If you want to change how your kids eat you have to change their habits.

That sounds like the most obvious statement in history. But it’s surprising how little we talk about habits—automatic, repetitive behavior that bypasses intention—when we talk about how kids eat.

It’s pointless to reason with your kids about eating because they’re not operating from their reasonable brain. They’re operating from their emotions.

  • That’s why, “Spinach is good for you.” fails.
  • As does, “I know you’ll like this, if you’ll only taste it. Come on, just taste it.”

There are three habits that translate nutrition into behavior: Proportion, Variety, Moderation.

But there are lots of habits that happen in the feeding dynamic.

Kids are on autopilot when it comes to eating. They interact with you around food by habit. What your child says may reflect her habit more than her hunger.

That’s how they can say they don’t like something before they’ve even sat down at the table.

Or whine for food…but then not really touch it. Even when kids do eat the snack they’ve whined to get, it doesn’t mean they’re hungry. Young kids eat (and whine) out of habit.

When behavior is habitual: 1) people require little information to make decisions 2) intentions are poor predictors of behavior, and 3) behavior is triggered by situational cues.

Habits become stronger when the behavior is repeatedly reinforced by satisfactory experiences.

In other words, if you want to know why your kids continue to do something…even if it always produces a fight…look for what satisfies. The fight is just the “cost.” The “win” is the gain.

The win could be something as simple as not having to eat something. It could be getting you off their backs by taking the tiniest taste (that they don’t even really taste). The win could be attention.

The way to establish new habits is to interrupt the old habits.

Almost every strategy I recommend starts with a way to break the old habit.

  • Serving tiny portions stops the back-and-forth about how much your kids need to eat.
  • Being clear that you won’t make your kids eat anything they don’t want to eat–and focusing on tasting instead–disrupts the pattern of rejection.
  • Scheduling meals and snacks gives parents a way to respond to the begging/whining.
  • The Rotation Rule stops the habit of choosing the same breakfast every day.
  • etc

Strong habits are less responsive to relevant information than weak habits.

In other words, the more entrenched your kids are, the less talking to them about why they should change really works. Behave in a changing way instead.

Ever wondered why kids sometimes say they’ll try a new food later, but then they don’t?

Intentions predict behavior for people with weak habits, but not for people with strong habits.

Habits are cued by physical environment (the kitchen or the dining room) but also by social or psychological environments (such as specific moods) too.

Think of this as the popcorn in the movie theater—or snacks in the car…or even the snack before bedtime—phenomenon.

Keep habits in mind. Then foster the ones you want and disrupt the ones you don’t want. 

Habits are created by repetition—how you act, how your child acts—in a stable context. This fosters the development of automaticity.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits~

Source: van’t Riet, J., S. J. Sijtsema, H. Dagevos, and G.-J. De Bruijn. 2011. “The Importance of Habits in Eating Behavior. an Overview and Recommendations for Future Research.” Appetite 57: 585-96.