3 Ways to Get Kids to Eat Better

Strategies for talking to your children about a healthful diet while avoiding minefields like weight or looks.

Comments: 17

  1. Parents more than anyone else set the example for children when it comes to food. It doesn't matter what a parent says about how to eat if he or she reaches for the candy bar instead of something healthier or doesn't keep healthy food around and available. By the time a child is in his/her teens there have been hundreds of family meals, shared snacks, lectures, watched commercials, and opportunities to demonstrate what constitutes a healthy diet. While we cannot expect every child to love broccoli or spinach or bananas we can expect them to understand that overly sweet drinks do not satisfy one's thirst the way water can. We can keep them away from too much soda by not keeping soda in the house or showing them how to make their own soda with juice and seltzer. We can teach them portion control by not insisting that they clean their plates if they aren't hungry.

    Children don't need sports drinks. They don't need supersized sodas or popcorn or fries. They don't need candy as a reward. What they need are regular mealtimes, healthy snacks, an occasional sweet, and a nice variety of food. Another thing all children should learn is how to plan a healthy meal, cook it, shop for it, and serve it first with parental supervision and then on their own. There is nothing quite as satisfying as being able to feed oneself a good meal without the extra added salt and seasonings that are common in prepared foods which tend to overshadow the real taste.

  2. I agree but would add, kids don't need snacks! In my culture snacking between meals in considered not okay. When I grew up an apple at 4 pm (two hours before dinner) was okay but that was it. Here in the U.S. some parents behave as if children need to be given something to eat every two hours, or else...

  3. Amen, amen, amen.

  4. Yes. I'm always stunned by my friends and their need to pack a huge bag of snacks for a couple of hours at the park. Kids don't actually need food all the time, not if their meals are healthy. It's very odd.

  5. I wash, cut and put on the kitchen table every day after school/work a veggie. Sometimes a fruit. Even the most uninterested-in-vegetables of my three kids is more likely to eat this stuff if it's easy-access.

    This doesn't require me to be wealthy, a talented cook or home all day. I'm talking celery, cauliflower, cucumber, carrots, green beans, fennel and more.

    (Over the years, I have gotten pretty good at cutting produce fast. I can do an entire pineapple in two minutes. But it's not rocket science.)

  6. It's way more than substituting a pear for a "fun size" Snickers. One of those will not make you obese. Let's not get hysterical over the little things. What makes teenagers obese is having a breakfast of pop tarts and chocolate milk, a lunch at the local fast food place, a bag of Doritos after school chased down with another soda and a dinner of mac and cheese. Some of these things (like the lunch they buy on their own) we have no control over. But what is available for consumption at home is a parent's responsibility. That doesn't mean no treats but it does mean modeling good eating yourself. If you think microwave pizza plus soda is dinner and that french fries are a vegetable, you are the one with the problem.

  7. I think we are missing the basics here.

    With the level of physiology knowledge that we have today, there is no excuse for everyone not to know the basics of diet, digestion, and energy metabolics.

    One basic fact that kids should be taught first is that there is nothing wrong with an empty stomach, and the sensation they interpret as hunger does NOT mean that the body needs food to process as fuel. "Hunger" is felt when the stomach is empty and the serum glucose is in a low-normal state. Those basic signals are processed by every part of the brain before entering our consciousness.

    Even in kids, for every extra pound of fat they have they could go without food for two days and do just fine as long as they drink water. That's right, even in kids.

    Which explains obesity. Much of it is the "three-square-meal-a-day" mentality that is based on nothing.

    Picky eaters? If they are on their growth curve, do not worry about it. Psych issues can be at the root of it, but by far most picky eaters do just fine.

    Pediatricians should tell their kid patients and their parents that there is no need for morning meal to 1) support their glucose, or 2) get the metabolic machinery going for the day ahead.

    Pooch, who has by now downloaded a copy of Guyton's Textbook of Medical Physiology and read it, will even agree with me that hunger is NOT a basic immutable instinctual urge that MUST be satisfied IMMEDIATELY with a meal. It is a product of learned behavior and poor information.

  8. @steve:
    Same response as always: I've read physiology textbooks, we just disagree about what they mean. You might also consider that physiology is a huge field (including the physiology of hunger/satiety which you're ignoring), so no textbook is 100% comprehensive or accurate, plus scientific knowledge changes over time.

    Hunger is a basic physiologic drive, just like thirst or the need to breathe. I've never claimed that all hunger must be immediately satisfied with a meal, that's your imagination. But if you were thirsty, there is only so long that you could go without drinking water. If you needed to breathe deeply, there's only so long that you could go breathing shallow or holding your breath. Is your thirst or your need to breathe "learned behavior"? How about the need to sleep, could you just "un-learn" your need to sleep?

    I agree with the arbitrary nature of breakfast, and the value of fasting.

    Hunger is much more complex than simply filling the stomach or providing glucose. A couple simple thought experiments:

    -The stomach empties 2-4 hours after a meal, yet many of us have the experience of satiety for more than 2-4 hours after the meal. It's based on nutrient delivery to the cells/tissues.

    -What if you filled your stomach 3 meals a day with water and indigestible fiber. The stomach is full, but would you feel hungry or sated at the end of the day?

    -What if you diet contained abundant glucose, but no protein? Would you feel hungry or full?

  9. In my experience, it's hard to get teen boys to participate in meal planning. Even with meal planning in Cub scouts, they still were not too interested. Keep the faith: stress variety, balance and portion size - some of that will stick.

  10. I know kids are sensitive to peer influence and may toss unwanted sandwiches - but I've also seen kids in afterschool childcare say 'me ! me !' to 'who wants some julienned raw carrot or cucumber?'

    fresh raw vegetables - healthy and crunchy - much better than junk crackers and cheese I see in plastic-wrapped mini-parcels for multiple-dollars each

    Junk food companies should hang their heads in shame when they push junk food to small children.

  11. My 11 year old had slowly gained weight over the years and decided to start losing the extra lbs. this summer. We put him in a exercise program at the local ymca ( at his request) for teens that combined weight training with agility training. On his own he started watching how much he ate, just consuming less, drinking more water, less sweets. To date he lost 25 lbs and is 5'2 and 117 lbs. He looks great but more importantly his self esteem has improved dramatically. Another outcome is that he has become a fan of daily exercise and enjoys weight training and cardio. I think you have to own your weight loss/eating journey along with an element of parental support. We always tried to be there to give him ideas and provide support but it was up to him to do it. To those out there whose kids might not have strong will power, I recommend Kurbo.com which was developed for kids who need to lose weight but want to own their process. It was going to be my next step if he didn't do it on his own but as luck would have it we didn't need it.

  12. With our 12-year-old, our job was made much easier when he read the young readers version of Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan at his school. He became much more interested in label reading, looking for high fructose corn syrup and long ingredient lists, worried about factory farming and stopped wanting to go to McDonald's and other fast food places. Let's hope it lasts!

  13. There's not one word here about waking up the senses to the healthy pleasures of fresh, whole, authentic food. Nothing about savoring meals slowly, together and at the table. Nothing about teaching our kids to cook, even when they so clearly love watching cooking shows on TV. Americans have an adversarial relationship with food. We're too focused on ever-shifting nutrition rules to nourish ourselves with joy. That's what I'm reading between the lines here, and it makes me sad.

  14. Yes, the focus on "nutrients" is what led people to believe that fat was the source of our problems and we should all eat carbs and sugar instead. The focus should be on the foods, how we prepare and enjoy them, and not on the scolding lectures. (Plus it's not obvious to me that the fast shipping and refrigeration required to get an apple to market are actually better for "the environment" than a snickers bar that can sit in a box and never needs to be thrown out for having gone bad. You can expect a teenager to start seeing through that sort of manipulation pretty quickly.)

  15. You sadly buy into the common, but wrong, belief that sugar is just "empty calories." Watch Dr. Robert Lustig's famous youtube vids: Sugar is Poison. Sugar's the #1 killer, responsible for about 2/3 of all deaths. It's the most deadly+addictive recreational drug, as Dr. Mark Hyman likes to say in his incredible vids+books. Sugar can be killing you and you wouldn't even know it: many people are what Dr. Lustig calls in his TED talk "TOFI". Thin on the Outside, Fat on the Inside. The fat coats their internal organs, causing illness + death. Giving kids sugar is a crime. While I do not believe we should make it illegal, part of my presidential platform is to tax it both to reduce illness + deaths + pay for the health care costs it incurs. Finally, sorry to inform you, but as Dr. Lustig says, all forms of sugar are dangerous, including agave, etc. Even non-sugar sweeteners (including stevia!) are dangerous, as they trick the body into creating more insulin, lowering the blood sugar, causing cravings, and wild blood-sugar swings. The number one thing you can do to avoid cancer, obesity, heart disease, depression, etc. is stop eating sweeteners,+ kids should know this!
    As for eating healthy overall, Dr. Hyman spells it all out in his "#Pegan" diet, which is just eating "paleo"/caveman diet with a weight towards vegetables. What can you eat? Veggies, fish, chicken, eggs, meat, fruit, etc. or just go pure vegan. +NO chemicals! Shop at farmers' mkts, if possible. Simple+Addictive!

  16. The article brought out some good points but this is my 'outsiders' (living outside the American food culture) observation: Too much negotiating, too much talk. "Can I make you an egg instead of eating Butterfingers for breakfast?" Why can't parents say 'NO' more often to bad eating practices? I agree it isn't easy to get kids (and teens) to choose healthier food options, but when good practices are set up early and a home cooked meal is the norm, kids will grow up wanting healthy foods, without so much talk and negotiation. (I see this as a RDN living in France, and mom of 4 -including 2 teens).

  17. My daughter came home in the 3rd grade and said she was going to go on a diet one day. I almost came out of my skin, but after I calmed down; replied "I've never been on a diet in my life and you won't either". I think she was hearing this kind of talk at school and was trying it on for size. We cook with whole foods and ingredients, but I am surprised at how many of her friends don't have real cooked meals. It's a constant battle to counter what she hears and sees in media, at friends', and school. I'm starting to see hints that our values and habits are resonating with her when she expresses surprise at what her friends eat, though.