Excerpted from “Eat Your Vegetables and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters (Healthy Learning 2012)
Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD
Parents share a wealth of concerns about their kids’ eating habits. The three biggest are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, picky eating, and eating too much junk food.1 In response to the distress and anxiety posed by these concerns, parents have historically responded with a variety of tactics aimed to coerce, bribe, convince, guilt, or otherwise induce compliance in unwilling little ones. Of course, parents are acting in the best interest of the child, hoping that one day, the child will agree that fruits and vegetables are healthy and should be consumed at every meal—and, ideally, the child would also be willing to taste from a variety of new and interesting foods. The problem is that many of these tactics backfire, the kids dig in, and the parents are left with an unending headache dealing with food battles at every meal. Intuitively, all of us probably know this already. Think back to your childhood. Chances are you can produce a story or two in a surprising amount of detail of how your parents’ or other adults’ good intentions turned you off to some of the “good foods” and on to some of the “bad foods.” Seventy-two percent of college students asked to a recall a childhood experience of being pressured to eat reported a current dislike of that food, along with anger and memories of conflict.2
This book highlights some common “mistakes” parents make, divided into four categories:
- The inherited mistakes—those passed down from generation to generation
- The underrated mistakes—the ones that have a profound effect on the child psyche, leading to a battle of wills, power struggles, and dreaded mealtime “food fights”
- The everyday mistakes—those that happen day in and day out without anyone realizing the counterproductive effect they have on the child’s developing nutrition preferences
- The overlooked mistakes—unintentional acts of omission that sideline parents’ best efforts to inspire healthy habits
You likely noticed that “mistakes” is presented in quotations. The reason for this is to highlight that “mistake” is probably not the best word to use, as it might incite a sense of blame, guilt, defensiveness, or various other negative feelings that stand opposite to the purpose of this book. I use the word mostly for lack of a better descriptor. But ultimately, the goal here is to put together the latest information on childhood development, behavior, and shaping healthy eating habits in as unbiased a manner as possible. A major part of parenting is making decisions and then evaluating their consequences. Sometimes, kids will surprise us and do exactly what we ask, but more often, they’ll repeatedly refuse and push the limits of our patience. Parenting is a work in progress, with many “mistakes”—or learning opportunities—along the way. Here, I just try to compile this information to give you a head start and take some of the headache out of trying to shape childhood behaviors, especially when it has to do with eating and physical activity. Not every tip or strategy will work for every child. Over the course of experimenting with the ideas presented in this book, you’ll find what works and what doesn’t for your kids. Ultimately, you, of course, are the number one expert on your child. I’m just here to help you broaden and refine your expertise.
The next several pages highlight the major content of each of the book’s chapters. This overview will introduce you to the book’s major themes and help you focus on those chapters that will be most useful to you (although if the book is taken as a whole, the likelihood of success with the recommended strategies increases substantially).
2H The Inherited Mistakes
The following are the mistakes passed from generation to generation.
3H Mistake #1—Insisting “Eat Your Vegetables!”
When left to their own devices, kids eat what they like and leave the rest. And most don’t like bitter and bland vegetables. A preference for sweet and salty tastes and the rejection of sour and bitter tastes are innate and unlearned. This reality frustrates parents to no end, and as a result, you may find yourself reasoning that intervention is needed—and it’s needed immediately—so you insist that your children eat their vegetables. The alternative, you fear, is that your child will be unhealthy, malnourished, and grow up to be a veggie-hating, overweight, heart-attack-prone glutton. The truth is that the more you pressure your child to eat certain foods, the less likely he’ll be to develop a taste for them and continue to eat them often as an adult. In fact, several research studies have shown that encouraging children to consume a particular food increases their dislike for that food. Kids instinctively resist persuasion. If you want to get your kids to eat vegetables and other healthy foods because they like them, you’ll have to employ different strategies. The research and strategies are discussed in detail in Chapter 1.
3H Mistake #2—Using Food as a Reward
We’re all guilty. Using food as a reward is such an easy, inexpensive, and overwhelmingly effective tool that it’s hard not to use it. But the short-term benefits from using food as a reward come with a hefty price tag. A series of studies conducted in the early 1980s by psychologist Leann Birch and colleagues at Penn State found that the social environment of children’s eating is important in shaping their tastes and food preferences. Children learned to dislike foods eaten to obtain rewards (“Eat your vegetables and you can watch TV”) and they learned to prefer foods eaten as rewards (“Clean up your toys and you can have some cookies”) or paired with positive interactions with an adult (such as visits to the ice cream store with Grandma). The positive association that develops between the foods used as reward and “feeling good” can lead to later emotional and disordered eating. Chapter 2 offers several alternative ideas.
3H Mistake #3—Requiring Membership in the “Clean Plate Club”
For generations, parents have guilted their children into eating what’s served by sharing heart-wrenching stories of starving children in developing countries. When that doesn’t work (although it often does), parents then move to the next tactic: eat or no dessert; eat or no play time; eat or Mom and Dad will be disappointed, mad, mean—you name it and parents have tried it. While in the short term these tactics may work, in the long run, they set the stage not only for food battles and power struggles at most meals but worse—they can cause a diminished ability to regulate hunger. In other words, requiring membership in the “Clean Plate Club” teaches children to use external cues (how much food remains on the plate) rather than internal cues (feelings of hunger) to determine how much to eat. Chapter 3 highlights how we can disband the Clean Plate Club once and for all.
2H The Underrated Mistakes
The underrated mistakes are those mistakes that have a profound effect on the child psyche, leading to a battle of wills, power struggles, and dreaded mealtime “food fights.”
3H Mistake #4—Forbidding Potato Chips and Ice Cream
In one study, children who were tempted with a clear jar of cookies on the table but told they could not eat them for 10 minutes, ate three times more cookies than kids who had free access to the cookies.3 The results of this and other studies show that kids whose food is highly restricted are more likely to overindulge when they have access to forbidden foods. Regardless of how much you try to protect your children from candy, sweets, and high-fat food, they will eat it—if not in your home, then at school, friends’ houses, with the grandparents, and so on. If you leave it in your house, they will find it —especially if you’ve “hidden it” and added the allure of it being “forbidden.” The best way to counter the allure of junk food is to make it less enticing. Chapter 4 shows you how.
3H Mistake #5—Dismissing “Packaging”
How many of these can you answer?
[designer: style 4 register marks in list]
- “Lucky Charms®—they’re ________________!”
- Who is the cartoon mascot for Cheetos®? __________________
- Toucan Sam is a fan of what cereal? __________________
- Complete this soft drink slogan: “Do the ______.”
- At McDonald’s®, they “love to see you _______.”
- Who is always trying to steal Fred’s Cocoa Pebbles? ___________
- What drink is advertised by a big pitcher that says “Oh, yeah!”? ________
- Name the Rice Krispies® triplets: ____________________.
- Complete this cereal slogan: “Silly rabbit, _____ are for kids!”
- What kind of animal is pizza parlor mascot Chuck E. Cheese? _________
How’d you do?[K1] The fact that you still remember most of this even after all these years exemplifies the harsh reality that manufacturers are experts in influencing our tastes and desires. Parents who underestimate this power miss an opportunity to intervene in the unhealthy and unproductive mind manipulation of the manufacturers. They also miss the chance to use some very successful packaging strategies in healthy and productive ways—namely, inspiring kids to eat the healthy foods we want them to eat. Chapter 5 gives you the tools you need to use “packaging” to your and your child’s advantage.
3H Mistake #6—Failing to “Live It”
Hands down, “living it” will be the most challenging and yet most powerful change that you will make to help your kids adopt a lifetime of healthy habits. If you’re not already, now is the time for you to commit to healthy eating and regular physical activity. Ask yourself: Are the foods and beverages available in my home healthful and served in reasonable proportions? Is physical activity a family priority? Do I have rules in place limiting screen time? Don’t underestimate your influence—programs that specifically target parents as the exclusive agent of change have demonstrated superior outcomes in improving children’s eating and exercise habits.4 Chapter 6 helps you to “live it.” (Note: An unexpected consequence may be a drastic improvement in your own health, quality of life, and body weight.)
2H The Everyday Mistakes
The everyday mistakes happen day in and day out without anyone ever realizing their counterproductive effects on a child’s nutrition and physical activity.
3H Mistake #7—Catering to Picky Eaters
Go out to any restaurant that at least gives the pretense of being family friendly and you will find that, regardless of whether you’re at a fast-food restaurant or a five-star establishment, with rare exception (although a movement is under way to change this), the children’s menu offers pretty much the same choices: some version of breaded chicken, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and cheese pizza or a hot dog. Infrequently, you’ll find any vegetables other than French fries (which really shouldn’t be counted as a vegetable) and maybe you’ll come across an applesauce side—if you’re lucky. Restaurants offer children these standards because that’s what kids want. The kids are happy. The parents are happy because the kids will eat something and be pleasant. Everybody wins. Or not.
While in the short term choosing from children’s menus and preparing separate meals (the home-cooked version of the children’s menu) to appease picky eaters is the easier and more harmonious choice to make, in the long run, it teaches kids to more strongly prefer the “just for kids” foods, which are almost uniformly high fat, high sodium, high calories, and low in everything else (such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals). To help you get out of this rut and still keep the peace at home, Chapter 7 helps you get a child to accept your previously rejected meals. It also offers some tips and strategies to help you eat out with your kids without blowing your efforts to feed your children healthy foods.
3H Mistake #8—Sacrificing Taste
Can you think of a bad food experience that totally turned you off to ever trying that type of food again? Such as eating spoiled fish or some kind of vegetable soufflé gone very wrong? Taste is the most important factor in determining whether a child will accept a food. It doesn’t have to be true that the most delicious foods are “heart attacks on a platter”; likewise, a very healthy meal needn’t taste bland. Chapter 8 helps you maximize taste and nutritional density while minimizing extra sugar and calories.
3H Mistake #9—Enabling the Couch Potato
Let’s be honest—it’s much more convenient to plop a six-year-old in front of the television than to provide the child with seemingly endless entertainment in an attempt to hold his attention half as well. While this offers short-term peace and respite, in the long run, enabling the couch potato leads to overweight, inactive kids and a plethora of missed opportunities. But a little nudge from parents can contribute to a surprising turnaround. You can get your sedentary kid active and having a blast now with some help from the tips outlined in Chapter 9.
2H The Overlooked Mistakes
These are the unintentional acts of omission that sideline parents’ best efforts to inspire healthy habits.
3H Mistake #10—Remaining Speechless at Doctor’s Visits
How many times have you taken your kids to a doctor’s appointment and discussed their weight or physical activity habits or diet? Did your pediatrician plot their weight for length (if younger than two years old) or BMI (if older than two years old) on the growth chart and explain to you what this means? Did he offer you any nutrition, fitness, or health information you internalized and acted on? If your child’s doctor is one of the 80 percent of pediatricians who think they lack the tools to effectively help overweight kids change course,5 parents of overweight and obese kids (which, by the way, is about a third of the population) or parents of kids with less-than-ideal eating and activity habits (which is almost everyone) may not get the help they need—unless they speak up. While parents can’t control their pediatrician’s behavior, they can steer the appointment in the right direction if they come to the clinic well informed and prepared. Figure out how to make the most of doctor’s visits in Chapter 10.
3H Mistake #11—Mishandling Grandparent Sabotage
Well-intentioned grandparents and other child care providers can wreak havoc on a parent’s perfectly planned eating strategy. In fact, one study found that children cared for by their grandparents had a 34 percent higher risk of being overweight than children primarily cared for by parents or an unrelated nanny or babysitter.6 But let’s face it—a large percentage of parents are working full time and have to leave many of the day-to-day decisions to other caretakers—many of whom are unpaid grandparents who sacrifice a lot to help us out. While it may be easier to “let bygones be bygones,” grandparent sabotage can wreak havoc on parents’ other nutrition successes. In Chapter 11, parents learn how to speak up without offending and annoying Grandma and Grandpa, who, as we all recognize, are mighty and powerful influences.
3H Mistake #12—Missing Opportunities
Despite its accompanying demands, stresses, mistakes, and disappointments, parenting is supposed to be fun. You have the incredible opportunity to teach your children about the wonders and amazement that the world has to offer. While this role extends far beyond shaping your kids’ health habits, you can make learning about healthy nutrition and physical activity fun and educational. Chapter 12 will show you how.
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3. Fisher JO, Birch LL. Restricting access to palatable foods affects children’s behavioral response, food selection, and intake. Am J Clin Nutr. Jun 1999;69(6):1264-1272.
4. Golan M, Crow S. Targeting parents exclusively in the treatment of childhood obesity: long-term results. Obes Res. Feb 2004;12(2):357-361.
5. Jelalian E, Boergers J, Alday CS, Frank R. Survey of physician attitudes and practices related to pediatric obesity. Clin Pediatr (Phila). Apr 2003;42(3):235-245.
6. Pearce A, Li L, Abbas J, Ferguson B, Graham H, Law C. Is childcare associated with the risk of overweight and obesity in the early years? Findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. Int J Obes (Lond). Jul 2010;34(7):1160-1168.