techniques to get a few more bites of the good stuff into them.The begging, bribing and bartering that ensues at home also backfires, though, because these techniques reinforce what kids already think: vegetables, and other healthy foods, are necessary but yucky. Making kids eat (bad-tasting) vegetables at school sends the same message.

Now we are really trapped. The compromises we have made for the sake of the immediate meal have locked us into a reinforcing system: we feed children what we know they’ll eat; they expect to eat what they know we'’ll serve. Kids balk at anything that deviates from this routine.

Not only have the compromises we have made in the name of nutrition trained our kids’ taste buds to prefer certain kinds of foods, but our kids’ own eating expectations—what they think they should eat—have been shaped as well. “I eat pasta. I don’t eat peas.” Or, “I eat peas, but I definitely don’t eat broccoli," and "I never eat vegetables at school." In fact, the more we feed to our kids’ food preferences by overusing a handful of foods, the more we reinforce those food preferences. We also make it more likely that our kids will resist new foods.

And so, here we are.

What can we do now, besides get it right with younger kids?

1) Stop the waste. Don’t require kids to take everything on the menu. Let them take what they'll eat. Then, let children who are hungry come back for the fruits and vegetables if they want to.

2) Start shaping the cafeteria environment to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in ways proven to work: Put the vegetables at the beginning of the lunch line; give students a choice between two vegetables; put fruit in a bowl. For more on this topic read Feng Shui for Food.

3) Let kids be hungry. Getting used to new foods takes some time. 

4) Make sure the "good" stuff actually tastes good.

Source: 

1. Cornwell, T. B. and A. R. McAlister. 2011. “Alternative Thinking About Starting Points in Obesity. Development of Child Taste Preferences.” Appetite 56: 428-39.

© 2012 Dina Rose, PhD author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. 

Dina Rose, Ph.D., in sociology, has helped hundreds of parents teach their kids to eat right through her blog It's Not About Nutrition.com, workshops and individual coaching.

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