There are a few key rules about raising children around food that will vastly improve your children’s health and wellbeing for a lifetime. These rules are simple, effective and based upon common sense. But I have found in my life that common sense can be anything but common. The reason for this is that people too seldom think about what they are doing, and in this case, how it affects their children.
1. Keep your refrigerator and pantry stocked with healthy food choices. Junk food that should not be a part of your child’s daily diet should never be kept in stock at home. This includes such things as sodas and other sugary drinks, heavily sugared breakfast cereals, candy bars, potato chips, and a host of over items too numerous to mention. Snacking options should include fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grain products. A healthy after school snack might be an apple or celery with peanut butter or hummus instead of a candy bar or potato chips. This is not meant to say that you cannot have pie a la mode on Thanksgiving, but only that this should not be a daily occurrence.
2. Never force your child to clean his or her plate. I can tell you from my own childhood that this was a major source of lifelong food anxiety. Even at age sixty, I still have trouble pushing back from a plate with food remaining. Rather, instruct your child to eat until they are full, and then stop. This will teach them self-regulation which is critical to proper appetite management. Do not worry that your child ate the chicken but left the broccoli. Forcing them to eat the untouched broccoli will only force your child to overeat and cause a serious food anxiety in the process. And here you do not need to worry about your child getting a balanced diet. Studies have shown that children will eat a balanced diet over the course of a week or so without any parental intervention.
3. Avoid fast food restaurants entirely. These places are the poster children of poor nutrition. The food served there is chemically engineered to be addictive. It is dense in salt, sugar, fat, cholesterol, and calories while being essentially devoid of nutritional value. If fast food is the only option available, I will seek out a Subway for an all veggie sandwich on whole grain bread.
4. Never under any circumstances use food as a reward or punishment. This has to be the worst food related mistake that a parent can make. Food is first of all nutrition, and is essential to human life. It is also a source of pleasure, but that does not mean that it should be used as a reward. Using food as a reward creates a food anxiety that can have lifelong effects. Adults, when they are hurting, have been taught to seek relief in “comfort foods.” When they are happy or successful they have been taught to celebrate by bingeing. Both of these states are based in food anxieties and not in nutritional needs. Using food as punishment is likely to be even more destructive. I cannot imagine a parent saying to a child, “Clean your room or we will not take you to see the dentist.” So why would a parent say, “Clean your room or no supper for you tonight!” The withholding of food for disciplinary reasons is child abuse pure and simple.