“Information doesn’t change behavior,” was something an old boss of mine told me in my early days as a dietitian. I refused to believe it at the time but I now understand what she was talking about. Providing nutrition education to people doesn’t always result in healthier eating habits. If only it were that easy.
Yet this is what many recommend when it comes to improving eating habits in kids. What most people don’t realize is that when issued inappropriately, nutrition education can make kids less interested in healthy eating. But when it matching kids’ development and interest, it can be very powerful.
Here are 5 mistakes parents often make when it comes to educating little minds about food and health:
1. Too much too soon: I understand how passionate parents can be about nutrition and good health but this can lead to complicated nutrition information before children are ready (using terms like saturated fat, high fructose corn syrup and pesticides). What most parents don’t realize is not only do children’s developing minds not understand complex topics, they can grossly misinterpret them.
“Children who find learning fun in kindergarten will be successful later in school, ” an ex-teacher told me as she was complaining about schools’ focus on “early achievement.” The same goes for nutrition — forget the complicated stuff adults don’t even understand and make it fun for kids. In fact, kids learn best when they get involved such as picking out food at the store, helping in the kitchen and putting together colorful plates.
2. Underrating habit building: I have found that parents tend to underrate the learning that occurs with everyday food experiences. Think about it, you can learn all the benefits of something and may even try it for a while (and feel great!) but then you get sucked in by your old habits because it’s what you know.
The food habits children are building are by far the most important education they get! Enhance these daily interactions with little tidbits of information. Does your child ask for the same food they had yesterday? Let them know we don’t eat the same things every day (message: we eat a variety of food). Does your child want to eat when he is bored? Let him know snack time is in an hour away so let’s do something else (message: we don’t eat when bored).
3. Instilling a fear of food: Jill Castle, pediatric nutrition expert explains why making food the bad guy isn’t the way to go. When we label foods as “bad” or “ban” them we bring more attention to them — and fail to teach kids how to eat them.
Instead, focus on frequency. Your child wants another treat when they already had ice cream earlier? Let her know you already had something sweet today so let’s skip it and have it another time. This is teaching them that you have these foods less often but they are still enjoyable — and they will get them again.
[I know a growing number of parents are raising kids on no processed foods and avoiding food dyes and preservatives. This can be tricky as most young kids (under 6) will recite the dangers of such items without truly understanding their meaning. School-age kids, who are concrete thinkers, may take this danger too literally, driving undo fear in eating a piece of food. A more moderate approach may be best, discussing the importance of “real food” without instilling fear that creates conflict with eating.]
4. Informing of future health risks: Most kids simply are not able to comprehend future risks to their health. So telling them they need to worry about diabetes or heart disease, because it runs in the family, goes in one ear and out the other.
Instead, help children see the connection between eating and meaningful activities. Kids that play soccer will have more energy to run if they eat a balanced meal before game time (I know you want chips but in order to have energy for your game, a sandwich with some fruit is better). If they ate too much cake and feel bad, remind them how too much of certain foods can make us feel (I love cake too but too much of it can cause a stomach ache. I’m sure you’ll keep that in mind next time!).
5. Focusing on portion control instead of self-regulation: Children are born with the ability to self regulate their food intake. What does that mean? To test self-regulation, researchers would give a preload of food and see if kids adjust their intake at the next meal. A 2009 study in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that kids with poor regulation at 3-5 years not only gained weight the fastest but had the highest BMIs over a 9 year period.
What is the key to preserving self-regulation? Trust and teaching. Trust your child when they say they are still hungry or full but teach them how to rely on their tummy in the modern world. Keep them on track by offering regular meals and snacks (at the table) in age-appropriate portion sizes but allow them to decide if they want to eat less or more.
The goal of nutrition education is to provide just enough information in developmentally appropriate ways until a child is ready to be on their own. Too much, you risk misinterpretation and eventual burnout. Too little, and you have missed opportunities to build positive connections to nutritious foods and physical activity.
In Fearless Feeding, we’ll go through each stage of development and recommend specific messages and strategies to maximize learning.
Let’s talk education. What confuses you most about teaching nutrition to your children? What would help you do a better job?
Francis LA, Susman EJ. Self-regulation and rapid weight gain in children from age 3 to 12 years. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163(4):297-302.