Imagine you’re at a lunchtime event with your toddler. The menu: bagels with three flavors of cream cheese, cookies, and cupcakes.  What do you do?

Here’s what the dad standing next to me did: “Son, you have to eat your bagel before you can have that cupcake.”

I hate it when there are no good options.  Even though bread is basically my favorite food group—Read Manna from Heaven—bagels are not up there on the nutrition index.

That’s why I’m always surprised when parents make their toddlers eat a bagel before they eat a cookie.  As if the bagel were a salad.

In this situation, the only thing you can do is abandon any notion of nutrition.  Instead:

  • Tell your kids that the hosts decided to put out treats for lunch.  (In other words, tell  your kids the truth.)
  • Let your kids eat whichever items they want (since they’re all nutritional losers).
  • Take the hunger “edge” off, and then go get a real lunch.
  • Limit goodies for the remainder of the day, since your kids will have already eaten their treats.

Most parents will probably think this is a radical strategy, but I think it’s time for these habits to come “out of the closet.”

Teaching kids that a bagel with cream cheese is the healthy part of the meal is like teaching them the world is flat.

I didn’t do a nutritional analysis of the cookies and cupcakes that were served that day.  But, compared to a typical bagel with cream cheese (which has about 480 calories and 20 grams of fat), one slice of Entenmann’s Chocolate Fudge Cake is a bargain: it has 200 fewer calories, and about half the fat.  The cake even has the same amount of fiber!

True, the chocolate cake has less protein and more sugar than the bagel and cream cheese, but it has roughly the same amount of protein and more calcium than the cream cheese. (Maybe your kids should eat the cake on the bagel!)

If you’re brave enough to face the truth about bagels, read La Crème de la Crème

When there are no good food choices, the most important thing you can teach your kids is HOW MUCH to eat.  

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that parents are more focused on teaching kids what to eat than they are on teaching kids when, why and how much to eat.    This strategy works OK when there are healthy foods on the menu.  “Eat these peas; they’re good for you.”

But when there are no good foods on the menu, instead of searching around for the “best” food option—and then erroneously labeling whatever you’ve found as healthy—try shifting gears.

Here are the things your kids should consider:

  • How hungry are they?
  • How much junk have they had lately?
  • Are they likely to want sweets and treats later in the day?
  • Is there are particularly tempting treat they haven’t tasted before?

How your kids answer these questions will help you (and them) determine how much they should eat: 1 cookie?  1 cookie and ½ a bagel? 1 cookie, ½ a bagel, ½ a cupcake?

Children need to know how to manage bad choices.  The world is full of situations where there are no nutritional winners.

Think pancakes, muffins or bagels.  Grilled cheese, chicken nuggets, French fries.  How your kids manage these moments will dictate how well they eat—both now, and forever.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~