Ten years ago, my husband became sick with an
autoimmune disease, and nutrition played a significant role in his recovery.
What did I do when he got better?
I became the food police, imagining that if I
could control the food he and my kids ate, I could keep us all healthy and
safe. I figured this made me a magnificent mom and wife as well; if my family
was guzzling artichokes and homemade soups and never saw candy, I deserved high
I literally threw out everything that I deemed
unhealthy and made quinoa and kale daily diet staples. I talked about nutrition
constantly and took every meal as an opportunity to teach my kids about healthy
eating. Meals were no longer fun, they were lessons. If it isn't obvious, I
took it way too far.
And not surprisingly, my kids suddenly became
pickier and more resistant instead of embracing all the wonderful health foods
I was parading in front of them. When I realized what I was doing, I had to
actively re-calibrate, especially the way in which I talked about food to my
kids and the frequency with which I talked about it.
Of course it was beneficial to teach my children
about which foods help them grow and which ones should be consumed in
moderation. But making my goal at every meal to get them to eat as many healthy
foods as possible, and to cut out all the unhealthy ones, was missing the
As parents, we should focus on creating independent
eaters: kids who have a healthy relationship with food, who can self-regulate
sweets and who enjoy all kinds of foods without a parent persuading them to
It took a while for me to change my ways, but I
did. I still feed my family mainly whole foods and tons of vegetables, but our brownies are no longer made with
black beans and beets; they actually have some chocolate and sugar in them. And
I am not sweating it.
What happens when parents focus too much on getting
kids to eat?
Every time we talk about food while eating, whether
to encourage children to eat more vegetables, praise them for finishing a
healthy meal, or comment on the amount of sugar they are consuming, kids feel
they are being watched and judged. Kids take these comments personally; they
feel they are "bad" if they like unhealthy foods, and worry you are disappointed
that they don't like the healthy ones.
It has been shown that restricting foods makes the
controlled foods more desirable, and rewarding kids for eating healthy foods
makes them like those foods less. The message here is that too much pressure on
kids can make their eating habits worse.
Most kids inherently know how to eat without a
parent pressuring them. They also know how to stop eating when they are full.
Actively persuading kids to eat confuses their natural self-regulation. It also
complicates the parent-child dynamic, creating an unnecessary point of
So even though I am in the business of healthy
food, and love nothing more than educating families about nutrition, I have a
New Year's resolution for parents who are guilty of adopting the food police
Stop talking about food. If your child doesn't want to eat breakfast,
don't force her. If your child doesn't like broccoli, don't promise him it will
make him big and strong. Even if you are excited she ate a healthy meal, don't
cheerlead. And definitely don't entice him to eat a healthy dinner with the
prospect of dessert.
Then follow these pieces of advice. I bet you will have a
delicious, less-pressured 2017 and your children will be eating well, all on
How former food police can reform:
-- Stop talking about nutrition, especially during
meals, unless your kids specifically ask a food question.
-- Set regular meal times.
-- Serve healthy foods for meals and snacks.
-- Model good eating habits.
-- Let your child decide whether he wants to eat
what you have prepared and how much he wants to eat.
-- Do not get emotionally invested in your child's
-- Do not be a short-order cook, customizing meals
for picky eaters.
-- Never shame or tease your child for being picky.
-- Do not demonize food, for instance calling it
"bad," "toxic" or "junk" (all words I have used,
-- Have fun at the table so meals become positive,
relaxed experiences, for both you and your kids.