Published Oct 1, 2012 8:00 AM
With two-thirds of the country battling weight problems, putting our children on the path to a healthy diet has never been more important. Yet it can be a constant war of wills with kids. Here are some tips on raising healthy eaters.
The words “food fight” evoke a chaotic cafeteria scene where edibles are used as projectiles. But in many families, the real food fight is waged on the home front and on a daily basis — a psychological war of wills in which no one is winning. Dr. Natalie Digate Muth ’02, who began working as a community pediatrician in San Diego in August after completing her residency at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA, witnessed such battles in her own family and knew there had to be a better way.
“This is not new; it’s a struggle that’s been going on for generations,” she says. Still, in a society where fast food and other unhealthy options are everywhere, children are more sedentary, and two-thirds of the adult population is overweight or obese, placing kids on the path to a healthy diet has never been more important.
Most of us know what our kids should eat, but getting them to actually do it can be a daunting task. In her new book, "Eat Your Vegetables” and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters, Muth points out the mistakes commonly made by well-intentioned parents and offers research-proven strategies for eliminating mealtime conflicts and bringing up children who want to eat right. Among them:
Give Peace a Chance
Demanding that a child eat vegetables and other healthy foods sends a message that they’re distasteful. “The one area kids have control over is what they put in their mouth,” Muth explains. “When there is coercion, they will often dig in and exert their power, and it’s going to be hard for the parent to win that battle.” Instead, the goal should be to get your children to choose healthy foods on their own.
Don't Use Food as a Reward
Who hasn’t heard — or used — the line, “You can’t have dessert until you finish your plate.” Though wellmeaning, it suggests that dessert is a prize to be earned, making it even more desirable in the child’s eyes.
Don't Cater to the Picky Eater
“Parents will say, ‘My child only eats chicken nuggets and fries, so I have to give that to him or he’s going to starve,’ ” Muth says. If your child knows you will relent, he’s liable to hold out and refuse the healthy food you offer. If you calmly make it clear that the meal you’ve prepared is the only option, he might test you by missing a meal, “but no child is going to starve.”
If your child loves macaroni and cheese, you can make the dish more nutritious with whole-grain macaroni and a healthier cheese. If you’re making a smoothie, mix in some spinach that won’t noticeably change the taste. You can also introduce other foods into your child’s favorite recipes as a way to help him or her develop new tastes. If you’re creative enough, you can take it a step further. Your daughter loves pumpkin pie? Introduce similar-textured squash, and then bridge her to carrots, cooked and mashed. For a sweet-tasting dessert alternative, try offering a yogurt parfait.
When at First You Don't Succeed, Keep Trying
We have an innate preference for tastes that are sweet or salty, which is why vegetables are a tougher sell than ice cream. But in the same way that many adults acquire a taste for coffee or beer, kids repeatedly exposed to non-sweet/non-salty foods can learn to like them. “Research shows that if you just continue to give kids a previously rejected food — maybe prepare it in different ways — after they’ve had it a number of times, they will develop a taste for it,” says Muth.
Establish the Right Environment, Then Cede Power
If your house is stocked with only healthy foods, your child will learn to dip into the fruit bowl when hungry. Don’t worry if it’s an apple or a pear; let him or her make the healthy choice. “The parent’s job is to choose what foods are available to the child and when they’re available,” says Muth. “The kid’s job is to choose which of those foods and how much of them he or she is going to eat.” And don’t fall victim to the “clean your plate” mentality that most of us grew up with. Children need to learn to let their bodies tell them when they’re full.
Don't Be a Purist
Children who are forbidden from ever having so much as a scoop of ice cream are often the ones who later rebel and gorge on junk food. “You have to be realistic,” says Muth. “It’s perfectly fine to have dessert sometimes.”
Set an Example
If you aren’t practicing what you preach in front of your child, you’re inviting trouble. “Whether we like it or not, our kids are watching how we approach meals and physical activity,” says Muth. If you have a candy bar habit or unresolved issues with emotional eating, at least keep them out of your child’s view.
The Sooner, The Better
If your goal is to raise a healthy eating child, you’re never more likely to succeed than if you start from the ground floor. When babies begin eating solid foods they aren't picky, so take advantage by exposing them to a wide variety of tastes. But don’t fret if your kid is older; Muth stresses that it’s never too late to change your child’s eating ways. “This isn’t going to happen overnight,” she says. “But if you are patient and thoughtful about what you offer your child and how you disengage from the power struggle, it does work.”
Watch Dr. Muth and Dr. Mary Saph Tanaka, who created the recipes in "Eat Your Vegetables" and Other Mistakes Parents Make, discuss how to help kids make healthy eating choices in this video: