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Tovah Klein, Ph.D.
Tovah P Klein Ph.D.

Stop the Health Food Madness Before We Harm the Children

Talking less about food helps children eat better & avoid obesity

When does too much focus on a good thing backfire? When we are trying to instill healthy eating habits in children. Our national obsession with good (healthy) and bad (junk) food translates into an unnatural obsession with food. With skyrocketing obesity rates, even amongst children, could there ever be too much talk of healthy eating? Research shows that for growing children the answer is a resounding yes. Back off, say less, eat well yourself and children are more likely to develop healthy eating habits.

From healthy eating, organic, sustainable farming, balanced diets and food pyramids to banning bake sales at school all the way to the realistic concerns about fast food, junk food, sugar and processed food, discussion of food fills the air that children breathe. Rather than creating good eating, this food over-focus has potentially serious negative consequences over a lifetime. Here’s why, and what parents (and other adults involved with children) can do instead to ensure healthy diets and eating habits.

The Context of Obesity

Let’s begin with context. It is easy to fathom why people over talk healthy eating- in schools and homes alike. We live amidst a public health crisis. According to the CDC, obesity has more than doubled in children over the past 30 years. In 2012, over one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. That’s an astounding number. Childhood weight problems set up serious lifelong problems, including heart disease and diabetes, making this a national crisis.

Multiple causes have been identified as leading to this state of affairs. Two that pertain to children are particularly stunning:

1) 80% of processed foods on U.S. store shelves have added sugar; and

2) Food and beverage industry spends nearly $2 billion dollars every year marketing junk food to our children.

(The fast food industry alone spends $5 million dollars a day [in one day!] marketing junk food to children).

Why do they do it? Plain and simple: It works. Watching ads for food increases children’s intake of junk food. Guess what? Nearly 40% of children’s calories come from added sugars and fats. You get the picture, I am sure.

Childhood as a Foundation: Eating Patterns Set Early

Now couple the above data with an astounding fact. By age 5, children’s eating patterns are set for many children (although not all, so there is still room to change eating habits). The catch is that altering eating patterns gets harder with each year of age.

A recent study of over 7,000 kindergarten children showed that 1/3 of the children considered overweight at age 5 were obese by eighth grade. Children who were obese as teens remained this way as adults. Set eating patterns right during childhood and chances are high children grow into healthier adults.

Parents Set the Food Roadmap

Knowing the national context of obesity tied to continuing health problems is enough to worry a parent; worse if their child prefers bread, pasta or sweets to all other foods. Such eating can stir parental anxiety over instilling the right eating habits while stoking fears about what will happen if they don’t set it straight.

The good news is that parents are the central force in setting up the child’s eating roadmap. Parents establish the social setting of meals, decide what foods come into the house, are prepared and served. Yet, even with the best intentions around healthy eating, parental practices can backfire.

Much of parenting is paradoxical. Here is the paradox involved in eating. Research increasingly shows that pushing ‘good eating’ or pressuring children to eat certain foods (like vegetables) leads to the opposite effect. Children’s intake of healthier foods is more likely to decrease. Restricting foods, as in making sweets a ‘special treat’ or forbidding them altogether actually makes them more desirable and consumption of them increases.

The take home message is a stern warning. When discussion of food and healthy eating (‘sugar is bad, vegetables are good.’ You did not eat enough of the healthy foods.’ ‘Eat more vegetables if you want ice cream’) dominates conversation, it means there is too much food focus. This can set up a child for worry and anxiety about food, which actually leads to eating more, and more of the high (empty) calorie foods.

Why Children Battle Over Food

There are reasons children make food a battleground, starting at age 2 and potentially continuing into the following years. Understanding the developmental context illuminates the underlying reasons for these battles. Early childhood is when children begin to establish control while they figure out who they are. They start on a gradual path to becoming independent. Food is one place (clothes, toileting are others) they can stake their ground, gain control and get attention. For a child, even negative attention is preferable to none at all.

The more a parent tries to control the child’s eating, the longer a child has to fight to gain control and feel heard. Want the problems to end? Back off.

As children figure out who they are, they also learn what they like and don’t like, choices they have; and what decisions they can make. They do this by saying yes sometimes and emphatically no at other times. In other words, “I want to eat this, because I choose to, not because mommy or daddy say to.” Feeding oneself and learning when you are hungry or full are pieces of developing independence.

Some people, due to their genetic make up and biology are by nature more food sensitive and pickier than others. Nothing wrong with them, they just have a narrower palate. This can be a challenge to parents, but understanding the range of taste buds and food preferences that are inborn can help adults respect a child’s preferences.

So What’s a Parent to Do?

Parents and adults who work with children can feel at a loss when it comes to feeding children. In turn, the adults dig in themselves or insist on healthy eating against the child’s desires. All of this results in trying to control children’s food intake. A mistake.

Based on decades of work with children and supported by research findings, there are tried and true ways to set good eating patterns. Instead of pressuring children to ‘eat healthy’ ‘eat more vegetables’ and focusing on food, food habits can be set up well through modeling and with these tips. Below is a food roadmap:

1) Regular mealtime routines are key: eat at a table, usually in the same place, with adults and children eating together.

2) Model mealtime behavior. Children follow what they experience. Create enjoyable and conversational mealtimes that are NOT focused on food. Children get socialized in meal behavior and establish positive associations with eating. Talk about your day, their day, anything fun, interesting or light.

3) Include children in food preparation when time allows (weekends are good). Online resources abound such as

4) Same with shopping- take kids to the store or farmers market and let them pick items framed by you (i.e., “Would you like carrots or broccoli?” “Should we get Cheerios or cornflakes?”). It lets them be part of the process, decision making and gives them a sense of control.

5) Follow regular meal times for the most part, to create regular eating patterns.

6) Serve food, including 1 or 2 items you know your child likes (usually carbs). Children tend not to want new foods, but can get used to them over time. Keep offering new foods while allowing them to say no.

7) Let children feed themselves, even young ones. Messy is a phase that passes. A child can’t learn to eat independently if someone is putting food in her mouth.

8) Avoid forbidding foods or labeling them ’special’ or ‘treats’. Forbidden foods become unbelievably desirable. Don’t want your child eating something? Keep it out of your home.

9) Children’s eating waxes and wanes. Hungry one day, not the next. Nutritionists say it is what they eat over a 7-10 day period that matters, not what they eat daily.

10) Politeness at meals? It comes in time. Model it. Children learn to treat others in the ways that adults treat them. Say please/thank you, they will one day, too.

Enjoy mealtimes together.

Find more tips on eating and other control battles in my book, How Toddlers Thrive.

About the Author
Tovah Klein, Ph.D.

Tovah Klein, Ph.D., is the director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and an Associate Professor of Psychology.

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