On Halloween, my kids went trick or treating, came back to the house and ate until they were satisfied. Big A ate more than her brother, although he’s picky when it comes to candy. Two days later, my kids’ bags of Halloween candy sat on our couch untouched until I offered some of it for dessert the other night.
I’m not saying this to brag — my kids will devour candy like the next kid. But they aren’t fixated on it. They eat it and then they seem done. And the secret to this is surprisingly simple.
Attention — good or bad — is still attention
There’s a cultural phenomenon clearly showing that negative attention draws a great deal of interest. Remember the negative reviews Miley Cyrus’ got for her performance at the VMAs? Her record sales skyrocketed at that time. And after every one of those horrible shootings, the press gives the killers so much press time that internet searches for them go through the roof.
Now to something food related. What about when everyone was talking about how McDonald’s food wasn’t biodegradable. Not the most positive story but, still, EVERYONE was talking about McDonald’s. This may be negative attention, but as far as I know, McDonald’s is still doing a pretty good business.
Candy gets the same treatment. We hype it up, make it bad, tightly control it, or worse yet, have it around all the time and then use it as a reward. Candy is what it is, something to enjoy at certain times. The more attention we give to it, the more it’s fixated on.
What Motivates Us to Take Action: Negative or Positive?
A study written about in this New York Times Motherlode post caught my eye. Published in Psychological Science, researchers examined how classic moral stories impact honesty in children. Three to seven your olds were read stories such as “Pinocchio,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “George Washington and the Cherry Tree.” The latter story, which focuses on the positive effects of telling the truth, increased truth-telling in the children while the other ones that focused on the negative consequences of not telling the truth didn’t.
As a dietitian, I’ve seen it time and time again. Focusing on the ways eating well positively effects one’s life is much more motivating than making the choice simply as a means to avoid bad outcomes. Also, allowing people (kids especially) to become aware of the natural consequences of eating “out of balance” is much more powerful.
Hype what you want
We live in a society that is fixated on what is bad for us, giving free advertisement to the very thing we want to downplay. And this negative slant, while attention-grabbing, does little to motivate people to a healthy life.
So if you don’t want candy to be a big deal, don’t make it a big deal. If you want nutritious foods to be the star, serve them more often in tasty ways. Put the focus on what you want, not what you don’t want. It’s that easy.
Got a picky eater? Get the latest research and tips in my book From Picky to Powerful
I have to say I was shocked and uncomfortable with how much candy my girl ate on Halloween night. But I trusted the Ellyn Satter way of dealing with it and I have to say I’m really proud of the outcome. My girl has had her candy bucket sitting in her room since Halloween and hardly notices that it’s there. I’ve asked her a couple times if she wanted to pick out a candy to eat with dinner and while she was excited to do so and thought very carefully about her selection, she still never mentioned the candy again unless I brought it up. My girl has a big appetite and probably ate more candy then most kids do on Halloween night, but to see how it all played out gave me confidence that I’m on the right track. I feel like I’m slowly but surely becoming a fearless feeder!
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
Glad to hear it Marci. I think you will find it gets easier over time.
My 9 year old stepdaughter was allowed to have it the night of Halloween and then the next 2 weekends on Friday/Saturday and she ate most all of it. I still am thinking of how to handle Halloween candy next year. Let her trick or treat for 45 minutes max? 🙂 Unfortunately she grew up eating a lot of candy, junk food, and soda as a small child. She has been in my life since she was 6 and I have changed so much of her eating habits. But she still will always go first for the junky toes of food and it bothers me. Soda is special occasions only, when once was the daily norm. Processed things like canned cheese or Vienna wieners are not allowed. Each day her snacks consist of real fruits and veggies. Our meals also always have a fruit/veggie side. Water is her main drink. I do give her sweets still like every other weekend-a couple cookies or a candy bar. But I find the more she has the more she wants. This last week has been more trying because of the holidays we have had more treats around than normal. She has had cookies, fudge, and candy canes. And I have noticed she wants more and more. I tell her she is not allowed to ask for treats because if I wanted to give them, I would. And she is certainly not allowed to ask or take when at others homes. I always pack her snacks and water to take with her. I just wonder if she will ever be not so crazy about sweets. I have a 6 month old now and don’t even plan on giving her sweets/soda like ever so she won’t ever want or crave them. But what so I do about my 9 year old? :/
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD says
I write a lot about helping kids manage sweets because it is so important in our current food-centric environment. Getting the right balance for your family is important. Research shows being too permissive or restrictive is not good for children in terms of food regulation. All children, even those who are brought up on healthy food have a preference for sweet which declines with age. For more info, see my book Fearless Feeding which details not just what to feed but how and why children act the way they do around food. You are right not to give your 6 month old sweets the first two years but by age 3 or so, she will notice these foods and may start to fixate on them. I think its important that we teach our children how to eat all foods and that includes sweets. See these articles for more info:
Managing sweets series http://www.maryannjacobsen.com/category/managing-sweets-series/
How to teach moderation http://www.maryannjacobsen.com/2013/06/how-i-teach-my-kids-moderation-with-food/
The perils of restricting children http://www.maryannjacobsen.com/2014/04/got-a-food-obsessed-kid-research-warns-dont-restrict-them/
Thank you! 🙂