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 (82)


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.


When There's No Time for School Lunch

One problem when school lunch time shrinks? VEGGIES GET FORGOTTEN!

Of course, not having sufficient time to eat is a huge problem. As is not having enough "down time" to restore young attention spans.

But the veggies? That’s a relatively easy solution to solve (providing your children will eat vegetables under normal circumstances).

1) Talk to your children about the problem.

In my experience, many parents of young children try to manage the problem and the solution without talking to their kids.

This is a mistake.

  • It’s harder for kids to do what you want them to do when they don’t know what you want them to do.
  • Talking to your children about problems and solutions is a way to teach them to problem solve.
  • Problem-solving with your children builds the trusting rapport around food that many families lack.
  • Sometimes parents mis-identify the problem.

"Sometimes there's not enough time at lunch to eat everything. Right? I've noticed lately that you dig right into your sandwich but you don't eat the broccoli." 

  • "Is that because you don't like the broccoli?"

In this case, you'll know not to send broccoli because repeatedly sending food that doesn't get eaten in the hopes that one day it will (magically) get eaten is crazy. Read The Bad News ABout Healthy Lunches.

  • "Or is that because you don't have time for anything else if you eat your sandwich first?"

When children dig into their favorite food first (the sandwich, the pasta, the pizza) they don't have time—and they often don't have a lot of stomach space left—for anything else. That is the problem.

Solving the Sandwich-First Problem with One-One

Here's the lesson: "You need to eat a little bit of everything before you eat all of anything."

Children don't automatically know this.

Here's the technique: "Eat one bite of this and then one bite of that until you've had one bite of everything on your plate. Then take a second bite of this and a second bite of that..."

Read more about One-One here.

One-One isn't meant to be dogmatic—no need to count bites! Nonetheless, it's an important lesson for children to learn: 

"We never know when we are going to run out of time at school lunch. Therefore, it's important to eat a little of everything from the beginning of the lunch period."

One-One is the right habit in general. It's the right habit for this problem.

Let's fight for change at the school-level, but let's not WAIT for change to address the problem.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~