The One Feeding Habit to Change in 2019

The key to teaching kids to eat a healthy diet has nothing to do with food.

Posted Jan 07, 2019

samwordley/depositphotos
Source: samwordley/depositphotos

Happy new year. Now let's get down to business. You want your kids to eat a healthier diet. And I'm here to tell you how to do that. Spoiler: It has nothing to do with nutrition.

I don't have any secret recipes and no tricks up my sleeve. Teaching children to eat right has very little to do with food. It has everything to do with behavior. Habits. Interactions. Feelings.

The one feeding habit to change in 2019 is this: Negativity.

Most of us don't feel like we are being negative with our kids, but we are.

Every time you tell your children to eat two more bites you're telling them they haven't eaten right.

  • Just taste it. = Your reasons for not wanting to try this don't really matter.
  • You used to like it. = You used to be a good kid.
  • You can't have more. = Your desire is wrong.
  • You have to have more. = You don't know how much you should eat.
  • You're such a picky eater. = You're so difficult.
  • If you want dessert you have to have some broccoli. =  You have to pay a price to get what you want.

Has there ever been a parent anywhere who really means it when we say, "Just taste it and if you don't like it you don't have to eat it?" Aren't we all secretly hoping they'll eat it? And we're secretly—or not so secretly—disappointed when they don't eat it? Disappointment shows. Especially after we've been disappointed for the hundredth time.

Negativity is a barrier to teaching kids to eat right because it creates a barrier between kids and adults. It makes us adversaries instead of partners. It makes kids feel bad about themselves, even if they can't articulate those feelings.

Kids would eat the way we want to if they could. When they don't, it means they are solving some problem. What's the problem? I don't know. Maybe fear of gagging. Maybe fear of something tasting bad. Maybe fear of giving an inch and losing a mile.

Last month there was an article in The New York Times, The Importance of Accepting Praise. There were two points that are particularly relevant. 

  1. "Research shows that meaningful praise can measurably boost motivation and performance and can improve your brain's ability to remember and repeat new skills."
  2. "Celebrate the small stuff."

Imagine saying to the toddler who falls after taking one shaky step, "What? That's it? I thought you were going to run!"

This is not to say that we shouldn't try to teach our kids to like fruits and vegetables. Of course we should. But exhorting/pressuring/shaming kids isn't the way to go. Not just because it doesn't work, but because it makes them feel bad. (Ever wondered where that negative voice in your head comes from?) Feeling bad puts up a barrier. That barrier blocks future lessons from changing your kids' eating habits.

The way to change kids' eating habits is to motivate them with praise, even for—or especially for—small steps. So many parents dampen their excitement over a new-food-moment by saying, "But he only ate two bites." Imagine, "But he only took two steps."

How about, "And he tried two bites!!!"

Praise boosts motivation. Praise makes people feel good. Praise encourages small steps.

Will positivity automatically turn a selective child into an adventurous eater? Probably not. But it will change the parent/child dynamic and that's got to be the first step.

Most importantly, when you teach with small steps and praise you don't just teach your kids eating habits. You teach them how to learn new things and how to treat themselves well in the process.

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