The blank stare. I get it a lot when I tell parents that they have to back off the pressure if they want their kids to try new foods.
Without a little friendly encouragement, these parents’ eyes seem to say, their kids would never venture beyond bland, tan, “child-friendly” foods (chicken nuggets, pasta, bagels…you know the ones I mean). And green would never be a color that would grace their kids’ plates.
These parents mistakenly believe that I’m suggesting they back off entirely. That less pressure means no guidance. That I believe in letting the inmates run the asylum. But that would be nuts.
Research shows that it’s not just pressure that creates a problem. The lax approach doesn’t work either. Read The Pressure-Cooker Problem and What do you want for dinner?
The key to teaching healthy eating habits is to establish a clear set of boundaries and expectations while remaining empathic and respectful of your children’s opinions.
In other words, you have to be firm but flexible. Your kids have to know the ground rules, but they also have to feel like they have some say.
Think of this parenting style as The Goldilocks Approach (not too hot, not too cold …). Researchers call it Authoritative. (This sounds a little dictatorial to me. But the dictatorial style is called Authoritarian, a parenting style heavy on discipline and control, light on regard and respect—or as I like to call it, the “My-Way-or-The-Highway Approach.”)
Authoritative parents are successful because they are able to navigate the tension between pressure and leniency to create a supportive structure.
Specifically authoritative parents:
1) Cultivate self-control and responsibility in their children through supervision, rules, structure and discipline.
2) Foster their children’s individuality and self-assertion by being attuned and supportive of their kids’ needs and demands.
Many people I know successfully integrate authority and compassion in other areas of parenting, but vacillate between the two extremes when it comes to food.
The most effective way I know to create a supportive structure for eating is to set guidelines around how foods are chosen, and then let your kids participate in many of the choices.
Here’s the structure to teach your kids:
- Eat fresh, natural foods more often than processed foods (proportion).
- Don’t eat the same foods two days in a row for any meal or snack (variety).
- Only eat when you’re hungry and stop eating when you’re full… even if your parents think you should eat more (moderation).
Read House Building 101, How Big is That Bag? Eating in the Age of Portion Distortion and The 2-More-Bites Tango: How YOU Can Take the Lead.
Here’s how to give your kids choices:
- Whenever you can, let your children decide what to eat by giving them two choices you have preselected. Read Feng Shui for Food and Marshmallows Make You Smart.
- Let your kids use a mealtime backup. Read How Cottage Cheese Changed My Life.
- Allow your kids to decide when they eat their treats. Read It Doesn’t Matter WHEN Your Kids Eat Their Crap and Candy with Breakfast?
~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~
Berge, J. M., M. Wall, D. Neumark-Sztainer, N. Larson, and M. Story. 2010. “Parenting Style and Family Meals: Cross-Sectional and 5-Year Longitudinal Associations.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 110(7): 1036-42.