Everything I have ever said about teaching kids to eat right boils down to one concept: conscious parenting.

I’m not talking about just being awake; most parents attain that level of consciousness!  I’m talking about being really aware of the lessons you are teaching your kids about food and eating.

In many cases, the intended lesson is NOT the lesson being learned.

The gap between the lesson you think you are teaching, and the lesson your kids are actually learning is where most problem-eating patterns are born.

It’s in this gap that eating problems are nurtured.  It’s where they blossom.

For instance, parents think “two more bites” teaches kids the value of vegetables, but that’s not what kids learn.  Kids learn some (or all) the following:

  • I have to eat veggies even if I don’t want them. This makes me dislike them even more.
  • Mommy knows better than I do how much I should eat. I should always look to others for clues about portion size.
  • Dessert is usually eaten on a full stomach. Feeling full isn’t a sign to stop eating; it’s when the good times roll!
  • How much I eat is open to negotiation.

Read Raising Lawyers.

Your lessons are probably missing the mark if your kids’ eating “issues” don’t seem to improve—no matter what you do.

Think about it this way: if you know the dinner dance, your kids do too.  They dawdle/you pressure/they ask how many more bites/you say three/they say two…

When lessons hit home, behaviors change.

I recently wrote about the problem of kids not eating their dinner.

Read The Dinner Dance: When Is Enough Enough? 

Here are 10 ways you may be unintentionally teaching your kids NOT to eat dinner.  You…

1) Let your child go at a yummy snack or appetizer (cheese and crackers, hummus and chips) just before dinner.  Lesson Learned: Dinner isn’t really important; I fill up whenever I eat; Snacks are tastier than meals.

2) Serve a delicious dessert that your child knows is coming (because you keep telling her she has to eat a few more bites of dinner if she wants some), and which she thinks is worth holding out for.  Lesson Learned: Dinner is a chore but desserts rock; Mom and Dad think desserts are tastier than “real” food too; I know exactly how much I have to eat before I’m allowed to get to the good stuff.

3) Serve lots of milk with dinner, especially when your child is thirsty. Lesson Learned: My parents like it when I drink milk; I can fill up on anything I want.

4) Prepare your child’s favorite dinner when he dawdles so long eating the dinner you originally prepared that you want to tear your hair out (or get on with your evening). Lesson Learned: I can hold out longer than my parents; If I make my parents really miserable they give me what I want.

5) Reward your child’s refusal to even taste what you’ve cooked by whipping up something you know he prefers.  (This technique works best if you have a bit of a fight with your child before giving in.) Lesson Learned: When I’m stubborn I get my way; Sometimes it takes a good fight to get the “good” food, but it’s worth it.

6) Give in to your child’s request for an after-dinner snack (even though last night you swore you would never do that again) because you’re afraid she’ll get hungry sometime during the night. Lesson Learned: Why eat dinner? There’s always something better later; Saying “I’m hungry” is a great procrastination technique; My parents fear my hunger, maybe I should too.

7) Put so much pressure on your child to eat that it’s a point of honor for him to resist.  Lesson Learned: Eating is a power struggle and I usually win.

8) Teach your child the mindset that he has to eat a certain number of bites (instead of listen to his hunger/satiation signals). Then spend the rest of the meal continually negotiating down the number of bites you tell your child he has to eat before being excused from the table.  Before long, the number of bites will approach zero.  Lesson Learned: My parents think they know better than me how much I should eat; My parents don’t really mean what they say; If I hold out, I get my way—eventually.

9) Tell your child he should eat something because it’s healthy, because he wants to grow up big and strong, because his big brother eats it.  Lesson Learned: I know I don’t want to eat that food because my parents have taught me that healthy food tastes bad (see Lesson #2).

10) Insist your child sit at the table when there’s something really, really exciting happening in the next room. Lesson Learned: The quicker I can convince my parents that I’m not hungry the sooner I can get back to the fun.

Used occasionally, each and every one of these tactics has a place in the parental arsenal.

Unfortunately, used consistently, or in conjunction with each other, these tactics spell disaster.  Need some ideas on how to get your kids to eat dinner?  Read When Playing is More Fun Than Eating.

Remember, it’s not what you feed—it’s what you teach—that matters.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~