The Art & Science of Teaching Kids to Eat Right

Effective techniques for raising healthy and happy eaters

Children's Food vs Adult Food

Should we really teach children that certain foods aren't for them?

Indian children eat Indian food. Mexican children eat Mexican food. American children eat hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, and pizza. What’s gone wrong? We've been bamboozled into believing that there’s such a thing as “Kids’ Food.”

Kids’ Food. It’s like Italian Food. Or Jewish Food. A cuisine that represents a culture. After all, there’s no nutritional reason for kids to eat chicken nuggets more frequently than adults do. And, kids don’t need to avoid “adult” fare—foods like salad.

You’ve probably never even thought about “adult food.” I bet your kids have, though. Not consciously, of course. But the concept that some foods are for kids automatically means there are foods that are not for kids. Who are those foods for? The only people left: Adults.

The idea that certain foods are for kids and others are for adults impacts how your children eat because it affects how your kids think about what they ought to eat. I can’t tell you how many parents—especially those with picky eaters— have recounted their children saying, “I’ll start eating that when I’m older.” What do they mean by that? Some healthy food their parents are pushing.

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Recently, researchers in Canada asked 6-11 year olds to reflect on how, and more importantly why, they categorized foods the way they do. A few themes emerged. Children’s food, the children said, is:

  • Primarily junk food, processed and from a box.
  • Breakfast “candy,” or what most people call cereal.
  • Fun. Kids’ food comes in different colors, and in interesting shapes and sizes.

In contrast, when the children thought of “adult’ food, they thought of fruits, vegetables, and meat.1

How crazy is that? It would be tempting to blame this on the food industry. But there's a lot of blame to go around. There are so many cultural messages that reinforce the children's food/adult food dichotomy. Just think Kids’ Menu. Or Kids’ Food Lists. Or everything you’ve ever read that says that kids’ food needs to be fun.

Fun. What a weird concept. I know that kids like to have fun, and so making food fun will, presumably, make kids want to eat it. But it might also be doing the opposite: making kids NOT want to eat food that isn’t fun. Just try making split pea soup fun. Some things just don't lend themselves to this standard.

Moreover, should we really teach kids that food/eating is entertainment? Or should we teach kids that food is tasty? Nourishing? Or even that it’s eating with the family that is fun?

I’m not saying that you should never pull out the cookie cutter to make your child a heart-shaped sandwich, or that you should never give your child some parmesan “snow” to sprinkle on her broccoli “treas.” I am, however, suggesting that it’s time to rethink what we’re teaching our children about the function of food in their lives. And it's definitely time to stop teaching kids that healthy food is not for them. ~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Source: 1 Elliott, C. 2011. “'It's Junk Food and Chicken Nuggets': Children's Perspectives on 'Kids' Food and the Question of Food Classification.” Journal of Consumer Behavior 10: 133-40.

© 2013 Dina Rose, PhD author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Dina’s book, It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating is scheduled for release January, 2014.

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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