Want your child to eat healthily? Forget about the food!

 

We all know the looming dangers. More than one-third of all children in the U.S. are obese, which is associated with hypertension and diabetes. And obese children and adolescents are likely to be obese as adults and at increased risk of heart disease, strokes, cancer.

We all know what foods can prevent this fast track to obesity. Lots of greens, some fruit (not too much, we don’t want too much sugar even if it’s natural sugar), good grains, no candy, no donuts, no fried foods, certainly no soda, and yes only the tiniest bit of fruit juice.

But knowing and doing are two entirely different things – especially when it comes to dealing with our adorable, lovable, but still-not-able-to-reason toddlers. We see the meltdown coming; we just need a few minutes of conflict-free time; we want the tortured crying sounds to stop.

So what do we do? With the best intentions we start teaching our children some dangerous things about food.

As it turns out, it’s not so much the food (although that is important and there’ll be future blogs about that), but as I pointed out at the PGA Youth and Family Summit in my presentation that I did with PGA/LPGA member (and business partner) Nicole Weller, what’s most important is what kind of interactions are happening around mealtime and snacktime.

Here are some common pitfalls that are easy to slip into when our children are approaching meltdown.

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• We offer a food we know will make them happy (donuts, hotdogs, cookies) even if we know it’s not good for them –
What’s wrong with this? It teaches our children to resist new foods.

• We use food to soothe our children
What’s wrong with this? It teaches our children to equate food and positive emotions. This leads to emotional eating, which in turn can lead to obesity and inferior nutrition, which then leads to many health problems. And of course there’s the psychological problem of equating food and happiness.

• We use food to bribe our children

What’s wrong with this? It teaches our children that whatever it is we’re bribing them to eat (eat your broccoli and we can play 15 minutes longer tonight) is not innately good. Otherwise, why would we be bribing them to do this? Little ones, as young as 2 years old (we know how smart they can be), have figured this out!

So here’s the good news, good parenting skills are what will lead to good healthy eating habits in our children. What are these parenting skills, you ask? More good news: very simple stuff.

Good Parenting Skills should be employed by all those who are involved in helping young children grow and develop. Here are some common-sense Parenting Skills that lead to healthy eating habits:

• Nurture. During mealtime and snacktime, it’s really important to be engaged with your children. Take time to carefully observe each child. Also, with older children in the 2-5 age bracket, use this as an opportunity for fantasy play. Throw out an idea: princess, dragons or rainbow fish, whatever strikes you and the children’s fancy. Be involved in what they are saying or doing. Again, this is all easier said than done:  Our cell phones might be ringing, we might have other tasks we are trying to get done, we might be trying to have an adult conversation. But concentrate on using this time to focus and connect with your children.

• Be responsive. Young children need a safe and predictable environment. Mealtime rituals can achieve this. Children will gauge your responsiveness by the “facetime” you give them. Look into their eyes, smile at them. Responding to their movements lets them know they are loved. (It’s also good for the healthy growth of their brains.)

Research shows that healthy brain development in young children depends on the amount of responsiveness a child receives during the early years.

• Set clear, reasonable limits. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Use a firm, but gentle voice. This usually translates into a neutral tone of speaking. No screaming, no sing songy voice – just plain neutral. No excess verbiage – get straight to the point. “We do not throw food on the wall.” Something like that. That’s the clear part, not the reasonable part. It’s different depending on your child’s age and stage of development – this is very important (and I’ll talk about this in future blogs as well). But for now, just remember, your 2-year-old will not share willingly, nor is reasoning possible, yet your 3-year-old will love to say, “No!”; your 4-year-old will continually want to know “Why?”; and your 5-year-old might start questioning the rules.

Keep in mind that studies have shown, when the focus is on eating and activity, nothing changes. It is only when the positive parenting kicks in that positive change occurs. So stop stressing about the amount of food eaten, turn off your phones and other screens and be uber-engaged with your child at mealtime and snacktime.

Brotman, L.M.S. Dawson-McClure, K.Y. Huang, R. Theise, D. Kamboukos, J. Wang, E. Petkova, and G. Ogedegbe. 2012. “Early Childhood Family Intervention and Long-term Obesity Prevention Among High-risk Minority Youth.” Pediatrics. Published online February 6, 2012. Accesses at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/02/01/peds.2011-1568d.abstract on February 10, 2016.
Wake M, Nicholson JM, Hardy P, Smith K. Preschooler obesity and parenting styles of mothers and fathers: Australian national population study. Pediatrics. 2007; 120(6). Available at: www.pediatrics.org/cgi/content/full/120/6/e1520pmid:18055667