Explaining healthy eating to children

Dear Sharon,

I want my kids to be healthy and I am determined to beat the “peer and social pressure” of eating processed foods. Can you advise a parent, like me, how I can convince my children to follow our good eating program (not boring but fresh and real food)? A parent of my son’s friend told my son that we were “depriving” our kids of trips to McDonald’s, etc., which really annoyed me.

Dear Mom,

Confusing messages about food are everywhere. Many people, including Michelle Obama, are trying to change some of these messages, but change often comes more slowly than we would like.

Generally, I think it is important for parents to be as clear as possible about what they think should happen in their home. Since our environment is full of processed foods that many children like, our little ones often get upset with our requests for healthier choices.

Parents set guidelines and limits on many issues. When convincing a child to agree to something difficult to do (avoiding processed food is difficult for most children) it is useful for parents to be sympathetic to the difficulty, ready for the possible complaints that ensue and most importantly, clear, calm and relatively brief in their explanation.

Getting input from your children about foods they might enjoy can also be helpful so that conversations don’t become power battles, which usually don’t end well, between adult and child. A child might want to make a list of things he particularly likes to eat, select some items at the grocery store or be given some leeway about food on special occasions. All of these things can help reduce tension.

It can also be good to have someone outside of the immediate family offer perspective if things at home get repeatedly argumentative. A trusted pediatrician, relative or babysitter can sometimes play a helpful role. As with many parental decisions, there will often be mothers or fathers who think differently. That, of course, is annoying, but to be expected, especially if your thoughts are different than those of the families around you. In your case, an adult’s personal reaction was shared with your child. That makes things particularly complicated. Many parents I know who have been in similar situations have offered this simple but usually effective explanation: “Our family is different than others and that is OK.”

I think one key to having “limit setting” conversations go well, is the strength of a parent’s relationship with her child. If there is already a communicative and loving relationship between parent and child, then a conversation about diet is likely to go relatively smoothly.

If a parent and child argue often, then decisions about diet will be harder to put in place. I often tell parents to spend some time enjoying their children before tackling difficult topics such as food choices. It is usually much easier for parents to successfully help their children when they are feeling relaxed and pleased with them.

Setting healthy eating patterns in a family is usually not easy for children or adults, but I believe it can be done thoughtfully over time and can work well for everyone.