Food is a parenting issue
Despite our good intentions, we don’t really teach our children well.
Did you know that even though parents are inundated with information about nutrition, most of us teach our children bad eating habits?

How else can we account for the fact that bad eating habits start so early in life? Did you know that in America 1/3 of all 19-month-old toddlers eat no fruit on any given day but 90% of them consume some type of dessert, candy or sugary drink? And even though 80% of these youngsters eat vegetables, chips are the ones they’re most likely to have?

Think we’re better off here? Well, the news is pretty grim. In South Africa’s primary schools 22% of girls and 17% of boys are overweight or obese. Furthermore, 40% of children get little or no moderate exercise each week.

In response to findings like these, experts repeatedly assert the importance of good nutrition. It’s as if everyone thinks that parents only need to know more about which foods to provide — ½ cup of cottage cheese, or a serving of broccoli — and presto, our kids all will be healthy eaters.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, never have we known so much about nutrition and yet eaten so poorly. That’s because:

Eating right isn’t really about food, it’s about behaviour: what, where, why, when and how much someone chooses to eat. Nutritional considerations only partially influence these choices.

Children need to be taught how to eat right, just as they need to be taught good hygiene and manners. The younger they start learning how to do this the better off they will be — 60% of all 2-3 year olds already have diets considered “in need of improvement” and it only goes downhill from there.

Mastering three principles— proportion, variety and moderation — is the key to teaching children healthy eating habits. It is also the only way for parents to combat the impact of the food industry, and an avalanche of other social factors, on the way our kids eat.

Focusing on nutrition often leads parents astray. For instance, it encourages parents to give their children items such as chocolate milk because they are considered healthy — even schools do it — but this practice teaches kids an appreciation for chocolate, not for milk. Indeed, each chocolate milk makes regular milk a harder sell. The same is true for sweetened, whole grain cereals, flavoured yogurts (which typically derive as much as 50% of their calories from added sugars) and juice — all
“healthy” foods that teach our kids to like, even crave, sugar.

Is it any wonder that so many kids are overweight, obesity rates have soared and the number of people with diabetes is rising rapidly?

So what’s the alternative?

First, think of food and eating as a parenting issue, because that is what it is. In fact, teaching your children to eat right isn’t that different than teaching them to sleep through the night: both involve shaping your child’s behaviour.

Second, use what you already know about nutrition to shape your children’s eating habits. Instead of focusing on food, put your attention towards making sure your children practice three principles — proportion, variety and moderation. Why? Because these principles translate the science of nutrition into a style of eating that is healthy. In other words, they produce healthy habits.

Proportion, variety and moderation are so important that they form the basis of every eating plan out there.
Proportion is how you make sure your children have a balanced diet.
Variety ensures they get the full range of nutrients they need.
Moderation guarantees your children only eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full.

The secret of this strategy is these three principles focus your attention on the structure of how your children eat instead of on the details of what they eat. It is like seeing the entire forest, instead of focusing on the individual trees. It’s not that nutrition isn’t important, but worrying about whether your child is getting enough omega 3s, or is eating a low GI diet is kind of like worrying about the quality of your car stereo before you even have a car!

What matters most is how often your children eat the really, really, healthy stuff — fresh fruit and veggies, quality proteins, whole grains in relation to the junk. Do they get a variety of vegetables or will they simply eat peas? And finally, do they eat only when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full? (Or do they also eat when they’re bored, sad, or angling to get dessert?)

Third, don’t underestimate your children.
Do you think your young children are too immature to learn to do these things? Well, they’re not. Teaching children habits is such a fundamental part of parenting that it is remarkable that eating is the one area where parents of young children almost never think about them. The truth is, though, our children are establishing eating habits with each bite they take — whether we want them to or not.
  • When they insist on eating only peanut butter and jam, hot dogs or pasta? That’s a habit.
  • When they skimp on meals but then demand snacks? That’s a habit.
  • When they refuse to eat vegetables, sit at the table or try new foods? Those are all habits.
Studies show that even though infants automatically adjust their food intake in response to frequent feedings, by the age of 5, most children don’t. They just eat more. That’s a habit too. Every time we feed our children we reinforce their ideas about what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat, the only question that remains is this: what are we going to teach them?

Focus on their habits and they’ll also know how to:
  • Eat a wide variety of food including plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Identify when they’re hungry and when they’re full.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Eat foods in proportion to their healthful benefits.
  • Happily eat just one sweet.
  • Confidently try new foods.
  • Appreciate a variety of tastes and textures.
  • Limit their intake of sugar.
  • Avoid overeating.
  • Willingly forego treats, occasionally, even when friends are “indulging”.
  • Soothe their feelings without relying upon food.
  • And here is the real payoff… they will learn to do these things on their own!

Dina 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. She can be contacted on

Do you think your schedule or bad habits are influencing your child's food attitude? How have you tried to introduce better food habits?

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