I Understand Why Parents Feed Their Kids Unhealthy Foods

It's not because parents don't know enough about nutrition!

Posted Sep 15, 2014

You pretty much have to live under a rock to have missed these facts:

  • Childhood obesity is a BIG problem
  • Most children don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables
  • Habits learned in childhood tend to follow kids through life

So why, then, don’t most parents step up their game?  

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, kids ages 2-18 get most of their calories from two foods/food groups:

  • Milk (OK, that's not so bad!)
  • Cakes/cookies/quick bread/pastry/pie (Really?)

Also, kids get their carbohydrates primarily from soft drinks and rolls. Their fat comes mainly from cheese and from crackers/popcorn/pretzels/chips.1

I don’t want to make light of these findings. Personally, I think teaching kids to eat right is serious business. Indeed, it’s my serious business. So what’s going on?

Many experts believe that American children eat poorly because their parents don’t know enough about nutrition. I think this is preposterous. It’s pretty hard to believe that anyone is under the impression that cupcakes are healthier than carrots. That’s what parents would have to believe if you're going to buy the lack-of-education argument. 

So, if parents know enough about nutrition, why do kids eat cupcakes, not carrots? Here’s a novel idea: parents feed their children poorly because they want to. Not in the sense of “I want to teach my children horrible eating habits so they will grow up to be overweight and afflicted with disease.” Rather, parents feed their children poorly because it makes the wheels of family life run smoothly. Here are 10 reasons why: 

  1. We don’t believe children are capable of liking healthy food. (And, in fact, if you look at the research, you’ll see that most Americans don’t really like healthy food. At least not compared to junk.)
  2. We think that childhood means eating candy, cookies, cake…  (I call this the Kids and Cookies Culture.)
  3. We like making our kids happy.
  4. We want our children to eat, reliably (so we can close the kitchen).
  5. We don’t want to have a fight every day, every meal.
  6. We’re sick and tired of throwing out food that our kids don’t touch.
  7. We’ve tried, really tried, to teach our children to eat fruits and vegetables. We can’t think of anything else to try. We’re tired.
  8. We don’t think our kids eat that poorly because we make sure they eat at least one veggie per day. And those chicken nuggets? They have protein.
  9. We don’t want our children to be hungry.
  10. Our kids like this food, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

These are real problems. They need real solutions.

Want to change how kids eat? Let's start by assuming that parents know what their children ought to eat. Then, instead of talking about nutrition (because nutrition is about food), we should start talking about habits (because habits are about behavior).

There are only three that translate everything about nutrition into behavior:

  • Proportion—eating the healthiest foods more frequently than anything else
  • Variety—Eating different foods from day to day and from meal to meal
  • Moderation—Eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full and not eating because you’re bored, sad or lonely.

By changing the conversation from nutrition to habits we can arm parents with the tools they need to teach their children to eat right.

Here’s one habits-based strategy. I call it The Rotation Rule: Don’t serve the same food two days in a row for any meal or snack. You don’t need new foods to implement the Rotation Rule. You just have to start mixing it up. Why does The Rotation Rule work? By getting kids used to the idea of variety. This isn’t trivial. One reason kids balk at new foods is because they’ve learned that it’s normal to eat the same foods from day-to-day.

If we started talking about how to teach good eating habits, we might have some nutritional fallout at the margins—far too many parents continue to believe, for instance, that apple juice is a quality drink when it’s really toddler soda—but the overall improvement in how kids eat would be huge. 

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Source: Ogata, B. N. and D. Hayes. 2014. “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Nutrition Guidance for Healthy Children Ages 2 to 11 Years.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 114(8): 1257-76.

© 2014 Dina Rose, PhD, is the author of the book, It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (Perigee Books). She also writes the blog It's Not About Nutrition.