There’s no consensus on how to raise a healthy eater. Some experts suggest masking vegetables by adding them to smoothies and muffins. Others recommend positive reinforcement, a.k.a bribery. Some parents simply follow the child’s lead, preferring to not to wage war over broccoli when they have more worthwhile battles to be fought. Most do agree, however, that giving kids a sense of control and choice is essential—within reason. The goal? Finding the sweet spot between overly controlling or overly permissive.
Dina Rose, author of “It’s Not About the Broccoli,” suggests three critical habits – “proportion, variety and moderation” – to shift the focus from a strategy of coercement to a strategy that helps kids find a more intrinsic source of motivation. The habits are “about understanding and adapting to children’s natural aversion to strangeness and how tastes develop for foods initially disliked.”
Give kids a small taste of new food. Rose puts the stress on small, as larger portions can overwhelm children and cause them to dig in their heels. Her advice: Ask them to taste a pea-sized sample and describe what they’ve tasted instead. She also advised giving kids an out—a spit out, to be exact. The idea of having to swallow, she says, makes the whole proposition riskier. Letting kids spit out the food means at least they have tasted a new food, which sometimes is more than half the battle. Spitting, in her book, is not a sign of failure. It’s a triumph of exposure.
Another aspect of proportion is the ratio of healthy to unhealthy foods one eats on a daily basis. It’s one of nutrition’s key lessons, and teaches kids to see the big picture of eating, not just the perspective of a single snack-sized serving. Rose, whose pithy advice gets straight to the point, says, “Talk to them about proportion and how to integrate inferior foods into their diets in a way that works. It’s only by talking about sweets in context of the overall diet that kids can learn to manage their eating—for life.”
The rotation rule boils down to this: Don’t serve the identical food two days in a row. (Or for that matter, twice in a day.) The rotation rule allows kids to an element of choice, as well as the reassurance that their favorite food isn’t gone forever. You get to set the choices, but your kid is allowed to claim the specifics. On her website, itsnotaboutnutrition.squarespace.com, Rose demonstrates the rotation rule in action:
“Would you like waffles or eggs?”
“You had toast yesterday. You can have toast again tomorrow but today you have to have something different. Would you like waffles or eggs?”
The next day…
“Yesterday you said you wanted toast, and I said you could have it tomorrow. Well, now it’s tomorrow. Do you still want toast? Or would you like yogurt?”
Rotating foods allows you to deliberately cycle through different tastes and textures. By having a consistent game plan, it helps nip the constant negotiation around food in the bud. Not eating the same thing every day helps kids free themselves from entrenched patterns of eating—and encourages them to be more open to a range of foods.
This is the golden rule: Eat only when we are hungry and stop when we are full. However, if you are at all like me, you can’t help encouraging your child to take a few more bites of this or that. Rose calls this the “two bite tango” and attributes it to the disconnect between how much young children need to eat and how much we parents want them to eat. Her bottom line is once you establish good habits, to trust your child enough to believe them when they tell you they are full. The most important issue at stake is allowing children to respond to their internal signals of hunger and fullness—not having them clear their plates in order to earn a dessert.
Every meal and snack is an opportunity to teach our children something about proportion, variety and moderation. If we don’t want children who think of vegetables as a punishment and sweets as a way to soothe the soul, we need to be very careful about the lesson implicit in every lollipop.