Free Resource Sheets to Teach Healthy Eating Habits


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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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Entries in Habits (85)


Parenting Myth: It's Good to Treat All Your Kids the Same Way. Actually, It's Not.

If you've got more than one child, chances are you think one is a great, adventurous eater and the other? Not so much.

And if your younger child is the one who is adventurous, chances are you're worried that the older child's poor eating habits are going to rub off on the younger child, and before you know it, you'll have two picky eaters sitting at the table.

Sound familiar? I hear this from parents all the time.

You've got different kids. They need different parenting. It's time to dispel the myth that parents should strive to treat their kids the same.

I've written about fairness before. My point: Fair is getting what is right for you. Fair does not mean equal.

In my post Fair is Fair...Or Is It? I talked about the chocolate milk problem. Here is the problem in a nutshell:

You've got three kids and they each want exactly the same amount of chocolate milk. You might think of this as the cookie problem too. Or the ice cream problem. Or the problem that crops up anytime your kids think that fair means equal.

When it comes to food, fair isn't eating what everyone else is eating — at the same time and in the same amounts. Fair is getting what is right for you in that moment. For instance, small children get less chocolate milk than big kids get because small is the right amount for small tummies. Similarly, kids who have had their treats might not get a cookie when their siblings do.

Are you thinking that your kids would never stand for such unequal treatment?

I sympathize. But giving kids the same treats at the same time and in the same amounts teaches kids the wrong habits.

By the way, when I was growing up, my mother would throw out a treat rather than get the measurements exactly right. She wasn't trying to teach us anything about fairness or healthy eating habits. She just didn't want to be saddled with the task of making sure that everything was even-steven. I'm not recommending this approach because it's a little harsh. But drinking different amounts of chocolate milk didn't kill us.

On the other hand, when my mother had a sexist rationale for her unequal lessons... Read One for Girls, Two for Boys.

Every parent I have ever met knows intuitively that individualizing how you parent your kids is a good thing. But we talk the language of equality.

I'm not advocating that you become a short-order chef and create individualized meals for each of your kids. That would be insane. But it's also insane to think that all our kids need to learn the same lessons at the same pace.

Maybe you're thinking: "It's genetic. I feed my kids all the same. Some kids are simply great eaters. Others aren't."

While it is true that some children are naturally better eaters than others, and that some children are naturally more adventurous than others, the reason I balk at this line of reasoning is because it makes a lot of parents give up. Wait it out.

Of course, if you are worried that picky eating can be contagious, then you recognize that some of our kids' eating habits are social. What can be learned, can be unlearned.

Kids can have peculiar eating habits. You've probably seen some funny posts making the Internet rounds.

Here's one:

  • "Hello my name is Lexi and I will gag at the sight of sauce, unless you call it frosting. I love pasta frosting." 
  • "Hello my name is Luke and I like toast, but not the "brown parts" (which are the actual toasted areas). The bread must remain white, but have a slightly harder toasted exterior without actually changing color."

I get the appeal. If we don't laugh, we're going cry. Accommodating a toddler's food craziness can make you tear your hair out. And when you read the whole list it's comforting to know that other people have crazy kids too.

The thing that irks me about these posts, however, is that it sends the message that, when it comes to eating, it's normal for kids to make crazy demands and that there's nothing parents can do about it. But every single one of these toddlers can be taught to eat differently.

Does it matter if Lexi calls sauce "pasta?" Not at all. But she can be taught not to gag. Similarly,

  • Luke can learn to eat brown toast - or to remove the brown bits himself.
  • Riley can learn to eat her meal even if there's a pickle on the plate.
  • Chase can learn to eat corn whether it is on or off the cob.
  • And so on.

If you've tried to teach your kids another way of eating and it hasn't worked, it doesn't mean the problem is intractable.

It means you haven't found the right strategy...yet. This isn't a critique of your parenting skills. It's a comment on our national dialogue. "Cook with your kids!" "Take your kids grocery shopping!" These strategies only work for some kids, some of the time because they are incomplete. And they don't take into account how kids learn eating habits.

I have long advocated strategies such as The Rotation Rule and The Eating Zones Rule because they create a structure that teaches eating habits. Moreover, each of these strategies can be tailored to meet your kids wherever they are. Want ideas about how to introduce new foods? Click here.

Just because behavior is normal, it doesn't mean we have to wait it out.

Yes it's normal for kids to go through a separation anxiety stage, but we don't assume that we'll have to stay stuck to our kids' sides until the stage is over. Similarly, when it comes to food, it is normal for kids to go through a controlling/crazy eating stage. We can teach our way through it. But we have to know the goal (proportion, variety and moderation are the three habits kids need to learn) and we have to tailor what specific skills we teach to what each of our kids needs to learn.

Here are some ways that same doesn't work.

  • You give the kids the same amount of new food and ask them to taste it. Some kids are not ready for tasting. They need to explore using their other senses first.
  • You implement the Rotation Rule (congratulations!) and insist that everyone eats a different sandwich for lunch every day. That's too much rotation for one child. That child needs the same sandwich cut into different shapes.

There are lots of other examples, but I think you get my point.

Eating right is a skill. Every child comes equipped with a different set of strengths and weaknesses and so the techniques we use to teach eating skills has to vary from child to child.

If you're having trouble figuring out exactly what your kids need to learn right now, shoot me an email, or give me a call. (I give away free 30 minute consultations, just for the asking.)

It's a challenge to balance feeding the whole family and teaching each of our chidlren the skills they need to learn.

It helps, though, to recongize that how kids eat is less about the food than it is about the lessons. And that the only thing kids really need to be the same is for parents to figure out a strategy for teaching them the skills they need to learn.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~  


Let's Stop Growing a Nation of Guilty Eaters

What's your guilty pleasure? Translation: What's the thing you enjoy even though you know you shouldn't?


Admittedly, your first answer may have nothing to do with food. But food always makes the list. Brownies. Ice cream. Gummy Bears.

It's time to stop growing a nation of guilty eaters. If you enjoy something, shouldn't you just enjoy it?

Healthy eating doesn't mean banning sweets and treats—or eating them secretly—or eating them alongside a sizable serving of guilt. Healthy eating means building sweets and treats into the diet in a healthy way. And teaching kids to enjoy healthy food. There's a list of things you can do at the end of this post.

Guilty eating is a consequences of a phenomenon I call, "The Medicalization of the Meal," i.e. thinking of food like medicine.

Eat spinach, we are told, because it is an excellent source of vitamin K, vitamin A, magnesium, folate, manganese, iron...

In this model, there is no legitimate space for unhealthy food. Honestly, I just saw a post on how to put vegetables in a chocolate dessert smoothie and a recipe for kale chocolate chip ice cream. The only thing that drives this trend is our belief that every bite can and should be healthy.

Is guilt really the lesson you want to pass on to your children? Read Cookies and the Cycle of Guilty Eating.

In America, the food world is divided into good and evil. 

  • Apples? Good. 
  • Brownies? Evil. 
  • Brownies with ice cream?

This would be OK if we thought evil foods tasted bad, but we don't. We think they're awesome. This also is an outgrowth of medicalizing the meal.

By medicalizing the meal we have inadvertently reserved all the good-tasting descriptors for sweets and treats. As a consequence we have come to believe that healthy food tastes bad and junky food tastes GREAT.

 When we talk about healthy food we stress nutrition. 

  • Eat an apple. It's good for you.
  • Eat an apple. It is full of vitamin C.
  • Eat an apple a day. It'll keep the doctor away!

When we talk about sweets and treats we talk about how good they taste.

  • These brownies are soooo chocolatey.
  • These brownies are rich and creamy.
  • These brownies are delicious. 

And the sad news is that even if you think healthy food tastes good, the research shows you subconsciously think junk food tastes better. Read Junk Food=Yum, Healthy Food=Yuk.

One way parents teach kids to be guilty eaters is by making the dessert deal: "Eat your peas and then you can have some pie."

We know we shouldn't do this, but most of us do it anyway. The pressure to get kids to eat vegetables is enormous and nothing gets peas down a kid's gullet faster than dessert.

As you probably know, making vegetables the price your kids have to pay in order to get to dessert makes your kids—shall we say appreciate?— dessert more than they already do. It also reinforces the idea that vegetables are necessary, but eating them is a chore. Yuk.

If this is news to you, or if you want a refresher, read Wheelin' & Dealin': 10 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Trade Peas for Pie.

5 things you can do to grow a healthy, not a guilty, eater.

1. Teach your kids about proportion. Then teach them to eat their sweets and treats with gusto, to enjoy every morsel. Read Have Your Cake and Eat It Too! and Mark Bittman's Dream Food Label (or how Bittman stole my ideas)

2. Never make kids earn dessert. Read Should My Child Get Dessert If He Doesn't Eat Dinner?

3. Don't talk about "good" and "bad" foods. Read "The Look": How Your Emotions Shape Your Kids' Eating.

4. Increase vegetable consumption by serving veggies more frequently. Read 10 Ways Improving Your Kids' Snacking will Improve YOUR Life and Fruits and Vegetables at Every Meal and Snack -- Every Darn Day

5. With veggies, implement The Happy Bite. Read The Happy Bite.

~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.