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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Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past couple of decades, you’re aware that we’re in the middle of a childhood obesity epidemic. What you might not be aware of, however, is that we may unwittingly be perpetuating this problem even as we struggle to find a solution. Here’s an example of how this happens:

My 8-year-old took the California Standardized Test over the past few weeks. I had asked her if she was nervous beforehand, she said no…she was looking forward to it because following every test session her teacher was going to give snacks: Goldfish crackers. That’s a rare purchase for us at home because I’m not a fan of processed crackers. But what I’m even less a fan of is equating a job well done with a food prize.

Now, granted, Goldfish crackers aren’t the most evil of concoctions, and I’m actually delighted that the reward was merely crackers rather than sweets even though the idea that we need to offer snacks to mark a good performance (no offense to her teacher, whom I adore!). How about playing a fun game or offering extra recess time?

Great job! Here, have a cookie.

While the above is a mild example of a “food as reward” pairing, what happens when that’s taken a step further and kids are rewarded with unhealthy foods? I learned of a school from out-of-state that threw a junk food-heavy shindig as a spectacular end to their testing weeks. These celebrations are organized by adults who look back at what they ate as children and how many wonderful memories of youth it brings back, and want to share these good feelings with the younger generation. Sadly, these childhood memories don’t mesh with the reality of today, and the current state of our collective waistlines.

Equally important is the mixed message that this type of event sends. On the one hand, there are obesity awareness programs at schools, teaching kids healthy eating, encouraging them to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption. On the other hand, they throw all of that out the window with such a festival, as if acknowledging with a wink, “You know all that healthy-food stuff we taught you? Well, we don’t believe it either.”

I freely admit that rewarding ourselves with food is not a new concept. Special meals for birthdays, graduations, promotions, etc. are to be expected. Sharing joy across the table is part of being human. Meals unite us. Food is pleasure in a small, legal package —  and a very powerful motivator. I’m neither disputing that nor trying to squash long-established mealtime traditions.

But you know those ‘special events’ that we chose to celebrate? Well, every day has become special. TGIF? Why raise the bar so high by waiting ’til the end of the week? “It’s Tuesday, lets celebrate!” Indulging yourself has gone from a once-luxury to something that’s commonplace. With food as accessible as it is, in the varieties in which it’s available, we really run the danger of rewarding ourselves into a host of health problems.

As a result, we do our children a disservice by rewarding them with food when the opportunities for rewards seem never-ending and the quality of food has degraded. And some of you might gripe that I’m taking all the fun out of eating. That may be, but with staggering childhood obesity rates that are NOT getting better, and the knowledge that these children are likely to grow into obese adults, it’s time to stop joking around.

It’s obvious that our world has a weight problem. It should be equally obvious that it’s not something that will go away overnight. The state of overweight is a multifaceted issue that encompasses a broad range of variables, but today’s post is about something more specific that has a significant effect on us: the role of food in our lives.

It used to be that humans were responsible for gathering their own food — waaaay back when we were hunters and gatherers. Much of early man’s day was dedicated to finding sustenance for survival. As time went on, through division of labor and specialization, we left the food procurement and preparation to farmers, ranchers, bakers, cooks (moms, although admittedly, it’s not one of my stronger points) and the like.

Now, most of us in the industrialized world don’t worry about whether we’ll eat. We worry about where and what. Oh the choices! Narrowing down our options taxes our highly-developed brains. Interestingly, some of the biggest arguments my husband and I had (pre-kids) had to do with where we were going to dine. That’ll test the strength of your marriage: two very hungry humans in one little car, one vegetarian/one omnivore, so many possibilities but nothing seems to please both, neither wants to make the final decision.

No worries, we’ve gotten over that.

Over the years there’s been a shift from food-as-fuel to food-as-entertainment. The food industry has had a hand in this, and their marketing departments have been working overtime. Food portions have exploded to ridiculous sizes, food formulations contain a jacked up amount of salt/sugar/fat to excite our senses, all in multiple versions to appease our obsession with variety. We are encouraged to treat ourselves, indulge, make tonight special — because we’re worth it, we deserve it.

So…when we can make tonight special…and by extension of that, make every night special…what do we do when we really want something SPECIAL? When getting home through traffic deserves a treat, how do we treat ourselves on the days that call for a true celebration? In essence, we’ve raised the bar on indulgences.

And fun. Food must now be FUN, particularly when kids are involved. You see it in parents’ magazines and of course it’s prevalent in advertising to “kids of all ages”. We’re all brought back to our childhood when we could stuff ourselves silly and not worry about repercussions.

But the longer we cling to the notion that food serves a purpose other than to nourish us, the more we strengthen the influence that it has on our emotions. Most of the people I speak with have some sort of emotional link to food that makes dropping weight all that more difficult. That’s when the simple concept of “healthy eating and exercise” becomes not-so-simple.

Do yourself a favor. Don’t treat your body with food rewards. Treat your body with respect.

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…