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.
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Dinner Together Building Healthy Families One Meal at a Time.

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

Fooducate Like Having a Dietician on Speed dial.

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The Lunch Tray Everything you need to know about improving school lunches.

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Raise Healthy Eaters One of the best blogs (other than my own) for learning to raise healthy eaters.

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Wednesday
Jul012009

My 3 year old scores junky snacks from other parents & kids. What can I do?

I was really glad to get this question from a reader because it is a problem most parents can relate to:

You bring a stash of healthy food to the playground and then your child makes moon eyes at everyone who has tastier treats.  It doesn't seem to matter whether the other moms have pretzels, goldfish, fruit strips, cookies or lollipops.  Your child wants whatever they have.

You're not sure how to handle the situation because even though you would rather your child didn't eat this stuff on a daily basis (you already give her enough treats at home):

  1. You don't want her to feel somehow different from the other kids
  2. You don't want the other parents to feel that you are judging their nutritional practices.

So what can you do?

The way out of this problem is to think big.  Move beyond the immediate situation and identify what lifelong lessons you want your child to learn.  I see at least two.  

The first lesson is that different people eat differently -- different foods, different amounts and at different times of day. Tell her this explicitly and often (verbalizing the message is crucial) because it will neutralize how bad being different can feel.  Plus, during her entire life people will eat tempting foods in front of her.  You don't want her to have to eat just because it's there and looks yummy.  Then point out to your child when she has goodies that others don't have, when she eats when others are full, when she is done eating and others are just beginning. Similarly, point out the times when everyone is eating the same foods at the same times. 

The second lesson is that we eat foods in proportion to their healthful benefits.  Again, tell this to your child explicitly and often too. Then tell her that means that we eat more fruits and vegetables than snack crackers, candies, cookies, ice cream etc.  Because of this, we have to make choices.  Next start giving your child choices such as the following:

  • You may have 1 snack from another mommy each day, whenever you like. OR
  • You may have 1 candy/cookie/ice cream snack each day either at the playground or at home.

The key is to set up a structured choice for your child that you present every morning, or every day before the playground so that she knows what the ground rules are.  Remind your child as often as necessary before the situation so she is prepared.  Note: you may have to alter the snacks you give your child at home so that when she has the snacks in the playground her daily consumption isn't out of proportion.  So, for instance, if you child is scoring pretzels and crackers at the park, don't give her these items at home on park days.

At 3, your child should accept these guidelines fairly easily.  The added benefit is that when you repeat the rules to your child in front of other parents, they won't feel judged about their snack choices.  Instead, they'll see that you give your child these foods too, only at other times. It's a win-win situation.

The final step is to praise your child for making choices, and for sticking to the rules each and every times she complies.

Good luck and let me know how it goes.  Remember, it's not so much what you feed, but the lessons you teach.

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Reader Comments (4)

Thank you so much for this!! My girl is only 1 and I'm already worried about this, since she has food sensitivities to dairy, wheat, and soy. This is a great way to start making a structure for other people's food. I would LOVE to hear more suggestions about young kids with multiple food allergies/sensitivities and how to shield them from eating wheat etc when they're at daycare or otherwise away from Mommy.

April 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSKC

Sarah,

It's hard to navigate all the food out there, and if your child has food sensitivities it's that much harder. I'll address the issue of teaching kids with food allergies/sensitivities in a post soon. Look out for it! (Thanks for the prompt!)

Dina

April 8, 2011 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Thank you for this post. We encounter this situation several times a week at playdates, and the other mommys have a broad range of reactions.

They are generally brown bag style affairs, with some mommy's packing food to share.

I am not sure how to handle the friendly (but nutritionally off target) offers. My desire to model good decision making hits a rocky patch at this point... how to respond without coming across as a nutrition snob or lying? (There is another mom who has admitted her child's "allergies" are simply an excuse to keep her child away from poor nutrition choices.)

December 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLinn L

Linn,

I understand the jam you're in. I don't think there is anything you can do to shape how other mothers provide food - unless you propose some sort of rotation. That's why I suggest you work on teaching your children to balance what they eat by talking about proportion, making choices, etc. In the end, these are the skills your kids are going to need to get through the world. It's unfortunate, but true.

Best (and if you come up with a better solution, please, please, let me know!)

Dina

January 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

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