This story was originally published in the Boston Globe Magazine on February 18, 2020.
At Easter and Halloween, when Johannah Haney’s 8-year-old daughter is inundated with the likes of peanut butter cups, candy necklaces, and chocolate bunnies, Haney and her husband employ their best healthy-eating tactic: Let her eat as much as she wants.
This counterintuitive approach builds on research suggesting strict limits on sweets can make kids see them as a scarce resource. The occasional candy binge, figure the Haneys, who live in Jamaica Plain, will help reduce their daughter’s desire to seize whatever sugar is on offer at other times.
It seems to be working: Haney regularly ends up throwing out candy her daughter has lost interest in. “We’re doing things differently than we grew up with,” Haney says. “And I think it’s a good change.” Many parents raising — and feeding — young children today have inherited a certain conventional wisdom from their own upbringing: eat your veggies, clean your plate, and don’t play with your food. Plenty of parents have vivid memories of being sentenced to sit at the table until bedtime, staring down the congealing pork chop they just wouldn’t eat. Today’s approach is more collaborative, less prescriptive, and more playful. Mandated veggies are out, the clean-plate club is a thing of the past, and playing with your food is encouraged.
Even so, getting a child to eat healthily can be among the most daunting challenges of parenthood. It’s logistically challenging to prepare three nourishing meals a day, and that’s even without worrying about whether your kids will eat what you serve. Children, after all, are often notoriously finicky, suspicious of new foods, and relentlessly stubborn.
The stakes, too, just feel so high: Evidence suggests that proper nutrition can prevent cavities, improve cognitive development, and strengthen immune systems. On the flip side, when children develop unhealthy eating habits, they grow up at greater risk for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Before parents can get their kid eating healthily, it can be difficult to figure out what “healthy” even means. “There is so much conflicting nutrition information out there that people are understandably confused about what is healthy,” says Suzanne Rostler, a clinical nutrition specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital. She says it’s best for people of all ages to mostly eat unprocessed foods. Load your menus with fruits and vegetables, replace refined carbohydrates with whole grains, and avoid keeping sugary drinks and snacks in the house as everyday options. Keep it simple and leave kids out of any fad diets the grown-ups are trying, Rostler adds.
Kids should be encouraged to enjoy their food, and not to feel shame about what and how much they eat. Such a mind-set helps create healthy eaters, experts say, because it can prevent children from obsessing over their weight or making stringent rules about the “bad” foods they shouldn’t allow themselves. And they get comfortable listening to their bodies’ cues about when and how much to eat.
Children have an innate sense of how much they need to eat, experts say, but this ability is often eroded over time by social messages about food, exposure to too many refined carbohydrates, and the eating behaviors they learn when young. Telling kids to “clean your plate” teaches them to disregard the messages their bodies are sending. “That is sort of old-fashioned advice that doesn’t really work today,” Rostler says.
Neither does making dessert the crowning glory of the meal, the reward for a salad well-eaten. Teaching children that dessert is a prize to be won puts sweets on a pedestal, says Heather Staller, a children’s cooking instructor in Swampscott and the author of Little Helpers Toddler Cookbook.
That’s where serving dessert at the same time as the rest of the meal comes in. That’s right: Brownies alongside broccoli and chocolate with your chicken can help kids think of it as just another food. When dessert is downgraded, children are less likely to feel the need to overindulge when it is offered. A 2013 study found that preschool children who were served a cookie with their lunch ate less dessert than those who received their treat at the end of their meal.
Skeptical? I was, but I’ve seen it work. When I first started serving dessert with dinner, my 3-year-old would inhale her cookie immediately. But now, several months in, she will nibble the head off a single gummy bear then put the rest aside while she digs in to her salmon or cucumbers. Dessert is always devoured eventually, but it hasn’t stopped her from eating a healthy meal.
What if kids eat dessert but leave their peas? Children don’t need to eat every food group at every meal, experts say. If you are serving a range of healthy options, they will likely get the nutrients they need over time.
The command “Eat your vegetables” can also backfire. It’s become a metaphor for doing just about anything unpleasant but “good for us.” And when it comes to eating right, that’s exactly the problem, experts say. Forcing children to eat their peas before they can have dessert or leave the table reinforces the notion that a vegetable is a hardship to be endured. Instead of trying to compel vegetable consumption, experts suggest serving kids a meal or healthy foods and letting them decide how much — if any — they want to eat.
There are two major reasons for this approach. First: control. For children, refusing to eat their veggies can become more about exerting power than it is about the food itself. If you take the pressure away, there’s no longer any need to fight. Asking kids to take one bite can be OK if things don’t turn immediately contentious, but any more pushing is unlikely to work in the long term. A 2002 study found that among college-age adults who recalled being forced to eat certain foods as children, 72 percent still would not choose to voluntarily eat the food they battled over.
“Food is one of the few areas young kids have any control over,” says Anne Fishel, a clinical psychologist and the executive director of The Family Dinner Project at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Parents need to keep that in mind and not get into food struggles with their young kids.”
Furthermore, it can take 10 or more tastes before a child really accepts a new food, says Juliana Cohen, assistant professor of nutrition at Merrimack College. Alicia Mastrorio’s daughter went through a phase as a toddler in which she only wanted to eat bread or pizza. But Mastrorio, who lives in Beverly, kept offering up veggies, requiring her daughter to try at least one bite of a new food each night. Slowly, her daughter started eating — and then requesting — green beans, zucchini, asparagus, and more. Her daughter is now 3, and Mastrorio says “she eats salad almost every day.”
To overcome fear of new foods, it helps to get kids engaged with what they’re eating. Staller, the Swampscott cooking instructor, thinks it’s never too early to get started in the kitchen. “I want people to really think about cooking with kids as an everyday thing,” she says. “Cooking is that bridge to getting the new food introduced.” Even infants can sit in a high chair and observe meal prep, learning the sights, sounds, and smells of a range of foods, she says. Older children can start washing and drying veggies, chopping ingredients, and assembling salads. This involvement gives kids a certain pride in the finished meal and an added impetus to eat the results.
Consider growing some of your own food, as well. When kids plant and nurture lettuce or cherry tomatoes, for instance, they are often eager to give the final product a try, says Lara Lepionka, founder and executive director of Backyard Growers, a Gloucester-based nonprofit that helps schools establish gardens and learn about the produce they grow. Don’t have a vast, sunny yard? No problem. Get a plot in a community garden, put container gardens on the front steps, or pots of herbs on a kitchen windowsill. “You can grow some food, no matter what, in the smallest and weirdest of places,” Lepionka says.
Once the meal makes it to the table, go ahead and let kids play with their food, within reason. Even if your child does nothing more than poke at her steamed carrots, consider it a win: Research confirms that seeing, touching, and smelling new foods can also encourage consumption. “I’m a big proponent of playing with food, which was not particularly encouraged when I was a child,” Fishel says. “Kids who are tactilely involved with their food are more open to trying new foods.”
Cut sandwiches into fun shapes or pretend a plate of broccoli is a forest of trees. I serve my daughter miniature bell peppers cut in half lengthwise and call them “pepper boats” — she sails them across her plate before eating them. Marette Boyle, a mother of two from Boxford, calls asparagus “dragon tails” and lets her 3-year-old and 1-year-old eat it with their fingers.
Ultimately, letting go of the pressure and trusting our children to listen to their own bodies is an easier — and more effective — way to raise a generation who are naturally enthusiastic about healthy food. Even if they eat some ice cream first.