This post was written by sociologist Dina Rose, PhD, author of It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (Perigee).
Want to teach your kids good eating habits? Here’s my suggestion: Don’t obsess about getting more fruits and vegetables into them.
My advice might sound unconventional, but I’m not crazy. Here’s why: Training your kids to like fruits and vegetables — so they eat their greens, without, say, turning green! — is a whole-diet kind of thing.
Listening to the experts, you might be led to believe that whether your kids willingly eat asparagus is mostly a reflection of how asparagus tastes. That’s only partially correct.
Whether your kids like asparagus (as well as apples, broccoli, bananas, etc.) is less a function of how those foods taste than it is a function of how those foods taste in comparison to everything else your kids eat.
You know what I mean. Chicken nuggets, French fries, pizza, hot dogs, Goldfish crackers, and all the other child-friendly foods kids regularly consume, which taste really sweet. Or really salty. And what they don’t taste anything like is fruits and vegetables.
- 70% of child-friendly foods have too much sugar
- 23% have too much fat
- 17% have too much salt.
It doesn’t take long for children whose diets are filled with sugar, salt, and fat to develop what researchers call a pervasive palate preference for these intensely flavored foods.
In other words, the more child-friendly foods your kids eat, the more child-friendly foods your kids crave.
One solution to the fruit and vegetable “problem” is to stop thinking about individual foods and to start thinking about proportion.
Proportion, the principle that we eat healthy foods more frequently than everything else, boils down to one idea: it doesn’t matter what your kids eat. What matters is how often they eat it.
Proportion is easy to teach and easy to implement. All you have to do is divide everything your kids eat into three categories:
- Growing Foods. Foods that you know are fresh and healthy, such as apples, asparagus, and chicken. Eat these foods most frequently.
- Fun Foods. Foods that are sort of healthy, but you wouldn’t call them junky, such as pretzels, sweetened yogurts, and chicken nuggets. Eat these foods less frequently.
- Treat Foods. Foods that you know are junk, such as cookies, french fries, ice cream, deep-fried mozzarella sticks, and cake. Eat these foods least frequently.
Now, slowly start shifting your kids’ diets so they include more Growing Foods and fewer Fun Foods. It’s that simple.
Don’t try to eliminate sweets and treats though, because there’s room in your kids’ diets for everything. Actually, that’s the best thing about this sorting system: it tells you (and your kids) what to do about everything: not just carrots, cantaloupe and chicken, but granola bars, candy and cupcakes too. In this way, proportion is an effective strategy for living in the real world. And let’s face it, the real world is full of treats. If you don’t teach your kids how to put Treat Foods into their diets in the right proportions now, you’ll send your kids out into the world without an essential skill.
Are you wondering how to distinguish between Growing Foods and Fun Foods? Don’t worry about analyzing nutrition labels. Just go with what you already know. What’s most healthy? Kind of healthy? Not really healthy? And when you’re tempted to defend your favorites — cheese or sweetened yogurt, for example — start thinking about habits instead of nutrition.
Growing foods point your kids’ taste buds in the direction of other Growing Foods. Fun Foods point your kids’ taste buds towards Treats.
Give your kids Growing Foods, not just because they’re more nutritious (that’s the added bonus) but because you want your kids to like how Growing Foods taste.
And that’s the secret to increasing your kids’ consumption of fruits and vegetables!
Dina Rose, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert. She is the author of It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (Perigee). Dina’s work has been featured on TV, radio, and in both print and online news sources such as: Fox News Boston, NBC Connecticut News, Martha Stewart Radio, HuffPost Live, Good Parenting Radio, Babble, The Globe & Mail, Mamapedia, Parenting Magazine, and Spirituality & Health. In addition to writing her blog, It’s Not About Nutrition, Dina also writes for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today.