Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD
“I do not like broccoli. And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli,” the first President Bush infamously stated at a news conference. His public denouncement of broccoli set off a firestorm and outrage among parents across the U.S. who had been diligently trying to shovel the vegetable into their children’s mouths. It’s hard to know if his disdain for broccoli would have been so profound had his mother never made him eat it, but certainly she had no idea that her desire for her son to eat his vegetables would lead to such a public banishing. Her well-meaning demands to “Eat your vegetables!” backfired. Parents around the world have tried the same tactic with little lasting success. Research suggests that if we want our kids to eat healthfully, we have to rethink our strategies. Following are 10 tips based on the latest research and expert opinion that will help even the pickiest of eaters to eat healthier.
- Model healthy eating. One of the most important actions adults can take to help children eat healthier is to eat healthier themselves. Studies support that kids who see their parents eat healthy are more likely to voluntarily eat healthy themselves.
- Eat together. In the culture of single parenting and two-parent working families, multiple extracurricular activities to coordinate, and an overall hectic lifestyle that many families lead, family meals are on the decline. Not only are family meals generally more nutritious for children, eating together also offers an opportunity to socialize about food and eating, and model healthy behaviors. Even if it is only twice per week, planning family meals into a weekly routine goes a long way in helping children to develop healthier eating habits.
- Increase exposure to healthy foods. “Children like what they know and they eat what they like.” One of the best ways that parents can help their children to develop healthy eating habits is to repeatedly expose them a wide variety of foods. While children may not accept the novel food on the first try, with repeated attempts and familiarity with the food, they will become more likely to develop a preference for it. Just because a child rejects a food once, do not label it “rejected”. Instead, continue to reintroduce it and expect that it will take up to 15-20 times before the child will accept it.
- Let them choose the portion size. A study of pre-school age children found that when portion size was doubled, the children ate 25% to 29% more than the age-appropriate portions of the foods, even though they consumed only two-thirds of smaller portions of the meal. Notably, they did not notice increases in the portion size when given the larger serving. When children are allowed to select their own portion size, they serve themselves less and eat less as compared to when an adult provides them with a large portion of food.
- Share the control. Kids are more likely to eat healthy (and parents can avoid a food fight) but practicing the principle of “division of responsibility”: parents choose what foods are available and offered to the child and when. The child chooses what to eat of the food that is offered and how much.
- Refuse to be a “short order” cook. Picky eaters can wreak havoc on an enjoyable family meal, compelling some parents to make special accommodations for each child just so that everyone will have something that they will eat. Parents can promote healthier eating by refusing to accommodate special requests, while at the same time making sure to serve at least one healthy food that the child likes at each mealtime. If the children refuse what is offered, it is not up to the parents to offer them something else. Rather, the children can have ready access to the meal later should they become hungry. This may seem like tough love, and many parents may express concern that the child will go hungry, but by consistently following this rule, parents will go a long way in helping their child to try previously rejected foods.
- Limit television time. While television viewing has been associated with a variety of negative behaviors including poor school performance and childhood obesity, it is also linked to overall worse nutrition. This may largely be due to the enormous amount of advertising for foods that are unhealthy such as sugary breakfast cereal, soft drinks, candy, salty snack products, or fast food and highly processed foods. Research has shown that exposure to advertisements for food products increases children’s choice of and preference for these foods and their requests to parents for the purchase of advertised foods.
- Exploit similarities. Once a food is accepted, find similarly colored or flavored “food bridges” to expand the variety of foods a child will eat. For example, if a child likes pumpkin pie, try mashed sweet potatoes, and then mashed carrots.
- Make eating healthy fun. Despite its accompanying demands, stresses, mistakes, and disappointments, parenting is supposed to be fun. Adults can make learning about healthy nutrition and physical activity fun and educational. For example, what better way to teach a child about plants and the importance of eating them than having their own small garden? Families can grow the plants and then show the children how to use them in delicious recipes. Or, parents can take their children along to farmer’s market and let them pick out a new vegetable or fruit to try at home. Whatever it is, parents should try to take a break from the mealtime battles, and take advantage of a child’s wonderment of the world to teach a lesson about health and fitness.
- Skip the food fights. Recognizing the powerful health-promoting benefits of the healthy foods, parents insist that their children eat them. This can backfire. The more parents pressure their children to eat certain foods, the less likely they will 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 parents want to get their kids to eat vegetables and other healthy foods because the kids like them, then parents will have to employ different strategies – increasing accessibility and exposure, minimizing the competition, modeling, vowing to not say anything when a child refuses a food, and helping make food taste good, for starters. In short, the most successful parents of healthy eaters opt to skip the food fights.
A version of this article originally appeared in ACE Certified News. For more, check out “Eat Your Vegetables and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters” (Healthy Learning 2012), by Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD