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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Entries in Habits (83)


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.


Kid Eats Q&A: What to Do When Your Undereater Misbehaves at the Table

Feeding an undereater can be unnerving. 

And I understand. Our job is to nourish our kids.

Add in a little pediatrician pressure—"Do whatever you have to to get your child to eat more"—and feeding an undereater can be downright frightening.

So, here's the question: What should you do when your undereater misbehaves at the table?

Toni wrote:

"I would love to hear your thoughts on how to handle the misbehaving underweight child at the table who needs disciplining for their actions - time outs? (taking them away from those calories during that crucial hunger window) reprimand them? (negative emotions decrease appetite) other?"

1: Let me say, as with so many parenting issues, the problem here is...competing goals.

We need to nourish and civilize our little monsters. And while keeping a child well nourished certainly seems more's the good news: It turns out, the two goals are really inter-related. Solve one and you'll solve the other. 

And solving the behavior problem has to come first.

2: Worrying that a child won't eat enough food during meals may be one of the most common parenting concerns.

Parents of undereaters have reason to worry, but study found that 85% of all parents of young children want their children to eat more. Pushing more food into any child is a strategy that backfires.

However, pushing food:

  • Sets up a control struggle.
  • Disconnects kids from their own hunger and satiety. (And yes, this happens even for undereaters—just not in the way you'd expect. Keep reading.)
  • Reverses the parental/child power structure. 

3: The only solution to a mealtime misbehavior is discipline.

In other words, be firm about the rules—and the consequences for breaching the rules.

A few points of clarification:

  • Discipline is NOT synonymous with punishment. I like to think of discipline as being consistent, as in, "It takes discipline to train for a marathon."
  • Ask yourself, What does my child need to learn? The answer is usually not, "What behavior is acceptable." Most kids already know that. The answer is usually, "My parents mean business." That's the importance of consistency.

4: Reluctance to set and enforce boundaries encourages both bad behavior and poor eating.

Inconsistency encourages kids to do as they please. Their thinking: "I never know when I will get my way. But, since there's always a chance, I might as well go for it." (Think of this as intermittent reinforcement.)

The only way to encourage an undereater to eat is to serve small, structured meals.

5: Use the Eating Zones Rule: Make sure there are times when food is available and times when food is not available

The Eating Zones Rule doesn't just teach kids to eat at the right time. Eating Zones give undereaters secure times when they know they won't have to think about eating.

For more on Eating Zones read, Hunger vs. Appetite.

6) Serve very small meals.

The research shows that undereaters eat less food when they're presented with too much food. How much is too much? You'd be surprised. For some children, it's serving more than a couple of bites at a time.

Read, The Portion Size Problem: A Matter of Trust.

7) Recognize that doing anything to get your child to eat is a strategy that will always backfire.

Kids don't eat better when parents do anything. The only thing that happens when parents do anything is that power shifts from parent to child.

For more on this, read, What's Holding You Hostage.

By the way...if you think I'm immune to forcing food, read, You Have to Eat. Or Else...

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~


Cognitive Scripts: How Kids Learn When and What to Eat

When you go to the movies, do you always get popcorn?

If you do, that's probably because you have what's called an cognitive script for going to the movies. Congitive scripts tell you what normally happens in different situations--and in what order.

  • Buy movie ticket.
  • Buy popcorn.
  • Watch movie and eat popcorn!

Cognitive scripts work because they simplify decision-making and guide behavior. 

Kids have congitive scripts too.

And guess what: they develop those scripts early on. Maybe even by the age of 2. Certainly by the age of 3.

Maybe you know where I'm going with this...

Every time you serve food in a given situation, you're helping your children write a cognitive script.

My infant daugther cried every time she was in the car. It didn't take long for me to learn that if I fed her in the car she didn't cry. It didn't take long for my daughter to learn that every time she was in the car she got a snack.Talk about a bad eating habit!

Here's the study: Kids between 4 and 6 years old were asked to tell researchers about what usually occurs during playdates, when they go to the movies, or when they attend a sporting event.

The children were asked to name four things that occured on each of these occasions. And this is what the reseachers learned. 

  • 54% of the children mentioned eating on playdates
  • 74% of the chidlren mentioned eating at the movies.
  • 54% of the children mentioned eating at sporting events.

When researchers asked kids who didn't mention food if they ever ate during these events, the numbers jumped. For instance, now 71% said they normally ate on playdates.

This was a small study, but it makes perfect sense, especially when you think about how habits form...and how hard they are to break.

I know what you're thinking: what's wrong with eating on a playdate?

My answer: nothing. Unless your children develop a cognitive script which makes them think that playdates and food always go hand-in-hand.

  • Or a cognitive script that tells them that playdates mean cookies.
  • Or a cognitive script that tells your children that tantrums are followed by food. 
  • Or a cognitive script that dinner=pizza. (I know kids like this.)

Cognitive scripts shape people's behavior and expectations in the long run.

That's something to consider. Especially because research shows: 

  • Children today consume more calories and eat more frequently than children did 30 years ago.
  • One study found that, for school-age children, snacks account for 27% of total daily calories. In comparison, breakast=18% and lunch=24% of total calories.

And while it's tempting to thing that snacking is a healthy habit, the research shows that most kids snack on pretty bad stuff. Read The Snack Attack and Snacks: The Gifts That Keep on Giving, and Change How Your Kids Snack.

What cognitive scripts are you writing with your kids?

And how are these scripts shaping your kids' eating habits? Now that's food for thought.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Source: Musher-Eizenman, D. R., J. M. Marx, and M. B. Taylor. 2015. “It's Always Snack Time: an Investigation of Events Scripts in Young Children.” Appetite 85: 66-69.