It’s getting kids to eat what parents serve that causes so many problems.

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DINA ROSE, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert empowering parents to raise kids who eat right.

Dinner Together Building Healthy Families One Meal at a Time.

Food Politics Marion Nestle's intelligent take on the politics of food and nutrition.

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The Argument Against Making Food Fun for Toddlers

Experts are always telling parents to make food fun. I’m here to tell you that this is misguided advice.

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with fun food. Everyone enjoys a little levity in their diets. I’m just saying you don’t have to make food fun. 

I’ll even go one step farther: regularly making food fun teaches kids the wrong lessons.

Who came up with the idea that children shouldn't be expected to eat food unless it's fun? And that this is especially true for healthy food? 

Now, I admit that for years, I plopped food on my daugther's plate in the shape of a face. But that was artful plating, not food art. And I didn't have to do it. Indeed, if I had ever felt that my daugther required (or demanded) the food art in order to eat, I would have stopped immediately.

The "Fun Food Factor" not only puts the pressure on parents, but it also distorts the power relations between parents and children. 

Right? If you've got to present food in a way that pleases your kids, who is in charge? You or them?

Now, I'm not saying that parents shouldn't create some levity at the table. In fact, enjoyment— you know the kind where everyone likes being at the table— can improve how toddlers eat.

But I’m not talking about the “draw some ketchup happy faces on your kid’s plate” kind of fun.  I’m just talking about garden-variety fun. You know, where your child actually enjoys eating. At the table. With you!

Research shows that eating enjoyment reduces picky eating.  In other words, feed your picky eater some enjoyment, and your picky eater might just stop being so picky.

What lessons should kids learn about eating?

  1. Food nourishes the body.
  2. Hopefully, the food tastes good too. But sometimes, you have to eat a clunker.
  3. Kids should eat the food you serve because it makes them good family citizens.

Of course, in order to be good eaters, kids have to learn how to try new foods. If that's your struggle, read my step-by-step, blow-by-blow guide to introducing new foods.

It is the stress, not the lack of food art, that kills how kids eat.

Many kids simply shut down when they feel stressed about eating. And that's true even when the food is "fun." And that's why searching for the right design, or the right recipe, can't solve a picky eating problem. So make food fun when you want to, but not when you have to.

 ~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Source: van der Horst, K. 2012. “Overcoming Picky Eating. Eating Enjoyment as a Central Aspect of Children's Eating Behaviors.” Appetite 58: 567-74


Some Thoughts on the Hunger-Induced Toddler Meltown

I'm reluctant to wade into the topic of the toddler meltown because it's tough and sensitive. Nonetheless, this is one area that can mess up your food-parenting strategy.

Here's a radical thought: there's no way to know if your child's hunger is actually causing the meltdown. Consider the following scenarios: 

  • You want to serve more fruits and vegetables for snack but the time you tried, your child refused and then had a hunger-induced meltdown. So now you stick to crackers because it's the safer bet.
  • You think the Rotation Rule is a good idea, but when you gave your child a choice between a turkey sandwich and a ham sandwich, she said she wanted peanut butter. You tried to stick to your guns (following my advice/script)—"You can have peanut butter tomorrow but today your choice is turkey or ham."—but then your daughter refused to eat lunch and all afternoon she was a mess.
  • You're not fond of the before-bed snack, but when you don't give your son a little something, he cries and then wakes up throughout the night. It's not worth the fight.

I could go on, but you get my point. The hunger-induced meltdown gets in the way of your best plans...all the time!

You can connect the dots (hunger-->no eating-->meltdown) but there's no way to know whether the meltdown is actually caused by your child's hunger since you can't get inside your child's tummy.

Possibilitiy A: Your child is so hungry he can't think straight. Hence the meltdown.

Possibility B: Your child is hungry, but wants something different to eat, and she knows from past experiences that behaving badly gets her what she wants.

Possibility C: Your child is not hungry but wants to eat and he knows that behaving badly gets you to produce snacks.

Possibility D: Your child is not hungry but is just behaving badly. When you produce the snacks you distract her from the tantrum and calm is restored.

This is just one of the things that makes parenting kids around food soooo difficult.

Since you can't know whether you're dealing with Possibility A, B, C, or D, the only solution is structure. And a couple of lessons.

Structure, i.e. rules that lay the foundation for what and when food is eating, is necessary because it makes food and eating predictable for your kids. 

And here's one last radical thought: One important lesson even small children can (and need to learn) is how to soothe themselves in the face of the hunger meltdown.

After all, most young children can't really eat when they're upset anyway. 

There's no reason not to feed the child who has the one-off hunger-induced meltdown, but doing it on a regular basis sets up the wrong habits, both for now and for a lifetime of healthy eating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~ 


Kids and Eating Habits

If you want to change how your kids eat you have to change their habits.

That sounds like the most obvious statement in history. But it's surprising how little we talk about habits—automatic, repetitive behavior that bypasses intention—when we talk about how kids eat.

It's pointless to reason with your kids about eating because they're not operating from their reasonable brain. They're operating from their emotions. 

  • That's why, "Spinach is good for you." fails.
  • As does, "I know you'll like this, if you'll only taste it. Come on, just taste it."

There are three habits that translate nutrition into behavior: Proportion, Variety, Moderation.

But there are lots of habits that happen in the feeding dynamic.

Kids are on autopilot when it comes to eating. They interact with you around food by habit. What your child says may reflect her habit more than her hunger.

That's how they can say they don't like something before they've even sat down at the table. 

Or whine for food...but then not really touch it. Even when kids do eat the snack they've whined to get, it doesn't mean they're hungry. Young kids eat (and whine) out of habit.

When behavior is habitual: 1) people require little information to make decisions 2) intentions are poor predictors of behavior, and 3) behavior is triggered by situational cues.

Habits become stronger when the behavior is repeatedly reinforced by satisfactory experiences.  

In other words, if you want to know why your kids continue to do something...even if it always produces a fight...look for what satisfies. The fight is just the "cost." The "win" is the gain.

The win could be something as simple as not having to eat something. It could be getting you off their backs by taking the tiniest taste (that they don't even really taste). The win could be attention.

The way to establish new habits is to interrupt the old habits.

Almost every strategy I recommend starts with a way to break the old habit.

  • Serving tiny portions stops the back-and-forth about how much your kids need to eat.
  • Being clear that you won't make your kids eat anything they don't want to eat--and focusing on tasting instead--disrupts the pattern of rejection.
  • Scheduling meals and snacks gives parents a way to respond to the begging/whining.
  • The Rotation Rule stops the habit of choosing the same breakfast every day.
  • etc

Strong habits are less responsive to relevant information than weak habits.

In other words, the more entrenched your kids are, the less talking to them about why they should change really works. Behave in a changing way instead.

Ever wondered why kids sometimes say they'll try a new food later, but then they don't?

Intentions predict behavior for people with weak habits, but not for people with strong habits. 

Habits are cued by physical environment (the kitchen or the dining room) but also by social or psychological environments (such as specific moods) too.

Think of this as the popcorn in the movie theater—or snacks in the car…or even the snack before bedtime—phenomenon. 

Keep habits in mind. Then foster the ones you want and disrupt the ones you don't want. 

Habits are created by repetition—how you act, how your child acts—in a stable context. This fosters the development of automaticity.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits~

Source: van't Riet, J., S. J. Sijtsema, H. Dagevos, and G.-J. De Bruijn. 2011. “The Importance of Habits in Eating Behavior. an Overview and Recommendations for Future Research.” Appetite 57: 585-96.