Here’s a healthy eating tip to get you and your toddlers through the holidays:

Teach your kids to problem solve.  And while you’re at it, teach them to plan ahead, self-soothe and delay gratification too.

I know it sounds far-fetched, but studies show these skills are related to healthy eating because they lead to what researchers call “effortful control.”  That’s a mouthful, right?

Effortful control: the ability to thoughtfully process information, to systematically make decisions and to regulate impulse and emotion.  Sounds like your toddler.  No?

Actually, toddlers are hard-wired—literally—to be impulsive.  They want what they want NOW. I’m sure you won’t be surprised that research shows that impulsivity doesn’t lead to healthy eating.  Rather, it leads to snack and junk-food consumption.

Now you understand why toddlers—and maybe even spouses— want to eat the way they do! But you can teach them—kids, maybe not spouses— to do better.

Teaching your kids to do better might just save your sanity. OK, since Thanksgiving is only a few weeks away it might be a tall order for this year. But teach your kids these skills and next year will definitely go a lot smoother. (It’s good to have a goal!)

Impulsivity and reasoning come from two different places in the brain.

Although children develop their reactive impulse during infancy, their ability to reason starts to develop during the preschool years.  That’s why 4 year olds make so much more sense than 3 year olds.

But—and here’s a big but—researchers have discovered that you can help children develop their reasoning and self-regulation skills as early as age 3.

Why bother?

  • One study recently found that children with poor delay of gratification at age 4 had an increased risk of becoming overweight by the time they were 11.
  • Another study found that children with lower self-regulation skills gained weight more rapidly between 3-11 than children who had better regulatory skills.

In other words, the more self-control your young children exhibit, the better off they’ll be in later years. Read Marshmallows Make You Smart!

The more you transfer decision-making to your children, the more ably they’ll make decisions, and the better they’ll eat.

Toddlers aren’t known for patience, thinking ahead, planning for the future.  But it’s only through the exercise of having to consider future consequences that children learn to delay gratification and to be forward thinkers.

Consider this: The next time your children demand cookies and it’s the day before a big party, instead of telling them “no” explain your rationale.  Then, start giving your children choices between getting that goodie now and indulging in a (potentially better) treat later.  This will teach your kids how to plan ahead and the benefits of delayed gratification.

You can teach your kids other important skills too.  Think like a researcher! Start giving your children plenty of opportunities for problem solving, and exposure to tasks with increasingly complex rules. (Consider asking your children to sort cards based on color, then to sort them based on color and shape, etc.) In other words, you don’t have to dumb everything down. On the contrary, expect your kids to rise to the occasion. They will—especially with practice.

Believe it or not, these skills will translate into better eating because they teach your kids better self-regulation.

The holidays are a perfect time to start teaching your kids skills like self-control and delayed gratification.

You know there will be plenty of opportunities! You might as well use them to your advantage.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~



Isasi, C. R. and T. A. Wills. 2011. “Behavioral Self-Regulation and Weight-Related Behaviors in Inner-City Adolescents: a Model of Direct and Indirect Effects.” Childhood Obesity 7(4): 306-15.

Dowsett, S. M. and D. J. Livesey. 2000. “The Development of Inhibitory Control in Preschool Children: Effects of “Executive Skills” Training.” Developmental Psychobiology 36: 161-74.

Riggs, N. R., M. T. Greenberg, C. A. Kusche, and M. A. Pentz. 2006. “The Mediational Role of Neurocognition in the Behavioral Outcomes of a Social-Emotional Prevention Program in Elementary School Students: Effects of the Paths Curriculum.” Prevention Science 7(1): 91-102.