Want to change how your kids eat? Here's the simplest advice I have: Let your kids in on the game plan.
In my experience, talking to your kids about how to eat is one of the most effective, and most overlooked, parenting strategies out there.
- Talk to your toddlers often.
- Talk to your toddlers as specifically as you can.
But don’t talk to your toddlers about:
- Nutrition. They don’t need to know about vitamins and minerals, fiber or protein in order to eat right.
- Health. They don’t want to hear it. They’ll just tune you out. Read How to Help Your Kids Hate Spinach.
- How much they should eat. That’s their business, not yours. Read The Dinner Dance: When is Enough Enough?
The good news is that there are only 3 things you need to talk to toddlers about.
- Proportion - Read Slackers Rule
- Variety - Read Variety? But My Kids Won't Eat It!
- Moderation - Read Size Matters
These principles translate everything anyone needs to know about nutrition into behavior.
Proportion, variety and moderation create the structure—a set of stable rules—you need for eating/feeding success.
I’ve written a lot about the importance of creating a durable structure. Read:
- Fruits and Vegetables at Every Meal and Every Snack—Every Darn Day
- The BIG Fix: What to Do When Feeding Strategies Fail
- The Goldilocks Approach.
Proportion, variety and moderation are easy for toddlers to understand.
- Proportion: We eat more fresh, natural foods than anything else (including crackers, hot dogs, sugary yogurts, candy, cookies...)
- Variety: We eat different things on different days.
- Moderation: We only eat when we're hungry. We stop eating when we're full.
How easy is that?
Try boiling everything you want your kids to know about nutrition into 3 easy-to-understand statements. You couldn't do it.
If knowing about nutrition produced healthy eating habits we would be a nation of stellar eaters.
Educating your kids about food only teaches them more about food. You want to teach your toddlers how to eat, that means teaching them how to make eating decisions.
Never before has a nation known so much about nutrition, yet eaten so poorly.
It’s time to give up our obsession with nutrition (or should I say addiction to nutrition?) and start talking about habits instead.
Don't underestimate how much toddlers understand.
The beauty of proportion, variety and moderation is that they are specific and action-oriented. They tell your kids exactly how you want them to eat.
All too often parents know what they mean when they say something, but their kids interpret things differently.
- Don't go too far? (Across the room? Across the street?)
- Don't eat too many sweets? (2? 10? A bagful?)
If you think about it, one reason the “2 more bites” tactic works (at least in the short run) is because it’s incredibly specific. Both you and your kids know exactly what you expect.
Specific statements that produce good eating include directions about how to choose what to eat, nothow much to eat.
In this regard, I’m totally with Ellyn Satter who says that you decide what food you’re going to provide and your kids decide how much of it they’re going to eat. Satter calls this the Division of Responsibility and you can read more about it on her site: www.ellynsatter.com. Also, read To Restrict or Not, That is the Question.
In my experience, many parents end up focusing on how much their toddlers eat because parents feel at a loss to shape what their kids eat. Parents don't make the switch from what to how much intentionally, and there are lots of good reasons to try to get kids to eat more—like you don't want to whip up a meal in the middle of the night. But if you want your toddlers to choose the right foods, you have to give them some governing guidelines.
Here are a few things you should be very specific about.
Tell your toddlers you want them to eat:
- A fruit or a vegetable with every meal and every snack. Read 10 Ways Improving Your Kids Snacking Will Improve YOUR Life. Then make the serving very small. Read The Happy Bite.
- Some of everything on their plates before they eat all of any one item. Read Playing for Peas.
- Something different from day-to-day. Read House Building 101 and When You’re Too Tired to Cook.
There are other guidelines such as when it's time to eat (and when it's not) and how many sweets to eat in a day. I won't list them here, but they all flow from the three primary principles: proportion, variety and moderation.
Talk may be cheap...
But when it comes to teaching kids to eat right, what you say can really influence what your kids do. And doing (not knowing) is the key to teaching kids to eat right.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~