“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.

As parents, we control only the food we provide, the example we set and the way we respond to our children’s choices. As Jean Varney, a nutritional consultant in Washington, wrote:

“First I had to accept that I couldn’t control everything they ate all the time, especially as they aged. Second, I lived by, ‘it’s what you eat most of the time, not some of the time.’ ”

Her “most of the time” approach was echoed by most of the readers who felt good about how they had fed their now-grown children, and the relationship those children have with food now. Moderation, more than constant healthy choices, was the key:

“I always cooked healthy and ate healthy but never denied my children guilty pleasures.” – AHW

“In my home, junk food was never available, and I simply told our children that ‘our family doesn’t eat that because it’s not really very good for you.’ However, they were always allowed to eat what their friends ate outside of our home. I knew I couldn’t control that anyway and the last thing I wanted were emotional difficulties around food issues.” – eileentompkins

“My younger daughter pointed me to this article and suggested: ‘Ma, you should post here! I feel like your cooking and shopping choices helped us choose healthily in college and as young adults!’ My M.O. was making good, healthy food taste good. I love to cook and cooked mostly every night, choosing to present healthy meals that were interesting and innovative, not boring and plain. It wasn’t handed down as an edict that we were eating ‘healthy’ – it was dinner. No kids’ meals; dinner was dinner; eat it or not, but you had to taste the food. That idea was handed down from my parents; also handed down from my mother was good cooking, lots of veggies, always a salad, and meals with family as often as possible.

“I did try to instill that sugar was not great (especially in breakfast cereals), but total prohibition is not reality.” – Carole

At our house, the focus is on what we cook and serve, not on what any one child does or doesn’t eat. The rules at our table:

1. Take some of everything. You don’t have to eat it, or even taste it.

2. No insulting the food. Whether you call it disrespectful to the cook, ‘yucking someone’s yums’ or just plain rude, no one says anything more negative than ‘no thank you’ at our table unless the cook asks for opinions.

3. Dinner is dinner. Dessert is dessert. If there is any (sometimes there is; more often not), you get it no matter what you eat or don’t eat at dinner.

I’m still the new parent in our “New Parent, Old Parent” collaboration, but so far, our meal strategies have been a success. Reading these responses hints at why we seem to be off to a good start: We offer mostly healthy food, but allow children to make their own choices (and like eileentompkins, we don’t worry about what they eat when they’re not at home).

Thinking back to sueinphilly, I wonder if giving children the power to make those decisions isn’t every bit as important as the kinds of foods on offer. If you “are what you swallow, from your head down to your hollow,” then learning that you (not your parents, not the food industry and not the foods themselves) are the ultimate arbitrator of what fills that hollow may be the most important lesson.

Writes Craig S: “My son is 16½, and his big rebellion is to eat garbage when he is not around me. However, I have witnessed him eat apples, bananas, peanut butter, spinach, kale, cucumbers, beets among other pretty healthy things that many adults don’t eat, by his own volition, with many other not-so-great choices around. He absolutely does not have a weight problem. He is starting to see the difference in how he feels when he eats right versus when he doesn’t.”

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

[email protected]

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