I hear parents complain that their kids will only eat fast food. I find that very interesting, because children (particularly before they’re school-age) learn everything from adults. They’re not born with a “must have McDonald’s” gene. Someone must take them there and buy them something and teach them to eat it. And if that’s done enough (because it requires multiple visits to establish a habit like that), they will like it and want it…and soon, may want nothing else. And a parent, wanting to avoid a fight, will take them there. Children know how to be persistent when they know their persistence will be rewarded.

Kids learn through repetition. They learn by watching their parents. It does no good for a parent to nurture a bad habit by encouraging it, and then turn around and scold their kids for it. Let’s face it, the parent gets something out of it too. They get peace in the family, they get out of making a meal, they enjoy the food themselves. If you set up a contingency that a certain food is a punishment (“eat all your broccoli…”) and then use an addictive, sugar-laden food as a reward (“…and then you’ll get dessert”), the message is that “healthy food tastes yucky, food that’s ‘bad’ for you is yummy”. You are setting up an association that your kids will take with them through life. And it’s easier breaking an association when you’re young than when you’ve been carrying it around for the past 40 years.

Want your kids to eat healthy meals? Then you have to start with yourself. And that’s the tough part. As adults we want to feel like we’ve earned the right to eat what we want, even if it isn’t the greatest thing for us. But your children are little sponges and they soak up the info that you’re placing before them, whether or not you realize it.

I use a three-step approach to keep my kids on track with healthy foods:

1) Keep only healthy, whole, clean food in the house. Yeah, that’s easier said than done, but it’s possible. One of the first steps to establishing healthy eating is clearing the crap out of the kitchen. Not only does it make snacking on garbage impossible, it also serves as an indicator for how committed you yourself are to clean eating. This will also necessitate meal planning and preparation, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to take a lot more time if done right.

2) Keep offering good food to your kids. If you ply them with broccoli but they balk, and you give them fast food “because they have to eat something”…forget it. Remember my comment about persistence? You just rewarded them for not giving up. The more often a food is offered the more likely that the child will eat it, that works for healthy food too. It can take multiple presentations before they develop a taste for it. But they, like adults, are quite ‘trainable’.

3) You have to eat the food yourself. And that’s the clincher, isn’t it? If you really don’t like broccoli and refuse to eat it, what makes you think your kids will show any interest? If you carry around the notion that healthy eating is the opposite of ‘normal eating’, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Consider all the messages that you send, buck up and make a lifestyle change.

The behaviorist in me needs to stress: don’t reward kids for eating healthy foods. You shouldn’t make a big deal of it at all. YOUR CHILDREN SHOULD NEVER EAT SOMETHING JUST TO PLEASE YOU. That’s a biggie, because you want to keep emotion out of the equation.

If you already have a ‘food issue’ that you’re fighting, be aware of the messages that you’re sending your children. If you don’t have an issue, for the love of God, don’t create one in your kids. They will have enough dietary obstacles in their paths as they grow. Take it upon yourself to help them establish healthy eating habits.

Hey, even following the guidelines above, your kids may not fully cooperate. Getting them to change their habits, particularly well-established ones, is not easy. You want easy? Take them to the burger joint for every meal. Offer loads of desserts. Keep bags of junk food in the house. That’s EASY. As a nation, we’re far too preoccupied with EASY. Changing habits is hard, and it’s even harder when you’re not on-board yourself. Make a commitment to set your kids on the path towards healthfulness while you’re still their nutritional gatekeeper. It’ll be the best gift you ever gave them.

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I have to preface this post by stressing that I avoid sweets of any kind. Doesn’t mean I don’t have them, but the instances are few and far between, and that’s one of the reasons that I don’t crave them. Just as you may have heard people who have switched to clean eating say that after a few weeks, their desire for sugary/fatty foods disappears, I feel that my lack of exposure to that type of food is why I find it easy to ignore it.

However, even I am not immune to the siren song of the most addictive of processed hell- foods. Here’s a personal example:

"Difficult to resist, the Dark Side is."

My family and I were at a reception where coffee, juice and doughnuts were served. Now, an offering like that makes me break out in hives (even bagels & cream cheese would have been better), but until I have enough money to create “healthy food” endowments for the places that I frequent, I’m stuck. While I got coffee, my husband got that obscene fried frosted round thing. He offered me a bite.

I accepted, not sure why, maybe just because it’d been so long since I’d tried one. I don’t remember the exact order of the events that followed, but I think  saliva flooded my mouth, I got a tingling sensation, a major sugar rush that warmed my whole body…all of which preceded an Id-like need for another bite. I don’t know how much more I consumed before I came to my senses, but the intensity of my lustful reaction took me aback. It was then that I decided doughnuts were the creation of the devil and should be rounded up and burned at the stake.

For that moment that I was under the doughnut’s spell, I had an epiphany of sorts. I saw how easily one could, with minimal practice, polish off a half dozen doughnuts before realizing what happened. Those junky abominations are engineered for lightening-fast consumption. You hardly need to chew the thing before it dissolves! The rapid sugar delivery to the bloodstream is drug-like.

Food doesn’t twack me like that most of the time, but this one did. And then I thought, if it made me, a true sugar shunner, suffer a momentary lapse of reason, how much damage could it do to someone who is more susceptible to the influence of these foods? How much would it test someone’s resolve…and what are the chances that, hypnotized by the promise of a blissful sugar stupor, one would even remember to resist? In general I try to offer kinder, gentler suggestions for changing eating behaviors, but in this case I’d recommend that you never let one of these arteriosclerotic bombs near your lips.

No, not even into your line of sight. Stay away!

Since I’m rushing about trying to clean our condo in anticipation of visitors, I have only a minute to jump in here and leave a few words of wisdom. As I survey my workload, I’m reminded of a nice analogy for weight maintenance:

Maintaining your weight (or working towards a fitness goal) is a daily process. You can’t put it on the back burner for a week/month/year and expect to see consistent progress. It’s not unlike, say, keeping a clean house (gee, see how nicely this ties in?). If you tidy everything up one day but then go several weeks without sorting through papers, doing laundry or scrubbing food off the kitchen stove, and actually add to the problem by letting things lie where they drop, you’re going to build up quite a mess. You may get so accustomed to seeing the disarray that you’ll be able to ignore it until you’re told someone’s visiting in two days. That’s when you realize that the place is a complete pigsty, and as you panic and try to accomplish in two days what should have been done regularly over a few weeks, you cry out, “How did this happen???”

Ah, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that uttered by a hapless soul who woke up one morning 40 pounds heavier than they were months ago. And yet, I find myself in a similar situation…(okay, in all honesty, my place isn’t THAT bad. Please tell my mom if she asks).

The bottom line is: when it’s time to take care of business, just shut up and take care of business. When you’re at that ‘decision point’ where you choose between vacuuming or reading a magazine (no, really, it’s a scientific JOURNAL),  or between exercising or watching TV…the decision you make can have significant repercussions. Yes, it does matter if you skip today, because tomorrow’s excuse may seem even more valid. If you don’t work towards your goals on a daily basis, weeks from now you may find yourself staring at a big, fat mess.

Yes, training. Not unlike training your dog. Training goes on every day; most of the time we’re not aware of it. We train our spouse, our kids, even our employer…and they train us. There’s so much to say about the process, but since this is the second part of a post on getting kids to eat healthy foods, I’ll keep my comments narrower.

Here are a few examples of what our own behaviors are training our kids to do.

I hear parents complain that their kids will only eat fast food. That’s very interesting, because children are not born with a “must have McDonald’s” gene. Someone must take them there and buy them something and teach them to eat it. And if that’s done enough times — because it requires multiple visits to establish a habit like that — they will like it and want it…and yes, may claim to want nothing else. And a parent, wanting to avoid a fight, may oblige them. Children know how to be persistent when they know their persistence will be rewarded. The parent is rewarded with happy kids, freedom from food preparation and perhaps even a “treat” for themselves. So the cycle continues and the food attraction strengthens even more.

This applies to much more than a trip to a burger joint. This type of learning happens with all sorts of foods. If you set up a contingency that a certain food is a punishment (“eat all your broccoli…”) and then use an addictive, sugar-laden food as a reward (“…and then you’ll get dessert”), the message is that healthy food is a negative that you’re enduring only to get to your sweet reward. It may seem like an effective way of getting your kids to eat foods you deem less-favorable, and in fact, it IS effective. The high sugar/fat aspect of most desserts makes them highly palatable and very powerful as rewards. However, you are setting up a food association that your kids will take with them through life if you don’t take steps to break it while they’re young.

Because I cannot, with a clear conscience, suggest that you really do this to your children, here’s a virtual experiment for you to try: imagine that every time you go to the store with your kids, you offer them snacks on the way home. Be consistent. Then, after a month or so of that, stop offering. What do you think will happen? They’ll ask for something to eat. They may even get upset if there’s nothing available. Their bodies are primed for food in that situation (“car following shopping”) because you’ve trained them to expect food.

Now, that may not sound earth-shattering to you, but consider that we do that sort of training every day and in a variety of different contexts. We send them messages in seemingly innocent ways. We bombard our kids with those kinds of contingencies. We teach them to overeat during holidays. We train them to eat a lot at buffets (“so that we get our money’s worth”). We buy them buckets of popcorn at movie theaters. And while years ago outings like that used to be held for special occasions, they’ve become commonplace as they’ve become more and more accessible, and that means more opportunities for indulgences and less time spent cooking meals at home. So the stakes have changed over the past two or three decades.

The bottom line is that our actions can carry long-reaching consequences. NO PARENT IS PERFECT, nor should they obsess about being so. I’m not trying to make you neurotic about your kids. Note that in the cases above, I’m talking about repetition, not rare instances. As I mentioned in my previous post, repeated offerings of good foods work in the same way. Unfortunately, many adults who are struggling with food issues themselves will reinforce consumption of less healthy foods in their kids. Please think about the messages that you’re sending and the way in which you yourself might be shaping a behavior in your child that will end up troublesome later on.

This simply brushes the surface. There is still so much to be said about the basics of training, food associations, persistence, negative effects of guilt and more. But those are topics for another day…

Want your kids to eat healthy meals? Then you have to start with yourself. And that’s the tough part. As adults we want to feel like we’ve earned the right to eat what we want, even if it isn’t the greatest thing for us. But your children are little sponges and they soak up the behavior that you model for them, whether or not you realize it.

I use a three-step approach to keep my kids on track with healthy foods:

1) Keep only healthy, whole, clean food in the house. Yeah, easier said than done, but it’s possible. One of the first steps to establishing healthy eating is clearing the crap out of the kitchen. Not only does it make snacking on garbage impossible, it also serves as an indicator for how committed you yourself are to clean eating. This will also necessitate meal planning and preparation, and that means effort on your part.

2) Keep offering good food to your kids. If you ply them with broccoli but they balk, so you give them fast food “because they have to eat something”…forget it. You just rewarded them for their refusal to eat the good stuff. The more often a food is offered the more likely that the child will eat it, that works for healthy food too. It can take multiple presentations before they develop a taste for it. But they, like adults, are quite ‘trainable’.

3) You have to eat the food yourself. And that’s the clincher, isn’t it? If you really don’t like broccoli and refuse to eat it, what makes you think your kids will show any interest? If you carry around the notion that healthy eating is the opposite of ‘normal eating’, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Consider all the messages that you send, buck up and make a lifestyle change.

The behaviorist in me needs to stress: don’t reward kids for eating healthy foods. You shouldn’t make a big deal of it at all. YOUR CHILDREN SHOULD NEVER EAT SOMETHING JUST TO PLEASE YOU. That’s a biggie, because you want to keep emotion out of the equation.

If you already have a ‘food issue’ that you’re fighting, be aware of the messages that you’re sending your children. If you don’t have an issue, for the love of God, don’t create one in your kids. They will have enough dietary obstacles in their paths as they grow. Take it upon yourself to help them establish healthy eating habits.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hey, even following the guidelines above, your kids may not cooperate. Getting them to change their habits, particularly well-established ones, is not easy. It takes consistency on your part. You want easy? Take them to the burger joint for every meal. Offer loads of desserts. Keep bags of junk food in the house. Eat in front of the TV. That’s EASY. As a nation, we’re far too preoccupied with EASY. Time to take off the blinders and see what we’re really doing to ourselves.