My kids are like most kids: They eat a lot of pizza and chicken nuggets. But unlike most parents, I’ve studied eating behaviors for nearly 20 years. That means I exert a fair amount of mental energy worrying that I’m feeding them all wrong. Still, there are some food-related parenting habits I know to avoid because I’ve spent too much time with the research on this topic. Here are five of them:
1. You say one thing and do another.
One of the best things we can do as parents is set good examples when it comes to food. “Do as I say, not as I do” is rarely an approach that works. As parents, we have the incredible challenge of trying to carve out a healthy eating environment in an otherwise obesogenic society. We want to make eating fruits and vegetables appear to be the norm. We want to make sipping juice, soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages seem strange. We want to offer food portions that are reasonable, rather than similar to the sizes offered in most restaurants.
2. You force it.
In a perfect world, my children would eat fruit at every meal. They’d love Brussels sprouts and they wouldn’t have inherited my sweet tooth. In other words, they’d eat balanced, nutritious food for every meal. And while I could try my darnedest to force them to do just that, decades of research suggests that forcing or bribing kids to eat certain foods only devalues those foods.
So what do you do when your kids don’t want to eat anything green? Model salad consumption and encourage them to try a bite repeatedly, since research suggests that liking something often requires it to be tasted over and over. Then, let it rest.
3. You instill too many rules.
No snacking, no dessert, no soda – you may have grown up with plenty of “food rules” that you’re tempted to implement in your household. But you know what they say about rules? They are meant to be broken.
My kids are notoriously hungry at 5 p.m., right as I begin to make dinner. If they can’t wait, I suggest a banana, string cheese or edamame. I know that when they take the banana, they are really hungry. If they eat less dinner afterward, well, at least they ate a banana.
4. You fight about it.
Food is never just food. Often, parents may unintentionally find themselves fighting with their kids about food as a proxy for other fights they may want to have. For example, you may be irritated with your daughter because her room is never clean. But because you can’t seem to force her to get it under control and you can control how many sweets are in the house, you eliminate ice cream and fight about that instead. That proves, you justify to yourself, that you are the grown-up and you are the one in charge.
5. You make it a big deal.
Choosing what we feed our kids is arguably one of the most important roles we have as parents. But making food a big deal can backfire. For example, fixating on food sends some unhelpful messages, such as that food is “difficult,” it’s not enjoyable and it’s not about nutrition and health. It also tells kids that some food is “bad” and some is “good” – a sort of dichotomous thinking apt to contribute to overeating of the “bad.” Rigidity rarely works.