Want your kids to eat healthy foods? Don’t bother teaching them nutrition. It won’t make a difference in how they eat. It’s counterintuitive, I know. But if knowing about nutrition led to healthy eating we’d be the healthiest nation on earth. Really, has there even been a time when a nation knew so much about nutrition? And yet, eaten so poorly?

Kids know which foods are healthy. That doesn’t mean they want to eat healthy food. And there’s the rub. There’s a huge disconnect in our country between what we think is healthy and what we think is tasty. That’s what I wrote about in my last post, Why Kids Think Broccoli is Bad and Chips are Good. That’s why it’s nutso to keep talking about nutrition and health. The more we do it, the more we reinforce the notion that kids already carry around in their heads: “bad” food is good and “good” food is bad.

And while we’re at it, we also really ought to drop the idea that parents who don’t eat a healthy diet aren’t teaching their kids about nutrition. A recent study in Ireland found that, regardless of how well they or their parents eat at home, young kids (3-5 years old) can identify which foods are healthy when they’re shown pictures of both healthy and unhealthy items. That means that living in an unhealthy eating environment doesn’t damage kids’ understanding of healthy vs. unhealthy foods. Similarly, knowing the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods doesn’t improve how well kids eat.

So what does change how kids eat? Their habits. That’s right, you can bypass nutrition and teach eating habits directly. Kids (especially young ones) don’t really need to know why they eat what they do. Once kids become accustomed to eating certain foods more frequently than other foods—apples more frequently than cookies, real chicken more frequently than nuggets—that’s how they’ll eat. You see, eating is really a matter of math: the foods we gravitate towards eating most frequently are the foods we already eat most frequently. Give your kids lots of fruits and vegetables and they’ll eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Provide a diet dominated by “child-friendly” fare and that’s what your kids will eat instead. Every bite doesn’t just shape your kids’ taste buds, it also shapes how your kids think about food.

But here’s something interesting. The Irish study found that when the three year olds were asked which foods they should eat most frequently they readily picked out the healthy items. However, when they were asked to identify the foods they should eat less frequently, they struggled to pick out the sweets and treats. Surprised? You’d think that by knowing what to eat more of that kids would automatically know what to eat less of, but it doesn’t work that way. Even by the ripe old age of five, the children could only identify half the unhealthy items as foods that should be eaten less frequently.

And so that is my point. Knowledge of nutrition matters a lot less than we think; but habits matter much more. Kids need to know how to behave in relation to food. That's why, instead of teaching kids about the nutritional content of food, we would get a lot further if we taught them the essential habits of a healthy diet, starting with proportion. It sounds complicated, but it’s not. A simple sentence will do: "We eat things kinds of foods more frequently than those kinds of foods." If your kids want to know why, another simple sentence will usually do: "...because we eat the foods that are best for our bodies most frequently."

Then, pay attention to how you "sell" healthy food. Chances are, when you present healthy food you talk about nutrition—"Eat this spinach if you want to grow up to be big and strong. It has lots of vitamins."—but when you present treats you talk about taste—"Wow, this chocolate cake is delicious. The icing is so creamy. Yum." Which "salespitch" would work better with you? Remember, it's not so much what you feed, that matters. What matters is what you teach. ~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Source: Tatlow-Golden, M., E. Hennessy, M. Dean, and L. Hollywood. 2013. “'Big, Strong and Healthy.' Young Children's Identification of Food and Drink That Contribute to Health Growth.” Appetite 71(1): 163-170.

© 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.

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