Is Michelle Obama inadvertently teaching her daughters to overeat?

That’s the question I raised in my Psychology Today post last week.

I was writing in response to a New York Times article, Obama Girls’ Role: Not to Speak, but to Be Spoken Of, in which it was reported that Mrs. Obama has quite a list of household rules including this one:

The girls have to eat their vegetables, and if they say that they are not hungry, they cannot ask for cookies or chips later.  “If you’re full, you’re full,” Mrs. Obama said in an interview with Ladies’ Home Journal. “I don’t want to see you in the kitchen after that.”

Let me be clear, I love Michelle Obama, and I’m not trying to criticize her parenting. Rather, I think she’s made the same kind of mistake lots of parents inadvertently make: Pitting vegetables against dessert and inadvertently teaching kids to overeat.

No one wants their kids “gaming” the system.

It’s infuriating that kids who are full when confronted with a pile of peas can be hungry when dessert rolls around, but I think there are at least 3 flaws in the strategy Mrs. Obama is using:

  1. Sometimes kids are genuinely full at the end of the meal and hungry a little while later. Kids shouldn’t be taught to overeat just to prevent this possibility.
  2. Kids shouldn’t be taught to be completely full before they get to dessert. Instead we should teach them to save room for dessert.
  3. If the only way kids can get out of eating the foods they don’t want to eat is to say they’re full, then we shouldn’t be surprised when they use the system they’ve been taught. However, the real danger isn’t that kids learn to lie to their parents about how hungry or full they are. The real danger is that, in time, kids end up lying to themselves.  Becoming disconnected from their own hunger/satiation cues puts kids at risk for a lifetime of overeating.

Read my full post.

Here are three more things I would tell Mrs. Obama, and anyone else who is interested.  If you’ve got a kid who is “gaming” the system…

  1. The way to get kids (especially young ones) to eat enough food at meals is to structure meals and snacks around eating “zones” so there are times for eating and times for not eating.  Then, be more flexible with snack times while kids are learning how much they need to eat if they’ve genuinely made a mistake (but never serve snacks on demand), and be less flexible when you think your kids are “playing” you. “Greenbeans? Yuk. I’m full.”
  2. Consider neutralizing dessert by serving it with the meal, or by allowing kids to eat their desserts and then to return to the main meal if they decide they’re still hungry.  Think portion size when thinking about dessert.  Also, consider making dessert useful. Read Dishing Up Dessert.
  3. Encourage vegetable consumption by making the vegetables worth eating (i.e. make them taste good, not bland and boring), and by serving vegetables more frequently (instead of saving them for dinner). Then, consider teaching your kids a technique I call One-One. Here’s how to do it.

There are habits more important than veggie-eating.

Here are 10 of them.

Don’t sacrifice how your kids eat in an effort to influence what they eat. It’s a strategy that won’t work in the longrun. And, that’s what we’re really after—a lifetime of healthy eating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~