December 8, 2013

Motherlode: How do kids acquire healthy eating habits?

Parents weigh in on rules, lack of rules, and whether it’s all a waste of effort.

By KJ Dell-Antonia

“You are what you eat, from your head down to your feet!”

As I’ve mentioned before in our “New Parent, Old Parent” collaboration, those of us growing up in the 1970s had healthy-eating advice from “Time for Timer” drummed into us weekly during Saturday morning cartoon binges – the only antidote to an otherwise relentless stream of ads for Trix cereal, Lucky Stripes gum and Tootsie Pops. In addition to giving us the lyric “hanker for a hunka, a slab, a slice, a chunka” cheese (you can thank me for the earworm later), “Time for Timer” taught us that no child could survive on sugar alone, because “all those motors in your body need a lot of fuel to go on,” like a healthy breakfast and a balanced snack.

But our real lessons in eating came from our culture, and from our parents, and that brings us to the topic at hand: Faced with an even grander present-day array of junk foods, easy snacks and corporate-created food messages, “How Do You Teach Kids to Eat Well When You’re Not With Them?”

A favorite reader response, from sueinphilly, gets to the heart of the dilemma. Her son, she writes, was a picky eater. “He lived on low-fat meat hot dogs, bologna, elios pizza, chicken nuggets. … I think he ate a carrot once. As for fruit, he preferred his out of a can (except for clementines that were around for a few weeks a year).” The family, she says, qualified for the Women, Infants and Children’s food program. She wasn’t buying fast food or chips and candy – but he ate what he ate, wasn’t overweight and stayed healthy.

“When he got to college and was surrounded by peers who ate a more varied diet and (was) away from me urging him to eat different stuff, he opened up his world because HE wanted to. Now he eats things I could never have imagined (or cooked for him). Sushi, Chinese, Korean, and vegetables.”

Result? One healthy eater, whose mother would never, ever have believed she was raising one. So do parents – can parents – really “raise” a healthy eater? Or do we get the children we get (so we shouldn’t get upset)?

On the one hand, readers might rightly point out that a child who is eating at home can’t eat chicken nuggets, pizza or bologna if there isn’t any. On the other, those of us who were picky children (and I count myself among them) will tell you that if you served us, at age 7, a healthy plate of wild rice and grains with vegetables and chicken in tomato sauce, we would have eaten bread. Or, if there was no bread, we would have cut off the sauced part of the chicken, eaten a little meat, then carefully eaten only the most innocuous looking grains. When we’d had enough, we would have stopped eating.

Healthy? The choices may not have been the greatest, but the ability to stop eating when you’ve had enough is one many adults still struggle with. So what is a healthy eater? Is it a child who willingly and happily eats the quinoa and vegetables you provide? One who follows family food rules even when her parents aren’t watching? One who takes a cupcake, but adds a serving of salad or fruit? Or one who tries most things, eats some of what’s on offer and moves away from the table without drama?

A healthy eater could be any of those things – and it is worth noting that a healthy eater can also appear skinny, muscular or heavy. Eating habits, good or bad, are not always perfectly reflected by appearance.

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