You want to promote healthy eating to your child but there is a right way and a not-so-beneficial way to do it. Preach about healthy food and you risk boring them to death or worse, you may freak them out so much that they end up with an eating disorder. Some kids are sensitive. Others are just complicated or simply more focused on kids’ stuff.
As a parent you need to keep this in mind if you want your child to comply with your health food rules. You also need to avoid making the following mistakes:
Image: Home-made chicken nuggets with 'take-away' styled vegetable sticks, recipe available at The Healthy Skin Kitchen online membership.
Don’t tell them it’s healthy
Sure there are studies that say fruits and vegetables, when consumed during childhood, can cut their risk of cancer when they grow up.1,2 But who cares? Not your healthy, energetic child.
Remember, ‘being healthy’ is not your child’s personal goal, unless they are very, very ill. Children usually have other desires like being good at sport or computer games and making best friends.
The fact that a healthy diet can reduce a child’s risk of developing depression or anxiety during their teenage years is not worth mentioning either.3 Keep that gem to yourself.
The words nutritious, good and healthy are boring, grown-up explanations as to why veggies, wholegrains and fruit are essential dietary requirements.
You want healthy food to appear fun, not fuddy-duddy, so skip the dull health jargon for now.
Don’t tell your child they’ll get fat
You know it’s true, more and more children are becoming obese or overweight in modern westernised countries. However, don’t mention how eating the wrong food could make your child fat. And throw away your scales immediately! Your child should not be worrying about their waistline – they have enough to cope with, such as homework, girl’s germs and their best friend being mean to them at big lunch.
Unfortunately overweight children can get taunted in the playground which can cause them some emotional stress so the last thing they need is you re-confirming their defectiveness. Don’t tell your child they’re fat – or could get fat – as it can damage their self-esteem or promote an unhealthy self image and this may lead to psychological problems in future.
Once a child has a poor self image they are more likely to overeat (and become more and more overweight). They could also become obsessive about every morsel they put in their mouth or end up anorexic. In fact, eating disorder experts are now concerned that the increased focus on how to fix the problem of childhood obesity is part of the problem. Children as young as five are asking for low-fat milk and refusing high fat meals such as peanut butter sandwiches as they become more and more concerned about their body image.4 Giving your child a poor self image does not fix their weight. On the contrary, it can damage them so a long-term weight problem, whether it be obesity or dangerous dieting, becomes more likely.
6.3 per cent of Aussie kids are obese.
25 per cent of boys and 23 per cent of girls are either
overweight or obese.5
Studies have identified overweight and obese
children are more likely to come from poorer families
and some ethnic groups.6,7
Overweight school kids can all too easily become
obese grown-ups. In Australia in 2007, the number of obese and overweight adults tipped the scales at 54 per cent of the adult population (7.4 million people).8
Obesity and its associated illnesses cost Australian society and governments 21 billion dollars each year.
Only broach the subject of weight if your child specifically asks for your opinion or help regarding being overweight. Otherwise use healthy marketing to convince your child to eat nutritious food and participate in outdoor activities. And give them the impression that you are guiding them towards healthy living just because you love them, not because they need ‘fixing’.
Don’t tell your child junk food will give them pimples
If your child has beautiful skin it’s no use using the ‘p’ word as they just won’t care. Pimples are someone else’s problem. However, if your child does have pimples then by all means appeal to their vanity and tell them about the benefits of eating well.
Acne is one of the more common adolescent conditions that can cause your offspring grief so your child may have a
gorgeous complexion now but this could change in future. In Australia, acne of the face and neck can be found on children as young as four.10 How outrageous! Preschoolers shouldn’t have zits. They don’t even have raging hormones to blame.
28 per cent of 10–12 year olds suffer from acne
Up to 93 per cent of 16–18 year olds have acne (including mild acne).
Don’t mention the words cancer, diabetes or arthritis
Alarmingly, the incidence of childhood cancer is growing and type 2 diabetes and arthritis – disorders that were once reserved for
adults – are having an increased presence in the playground.15,16 But your child won’t care unless they’re personally touched by these diseases. And nor should they. Fear is an okay motivator but the promise of enjoyment and happiness is by far the strongest and easiest way to inspire a child to choose healthy food of their own accord.
Don’t tell your child they have a disorder such as ADHD
Your child may be hyperactive and have the ability to distract a classroom full of kids. They may lack concentration or need drugs to improve their behaviour but don’t brand them for life by saying ‘You have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and that’s why you behave this way’. Give them an excuse to play up and they will often run with it and not take responsibility for their actions. Or they may go the other way and feel as though they are defective. Of course you don’t exactly say or imply they’re defective when you say they’re ADD (or ADHD or slow or dyslexic) but kids can often interpret being different as something to be ashamed of.
If your child is hyperactive or different from other kids don’t let them know they are a part of a defective minority. Tell them they are special and praise their other unique talents no matter how small they seem by comparison to others. Academic talent is not everything. Your child can be happy and financially successful without being a genius or even average. Slow learners can be winners too. Tom Cruise was dyslexic and by society’s standards he is astoundingly successful. Sylvester Stallone has a speech impediment and he makes his fortune from speaking.
And there are plenty of academically advanced people in the world who do nothing with their lives. Should an intellect who
doesn’t bother to utilise their talent be praised? I don’t think so. A disadvantaged child who overcomes adversity is the true champion.
Not labelling your offspring makes sense to most but what if you’re dealing with a child who is ripping down your curtains and setting fire to the garbage bin each week? As a parent you’d be looking for answers for the sake of your sanity. You may have had no choice but to take your child to the doctor to be prescribed behaviour-altering drugs. However, scientists are now admitting they may have been a bit hasty when they declared ADHD drugs beneficial for improving the behaviour of hyperactive children.
According to a study co-authored by Professor William Pelham, ADHD drugs are overused and not effective at fixing behaviour problems. The researchers found in the short-term – if taken for less than three years – ADHD drugs such as Ritalin and Concerta did work. However, new and long-term research demonstrates that ADHD drugs are not effective at improving a child’s behaviour. In fact, if taken long-term, ADHD drugs were found to stunt a child’s growth so they end up shorter in height, and the children still acted like little buggers.17
One such child, featured in the BBC’s Panorama program, exhibited disturbing behaviour and he assaulted three of his teachers, even though he had been on behaviour-altering medications for ADHD for ten years. A decade is a long time to be taking drugs that don’t work.
In Australia, 3–5 per cent of children suffer from ADHD (approximately 300,000 children aged six to seventeen years).
1–2 per cent of Australian children are prescribed ADHD medications.
In light of the new scientific evidence in late 2007, the scientists who conducted the long-term study are now recommending behavioural therapy such as concentration tests and dietary changes as they offer better long-term benefits.18 These scientists are advising parents to go back to their GP to get up-to-date advice. However, as a parent you must ultimately make your own decision based on what your medical professional advises you. Either way, give healthy food marketing a go as it will help you gain some positive influence as a parent.
Don’t associate healthy food with punishment
Have you ever said ‘If you don’t eat all your veggies you’ll be sent to the naughty corner’, or ‘If you don’t eat your sandwich you can’t play with the other kids?’ If so then you may be unwittingly associating healthy food with punishment and your child will fear missing out if they don’t force down the lifeless green stuff you’ve put on their plate. As I’ve said before, using fear as a motivator is not as effective as using the promise of enjoyment and happiness. Eating vegetables seems like punishment enough to some kids without veggies also being associated with isolation and missing out on all the fun.
Don’t live by the motto do as I say, not as I do – you must eat your veggies too!
Maybe you have considered banning your child from viewing the television and plan to keep watching it yourself. But I must forewarn you, it’s not a good idea for a parent to live by the mantra do as I say, not as I do. Kids are pretty cluey. And when you or your partner still get to watch your favourite TV programs you’d better have a brilliant answer as to why it’s okay for you but not for them.
You may be lazy and say to your child because we’re grown- ups but this has its consequences. You could soon find yourself in resentment city, where children like to torture their ‘do as I say, not as I do’ parents with bratty behaviour. Rebellion can give a resentful child a sense of control and fairness. It makes them feel like they’ve evened up the score. Not practising what you preach deeply affects some children so avoid this approach to parenting if you want well-behaved kids.
It’s the same with marketing healthy food to your child. You may want them to eat vegetables, avoid chocolate before bed and be disciplined. But what if you or your partner are never seen enjoying a big leafy salad or snacking on apples and carrots like they were treats? What if you often have a block of chocolate strategically placed on the coffee table, for easy access during your favourite late night TV program? And what if you have no set mealtime routine for yourself?
Kids aren’t dumb. They see that your words don’t fit your actions. They see how you break your own rules. Kids don’t respect your rules because they are unfair and they protest with bad behaviour. They have a tantrum, scream, sulk, whinge and whine ‘It’s unfair!’ This is exhausting for a parent. Do as I say, not as I do is a lazy approach to parenting and one that can ultimately backfire and give you a lot more grief in the long run.
Don’t tell your child chocolate is a ‘sometimes’ food
Health experts are now recommending we teach our children about ‘sometimes’ foods. They say chocolate, lollies and cake are ‘sometimes’ foods. Biscuits, pastries, iceblocks and hot chips are ‘sometimes’ foods. Nothing is really out of bounds but some foods are ‘sometimes’ foods while others are ‘every day’ foods like vegetables, fruits and wholegrains.
This is true and makes perfect sense to adults. However, don’t tell your child chocolate, lollies and cake are sometimes foods. Don’t even let them know that biscuits, pastries, iceblocks and hot chips are sometimes foods unless...
Unless you also tell your child WHEN sometimes is. You see, sometimes is a vague word that can turn a mild-mannered child into an argumentative monster if used carelessly. Kids just don’t know when sometimes is or when they can expect it to occur again. Is sometimes when mummy says so? Is sometimes when daddy’s in a good mood? Why could I eat chocolate yesterday and not today? And kids reason that if they have a tantrum and cry long enough that maybe, just maybe, ‘sometimes’ will come sooner.
Children also become resentful if they are constantly left in the dark when it comes to the household rules. They feel a lack of control. Think of how you would feel if you had a total lack of control over your life...
Let’s say your boss kept changing the rules at work. Last week you were given the best work project – taking a celebrity client out for a lavish long lunch – only to have it taken off you this week. Then you see someone else taking out this client. Your boss now says he’ll give you another special client but he can’t say when. Days go by and you’re stuck doing boring menial paperwork and you’re just dying to ask ‘Can I have that new special client now?’ Each day your uncertainty grows. Does your boss think you’re incapable of the work? Will I lose my job? Is my boss playing favourites? Maybe another boss would be nicer to me? And now you’re a bit resentful and pretty soon you feel
angry. An injustice has occurred! And without even realising it, you could start to take your anger out on those around you. You come home from work and snap at your partner and you try to make your work colleagues look bad by gossiping about their faults (is this a grown-up tantrum?).
If someone kept changing the rules to suit themselves would you get annoyed and protest? If you had the guts to I bet you would. Kids don’t have the ‘polite’ filters that adults often develop in order to fit into society. Kids don’t usually think ‘Oh, I’ll put up with it and not say anything because I don’t want to cause a fuss’. If kids see the rules changing on their parent’s whim they respond with whingeing, nagging, sulking and they may get sneaky or angry or all of the above.
Although they’ll never verbalise this, kids love clear-cut household rules. They thrive on them. When their world has a certain amount of predictability it helps them feel more safe and sure about life. This is one of the great secrets to having calm and happy kids. So tell them exactly when sometimes is. Iceblock day is Friday. Chocolate is weekend food. Lollies are for parties.
Don’t tell your child they can have dessert if they eat all their dinner
As I’ve said previously, I’ve been guilty of this one. My daughter went though a stage where she would not eat enough dinner in order to save room for dessert. I heard myself saying you don’t get dessert until you finish all your food and she would reluctantly eat the rest of her vegetables and rice, whingeing the whole time. Then she would complain about being too full. Of course there was always room for dessert.
However, this form of sweet bribery doesn’t teach a child anything valuable. In fact, it sets them on the path to bad eating habits in adulthood. There are plenty of overweight people who say they need to finish everything on their plate. Their parents taught them not to waste food because kids were starving in Africa (I’ve used this one too). Like eating that extra pork chop is going to save an Ethiopian child’s life.
And the reward for stuffing yourself full of dinner? A sugar- rich, fatty dessert of course! The sweet-treat bribe not only teaches your child to eat beyond being full, it also rewards overeating with junk food. This is how bad dietary habits – ones that are really, really difficult to shake in adulthood – are formed.
A study of more than 350 Australian mothers found many are using food bribes to influence their child’s behaviour. 25 per cent used food to alleviate their child’s boredom. Approximately one third used food to settle their toddler or keep them occupied, even when they weren’t hungry. And almost half of the mothers used food as a reward for good behaviour"
You may say ‘Eat all your dinner and you’ll get dessert’ or ‘You can have a chocolate if you stop crying’ or you may make an extra night time bottle to soothe a restless toddler. In the past I’ve used some of these techniques to make my child happy and I must say in the short-term they worked very well for me.
These quick fixes seem to do a good job but what do they teach a child? ‘Eat all your dinner and you’ll get dessert’ teaches them to ignore that full feeling in their tummy which signals the body’s got enough fuel to function optimally.
‘You can have a chocolate if you stop crying’ may be a quick way to cheer up a child but it also teaches them that emotional problems can be ‘fixed’ by consuming sweets. Many adults, when they are sad or have had a stressful day, make themselves feel better with a block of chocolate or an extra helping of ice-cream. They use the quick fix rather than addressing the real problem. Then they are left with two problems – stress and a bulging waistline. Now they have even more to feel unhappy about.
An extra milk bottle at night may be an effective way to settle a child in the short-term but it fails to teach them how to settle themselves so the parents end up having broken sleep for weeks, months or years longer than necessary. Yes, years!
If a child continues to be given food as a comforter, when they grow up food may continue to serve as a comfort whenever they are stressed, lonely or bored. This can lead to overeating and obesity and a confused person who doesn’t know why they can’t control their food intake.
Keeping a child quiet with extra snacks or drinks may be beneficial for our sanity but it’s not good for their health. Children need to be taught to eat when they’re hungry and preferably at set mealtimes and not in between. They need to know that good food is nourishment that will make them stronger, faster and gorgeous. It will not fix their emotional problems. Food is not love or comfort. It supplies fuel and building materials for the body. Nothing more and nothing less.
Don’t give in to short-term gratification
Life can be tough sometimes. We do not always get what we want and expecting everyone to give in to us (just like mother did) often leads to disappointment, frustration and pathological unhappiness. Life does not offer us treats on cue and we do not usually get rewarded without a bit of work to warrant it. A child needs to learn how to delay gratification in order to later become a mentally healthy adult who understands that effort comes first and reward comes later.
But first we, the parents, need to delay our own gratification by not relying on quick fixes such as treats to pacify our child. We need to use healthy tools that are beneficial for our child’s growth and mental wellbeing. We do this by using clever marketing techniques to get kids enjoying healthy food at set mealtimes, without them being rewarded with unhealthy food. Their reward should be praise. You can’t get fat on praise. And praise is great for their self-esteem so they also grow up feeling good about themselves.
One way you can teach your child to delay gratification is to instruct them to eat their vegetables first. Tell them ‘Eat the food you like the least first, and then eat your favourite food next’. If they don’t listen to you, rather than nagging you can make it into a dare or a fun challenge for them. For example, if my daughter has nearly finished her meal and there are still vegetables on her plate I’ll jokingly say ‘Broccoli must be your favourite food as it’s still on your plate!’ My daughter will let out a horrified ‘No way’, then she’ll stuff the last of the broccoli in her mouth to prove me wrong. Then we laugh about how mistaken I was.
It’s okay that kids don’t love the taste of vegetables and you can use this fact to teach them how to delay gratification. Other ways to teach delaying gratification include getting them to make their bed before breakfast or cleaning up their room before they get their pocket money. As you can see, you also win as you get a cleaner house and a child who eats the food you prepare for them.
Key points to remember
Don’t try to scare your child with ugly words such as pimples, cancer and obesity. Fear is not the best motivator and it may eventually create an excessively fearful child. It may also leave them feeling depressed or hopeless.
There are plenty of academically advanced people in the world who do nothing with their lives and they are the ones who should be on medications (for inertia). A disadvantaged child who overcomes their learning issues is the true champion – and they should be praised, given accolades and have books written about them.
Don’t associate healthy food with punishment.
You don’t need to ban your child from watching television but you can limit their viewing hours if you are concerned.
Don’t preach about the virtues of vegetables and
then never be seen enjoying them yourself. Kids become brats when they see their parents breaking their own rules.
Tell your child WHEN ‘sometimes’ is.
Don’t force your child to overeat and then reward them with dessert.
Don’t keep your child quiet with extra snacks or drinks as this leads to overeating and emotional eating.
Don’t give in to your own short-term gratification by using quick fixes to keep your child quiet, happy or agreeable. Food is not an honourable babysitter and it is not love or comfort. Food supplies fuel and building materials for the body. Nothing more and nothing less.
Recipe image (at top of page): Sweet Potato Flatbread topped with Chicken Caesar Salad from The Healthy Skin Kitchen.