I’ve spent the last four years studying how parents teach their kids to eat and this is what I’ve learned: parents who are successful at getting their kids to eat right think differently about this task than parents who struggle.
The successful mentality begins with the recognition that eating right isn’t about food, it’s about behaviour — what, when, why and how much someone chooses to eat. Since nutrition only partially shapes those choices, especially for children, the key to success can never be found by focusing only on food. Rather, you must shape how your children behave in relation to food.
To develop a successful mentality you have to give up the idea that your job is to feed your children. It’s not. Your job is to teach them to eat right
This means two things. First, you have to have a clear idea of what habits you want your children to learn about food and eating. Second, you must actively figure out what your children need know in order to develop those habits. Third, you have to teach your children those skills.
The skills kids need in order to eat right can be broken down into three categories:
• Knowledge: facts about food
• Technical skills: how to use forks and knives, etc.
• Decision-making: choosing what, when, how much to eat
Most of us do a pretty good job teaching our children about the knowledge and technical skills they need, but fall a little short when it comes to teaching them how to make decisions about eating. In truth, that’s because most of us don’t even think of it as something our young children need to do until they get older. Let’s face it, we’re making most of the choices about what foods to provide, right? So what decisions do they have to make anyway?
Well, it may be tempting to think we are in charge of what our children eat, but in reality, they are making choices every time they open their mouths (or alternatively, keep them clamped shut. Even the littlest tykes have lots of moves: the dodge, the head turn, the lip lock, the spit, and, of course, the favourite food-toss.)
The problem is, our children aren’t good at making decisions about what to eat. We hope to influence this when we tell them something is good for them, but here’s the rub: research shows that telling children they should eat a particular food item because it’s healthy is pretty much guaranteed to make them NOT eat it. That’s right. They don’t care about health. They care about other things like taste, texture and appearance. (But you probably already knew that from watching what your child accepts or refuses.)
In order to teach your children to make better choices you have to give them guidelines (i.e. we eat these foods more often than those foods) and you have to teach them to like a broad range of foods. Children have immature taste preferences, and that leads to immature decision-making, but that doesn’t mean you can’t influence what your child likes and dislikes. In fact, we do it all the time. How do you think Indian children end up liking curry, Mexican kids like salsa, and Americans are crazy for pizza?
If you want your kids to choose healthy foods you have to teach them to like healthy foods. This you do by giving them healthy items more often then you give them any other
kind of food (that means fruits and vegetables at almost every meal and snack), you need to present them in an appealing, not a bland or boring, way, and you need to encourage (not pressure) them to eat these foods. What’s more, if you give your children a variety of foods each and every day (so no two days have the same menu) they’ll be more likely to try new foods. Why? Because when they get accustomed to eating different foods on a regular basis, they are more willing to eat a different and new food too.
Read more:Step 2: Think Big! Decide what habits you want your children to have when they grow up and teach these habits nowStep 3: Identify what your child is getting out of acting and eating this way and provide alternativesStep 4: Identify what is holding you hostage and develop strategy for copingStep 5: Develop a plan for changeDina R. Rose, PhD, is an American sociologist who specialises in children and food. She continued her research while in South Africa with her family for a sabbatical year.