Children are interested in satisfying eating experiences, not long-term health. Nutrition information is not going to persuade them; kids just don’t care about “healthy.” What are we to do as parents?
My seven-year-old is sitting in front of a plate of broccoli, staring at me glazed eyes as I badger him to take just one bite. “Why?????” he moans.
I list off the many health benefits of cruciferous vegetables, feeling so proud of myself for my excellent parenting.
Yet somehow he’s not convinced. And even worse: he grits his teeth, gets that determined look in his eyes, and digs in his heels even more. Not only is he refusing broccoli tonight, but now he’s insisting he won’t eat it for months to come.
Nutrition Information Doesn’t Persuade
Why wasn’t my nutrition pitch persuasive? Well, turns out it wasn’t really my fault. Research shows that nutrition information doesn’t spur kids to healthy eating (not even adults, truth be told!); in fact, it can have the opposite effect.
Why doesn’t discussing nutrition with our children persuade them to eat healthier? There are two main reasons:
- When we label food as “healthy” children begin to view it as inferior in taste and less satisfying.
- When we label junk food as “unhealthy,” children begin to put it on a pedestal, which increases the pleasure they associate with it.
What Should Parents Do?
In Maryann Jacobsen’s book How to Raise a Mindful Eater, the author argues that it is more about how we eat, and less about what we eat. We need our children to develop healthy eating habits, rather than rely on a list of “dos” and “don’ts.” We want them to view nutritious foods as inherently satisfying, and experience healthy eating as its own reward.
Here are a few tips I gleaned from her book on how to make this happen:
#1 Prepare nutritious foods and balanced meals so your kids naturally enjoy them.
Be conscious of the foods you expose your children to on a daily basis. Serve balanced meals that are (1) satisfying, so they understand the pleasures of eating well, and (2) varied, so they develop a taste for a variety of flavors and textures.
#2 Help kids connect food with how they feel.
For example, if oatmeal gives them energy for their school day, help them identify this. And if too much birthday cake gives them a stomach ache, help them to see this for themselves as well.
#3 Avoid eating rules at the table.
Keep mealtime positive, and refrain from harping on healthy vs. unhealthy foods, or the negative effects of treats. You should also avoid describing foods as “clean,” “real,” “red light vs. green light,” etc. because this can feel a lot like restriction.
#4 Give kids hands-on experience.
Enlist your kids’ help in selecting, purchasing, and preparing food. Here’s an example from my own home: when we grocery shop together, I try to let each kid pick out one vegetable, one fruit, and one protein that we will eat that week. Then the kids seem more willing to help me prepare the food, and more willing to actually eat it as well.
You may also be interested to learn more about Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility, which Jacobsen recommends.