I know it sounds crazy to use ice cream — the poster child for high fat, high sugar, high calorie junk — to teach healthy eating habits, but you can.

In fact, it’s ice cream’s sinful status that makes it the perfect vehicle for teaching kids about eating.  That, plus the little fact that everyone loves it.

You might not think it, but ice cream can help kids learn about portion size, new foods, peer pressure, self-control and a host of other eating skills.

The most important lesson you can teach with ice cream is about portion size.

Lots of research points to the importance of portion size as the key to stemming the obesity-tide, and there’s no food I can think of which exemplifies the problem of portion distortion more than ice cream.

Have you noticed how large the servings have gotten lately?  I’m not talking about dishes such as the outrageously huge Vermonster from Ben & Jerry’s which has an unbelievable 20 scoops of ice cream. I’m talking about normal ice cream servings.

  • One small scoop of Coldstone Creamery’s chocolate ice cream has 320 calories. That’s more than a 1/4 of the 1200 calories a typical 5 year old needs to consume in a day.

But that’s nothing compared to Coldstone’s shakes.

  • One small Coldstone Creamery Milk and Cookies shake (Live It size) has 1090 calories. Think of that as 90% of a 5 year old’s daily caloric consumption.

The good news is that people easily develop habits around portion size, so you can use that to your advantage: Mimic the 100-calorie snack packs and present your kids with appropriate-sized portions.

  • One McDonald’s Kiddie Cone has only 45 calories. (That’s the first time I’ve ever written anything good about McDonald’s!)

Read How Big is that Bag? Eating in the Age of Portion Distortion.

You can also use ice cream to teach your children to try new foods.

I recently wrote about using yogurt to introduce new foods (Read The Magic of Yogurt), and the principle is the same with ice cream: because kids already like it, and because it can be modified in an infinite number of ways, you can help kids expand their palate by mixing up the kinds of scoops they’re served.

You don’t have to go so far as to insist your child try this lovely Spaghetti & Cheese ice cream (isn’t it appetizing?), and you don’t have to sell your kids on the lobster ice cream (made with chunks of real lobster) sold on Martha’s Vineyard. You can help your children explore the world of new flavors by introducing strawberry to a chocolate-lover.  Or mixing in chocolate chips to help a kid who gravitates towards smooth-textured foods to accept meatier mouth-feels.

You can also use ice cream to teach your kids about proportion, self-control, peer pressure and a host of other eating habits.

To tell you the truth, these other habits are the hardest to teach, but they shouldn’t be overlooked. For instance, research shows that children who learn self-control early in life, succeed in ways that are pretty wonderful: they can cope with adversity and stress, they have high levels of concentration, and they develop trustworthiness.  They even do better on their SATs. Read Marshmallows Make You Smart!

And while it’s tough for kids to be different, letting your kids have ice cream every time their friends get it — it’s only fair, many parents rationalize — teaches children a pretty lousy lesson.  On the other hand, learning to be different can be pretty powerful. Read The Perils of Other Parents.

Every time we feed our kids we’re teaching them something about eating…

…we might as well teach the right lessons.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~