Talking to Kids About Food
How do we encourage good choices without instilling too much fear?
Posted October 16, 2014
What Should Children Eat? Asks this year’s Food Issue of the New York Times Sunday magazine. The issue explores how to get kids to eat more adventurously, what kids around the world eat for breakfast (not always sweetened cereal....), and more. In our heightened concern with healthy food and eating practices, looking at how our children relate to food makes sense. I add to the discussion here by reprinting an article on how to talk to kids about food—what encourages better choices, what instills too much fear?
“But it’s so yummy, mummy…” begins an article by Eleanor Mills on the daunting task of steering kids toward healthy food and weight. Mills explores, in the London Sunday Times and on her Fat Kittens blog, how best to “tame your child’s weight.” We’re pressed lately to halt the obesity epidemic among children, yet there’s little practical guidance on what parents can actually do in real life with kids.
On the one hand, we know mothers who’ll militate against birthday cupcakes in school. At the same time, we still see an awful lot of Doritos and Sponge Bob Roll-Ups in the lunch kits. Sometimes, you’re reluctant to admit that your kids refuse any whole wheat version of anything. Other times, you feel rigid and bossy saying “no” to more cookies. You don’t want to damage your child’s self-esteem by mentioning the chubbiness. Yet you don’t want health or social problems to result. What’s a parent to do?
You can extract some practical advice from what’s written these days for parents, and Mills’ article brings these ideas together well. For starters: keep healthy food in the house. Encourage plenty of exercise. Don’t increase the allure of sweets by using them to reward vegetable eating. Keep the treats in their proper place as just that—treats—not everyday nutrients. Try to keep your own attitude toward food relaxed. And remember that it can take kids several tries before they grow accustomed to and accept a new food. It’s fine if they don’t like it right off the bat; try again another time.
To all that, I would add something not always mentioned in the “how to get your kids to eat healthy” books. Simply put: talk to them. Kids, even very young ones, can understand that some foods are for growing and health, and that some foods are fun but not good in great quantities.
Also, kids won’t necessarily hear any conversation about overeating as a criticism of their size. In fact, avoidance of the obvious, if a child has gained weight, communicates something questionable in itself. And pre-teen girls, especially, are often helped by some education about body changes, so that they don’t panic about the common thickening that can occur before puberty.
Overweight kids, in fact, are more likely to change habits if invited to discuss and participate in any change plan (on this, also see this relevant npr blog). It’s especially helpful to talk in terms of the whole family looking at health and activity levels. This not only relieves pressure on the “fat kid”, but acknowledges that grown-ups, including parents, struggle to get it right these days. (Here, honest discussion beats any anxious parental effort to role model perfect eating.)
Finally, kids can not only understand, but may benefit greatly from discussing some of the problems in our world that cause obesity. These discussions might touch on junk food advertising. They might address the problem of huge portion sizes, or how sweets and additives can make people crave more. They might cover how and why we move and exercise less in today’s world. Some of these topics will spark kids’ interest more than you might think.
In the end, it comes down to treating kids as if they’re smart, and as if they can and should care about their own bodies. Will it result in your child’s never wanting ice cream? No. But that’s not the point. Kids are geared to like such sweets, and they’re fun. We’re looking for better, not perfect, and that’s what will prepare them best for the future, too.